John Esposito explains Islamism and rising