As Muslim communities in the United States and around the world confront the terrifying prospects that a Donald Trump presidency holds for their lives and liberties, a long-simmering conflict within the American political establishment has reached its boiling point. Recent policy debates surrounding the ban on Muslim immigration and the proposed designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization mask a deeper struggle over the enduring practices of a political class in the throes of a revolt by a right-wing fringe movement. Determined to impose its puritanical vision of US power in the twenty-first century, the movement empowered by Trump’s election has taken an oft-critiqued worldview to its logical conclusion.
At issue in this battle is the extent to which American policymakers adopt a vision of the world that pits the West—with the United States as its unyielding defender—against the Islamic world. Developed after the end of the Cold War, the Clash of Civilizations thesis was an ambitious if sloppy worldview that sought to reorient American foreign policy on the basis of civilizational identity rather than ideology. In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, scholars like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis found a sympathetic ear within the American political establishment to advance their belief that a violent confrontation with Islam’s “bloody borders” was unavoidable. But from the perspective of policymakers, the wholesale adoption of the Clash of Civilizations argument would have jeopardized longstanding US alliances with states like Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, not to mention unnecessarily alienate the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. In launching the global “war on terror,” George W. Bush went to painstaking lengths to declare that Islam was not the enemy even as Muslims bore the brunt of his administration’s policies.
Not All Muslims
Indeed, the Bush administration did not reject the Clash thesis. It simply modified it: Western civilization—with its moderate Muslim allies—would confront the extremist elements within this global faith community. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” Bush affirmed. Of course, in launching invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, pursuing deadly covert operations in many other Muslim-majority countries, and targeting Muslim Americans for surveillance, harassment, and prosecution, there was little that distinguished Bush’s war on Muslim extremists from a war on Islam writ large, except for the language that it utilized. As Mahmoud Mamdani pointed out at the time, creating the abstract category of “Good Muslims” provided the crucial ideological cover for the relentless pursuit of “Bad Muslims.” Suggestions that there were actually “multiple Islams,” which included an acceptably secular and pliant form assembled in the laboratories of the Rand Corporation, allowed the Bush administration to repel charges that it targeted all Muslims. So too did shifting the focus away from religion altogether to questions of “democracy deficits” and showcasing the findings of the latest Arab Human Development reports.
Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign rested in part on his pledge to roll back some of the more abusive practices of the Bush era, from the systematic use of torture to the denial of due process rights for detainees at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay. Obama also sought to counter some of Bush’s more harmful rhetoric that had led to an increasingly widespread perception that the war on terror was in reality a war on Islam. In his historic 2009 “address to the Muslim world” in Cairo, Obama assured his audience that “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.” In the same speech, Obama also asserted that “America will defend itself…and we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”
Through programs such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), the Obama administration expanded efforts to enlist Muslim support for American security priorities. But while such policies may have created a larger tent in which to include a greater number of its moderate Muslim partners, it continued to operate within the same good Muslim/bad Muslim binary that defined the previous administration. In the final months of his presidency, Obama reflected on his visit to Cairo, saying “I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.” Once again, that outlook provided legitimacy for a robust security regime that included a massive covert drone program that featured ten times as many strikes as were launched during the Bush era and targeted Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia.
As it turned out, there was little that separated the last two presidents in terms of their fundamental outlooks. In the lead up to Obama’s 2015 summit on Countering Violent Extremism, PBS even quizzed readers with a feature on its website entitled “Who Said It? Bush vs. Obama on Islam.” It should therefore come as no surprise that former officials from the past two administrations have offered their condemnation of Trump’s departure from the near-consensus position in Washington. This begs the question of what, if anything, is different about the outlook of the current American president?
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump channeled the nativist impulses within American society that rejected the arguments for inclusivity in a conflict that ultimately came down to a Darwinian survival of the fittest civilization. A growing white nationalist movement for years had fed on a steady diet of hatred for a racialized Muslim “other,” the product of a highly visible and lucrative Islamophobia industry. Its supporters preferred the Bush who called for a “crusade” in the days after 9/11 before eventually retracting the historically loaded term as an unfortunate slip of the tongue. Emboldened by Trump’s birther conspiracies, they denounced Obama purely on the basis of his racial background and Muslim roots. Trump heaped more scorn onto America’s first black president for refusing to refer to the enemy by a religious moniker, even as Obama rained destruction upon the terrorists and all who happened to dwell in their midst.
Ever the media maven, Trump’s disagreement with Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 election was not so much one of policy as one of marketing. US foreign policy had lost its civilizational clash undertones and Trump sought to place Islam back at the center of a robust anti-terror campaign. In his inauguration address, Trump proclaimed emphatically that he would “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” His policy team includes a who’s who of the far right fringe. For these anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, “moderate Muslims” represent a more dangerous threat than radical ones because, as the theory goes, they use deception in pursuit of their shared goal of destroying Western civilization.
In an early test of his aim to shift the focus from pursuing terrorists to targeting the global population of Muslims, Trump issued an executive order barring all refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. In doing so, Trump was expanding upon programs put in place by the last two presidents, but was far more explicit about the policy’s true intent, referring to it as a “Muslim ban” in discussions with a top advisor. Although the measure was later suspended by a US appellate court, it met with the enthusiastic approval of none other than Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who told members of the Western press that the ban was only targeting terrorists and was “not against the Syrian people.” In defending the executive order, which explicitly banned all Syrian citizens from entering the United States, Assad was inadvertently declaring his entire nation of some 20 million people to be potential terrorists.
The explicit racialization of Muslims represents a cornerstone of the resurgent American nationalism that has gradually shifted its focus away from the problem of what Muslims believe to the fact of their very existence. This has caused a certain cognitive dissonance within the Trump administration and its purported plans to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Critics have rightly pointed out that the State Department faces difficulty in adding the historic Islamist movement to its list of terrorist groups because the Muslim Brotherhood is a term that represents both a specific membership-based organization with numerous independent offshoots, as well as a broader intellectual trend that has impacted societies beyond the Arab region. In making this argument, however, commentators have missed the larger point. For the recently empowered Islamophobes seeking to undermine political opposition at home and abroad, the Muslim Brotherhood has long played the role of the amorphous archenemy. Its designation would simply reaffirm the notion that terrorism represents a catchall term for Muslims who happen to find themselves in the ever-shifting crosshairs of US policy objectives.
The debate surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood’s designation ultimately comes down to whether the organization represents a threat to US interests, from the point of view of the political establishment, or whether that even matters; the Trump worldview seems to suggest that such arguments are irrelevant. Judging by the staunch opposition to the designation from across the political spectrum, the Muslim Brotherhood would appear to signify a tentative success story in the political establishment’s timeworn strategy of targeting its enemies while expanding its possible alliances. Over the course of the past three decades, it has become patently clear that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and many of its regional offshoots have steadily reoriented themselves to come into line with the prevailing political and socioeconomic realities in the Arab region.
The organization founded in interwar Egypt exemplified a religiously inspired response to the challenges of British colonialism, the failures of liberal nationalism, and the continued cultural and economic exploitation of Egyptians. By the mid-twentieth century, the Muslim Brotherhood had become one of the leading opposition movements challenging secular authoritarianism and Western imperialism throughout the region. But following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown, the organization which revived during the late Sadat era did little to oppose the economic liberalization measures that marked his Infitah policies and in fact rode the wave of neo-liberal expansion that Hosni Mubarak pursued. Much of the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent leadership emerged out of a new middle class of urban professionals and entrepreneurs.
By the eve of the January 25 uprising, the organization had demonstrated its acquiescence to the established norms of oppositional politics in Egypt, under which authoritarian state institutions carved out narrow spaces of political contestation in exchange for the Muslim Brotherhood’s tacit agreement not to cross the red line of challenging Mubarak’s legitimacy. US policy circles viewed this arrangement as a relatively positive development in the ever-elusive quest for stability in the Middle East. Even after Mubarak’s 2011 removal, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to reassure its critics in Washington that stability remained a paramount goal as its political party sailed into the uncharted waters of a post-authoritarian transition to democracy. Reports that the Muslim Brotherhood “embraces business” and “would honor the Camp David accord” accompanied its brief rise as the leading political force in a post-Mubarak Egypt that would remain much like the old Egypt in all the ways that mattered to its foreign sponsors.
In Tunisia, the Ennahda Party followed along much the same lines in its own political transition, preserving many of the long held political and economic arrangements and even backing anti-terror legislation in 2015 that threatened to undo many of the newly won liberties for which the uprising had erupted five years earlier. In the aftermath of the July 2013 military coup in Egypt that saw the Muslim Brotherhood overthrown and subject to repressive measures, Ennahda leaders quietly suggested that their Egyptian counterparts had challenged state institutions too aggressively, thereby provoking the army into action.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which analysts describe as a pragmatic actor within the opposition, played a key role in the Syrian National Council, an opposition body that received strong support from US officials and Gulf states during the critical early stages of the Syrian conflict. When Saudi Arabia became the latest regional government to ban the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014, Saudi officials spared the Syrian branch, which elected a Jeddah-based surgeon as its leader later that year.
Even Hamas, which emerged out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and has maintained a platform of armed resistance to Israeli occupation for nearly three decades, made a decisive shift toward embracing the political reality brought about by the Oslo Accords. Its decision to contest the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections saw its members win a majority in a political body established within the legal framework of a peace process whose legitimacy it had long rejected. In a bit to end the crippling siege and destructive military assaults on Gaza, in recent years Hamas leaders have pursued various avenues to reach a long-term ceasefire with Israel, at one point entertaining Tony Blair’s intercessions on their behalf.
Of course, the State Department’s list of designated terrorist groups has included Hamas since 1997, but the group’s historic relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood has provided fodder to proponents of a blanket designation against the mother movement and any affiliates, whether real or imagined. But the gradual reorientation of the Islamist opposition toward the tacit acceptance of the prevailing political and socioeconomic structures has led to the rise of a different picture of the Muslim Brotherhood, one illustrated by the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post in recent weeks. This narrative presents the Muslim Brotherhood as an enterprising social organization that runs schools and hospitals, and a moderate political actor that has shunned violence, supported democratic transitions, and controls the government of a prominent NATO ally. A local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood even contributes to the democratic life of the Israeli state.
A New Order Takes Form
But try as they might, these established voices are unlikely to penetrate the incipient Trump worldview, for whom the Muslim Brotherhood’s evolution into a pragmatic political actor and an important pressure release valve for “frustrated Arab youth” is irrelevant. In an administration that has privileged its own crudely developed form of a new age tribalism, beliefs, deeds, and political orientations matter little. For the literalists among them, the Clash of Civilizations is at its very core a struggle for the assertion of identity. Huntington himself appeared to have supported such a reading when he devoted his final book to channeling the moral panic of anti-immigrant racism. Who Are We? warns of the deconstruction of the American nation at the hands of Latino immigrants and urges the reassertion of traditional white Protestant identity to ward off the specter of multiculturalism.
Toward that end, the Trump administration has already mobilized the full force of its executive authority to harass Muslim travelers, target others with covert military raids, threaten the rights of millions of Muslims through a possible designation, while simultaneously, launching plans to build a border wall with Mexico, vilifying Latino immigrants and aggressively pursuing their mass deportation. The emergence of these policies in quick succession within weeks of taking office is no coincidence, but the result of a Manichean vision of the world with civilizational conflict as its core belief. In so doing, Trump has upended established practices for contending with long-simmering challenges to US dominance in certain policy spheres in favor of a brusque assertion of one identity at the expense of all others.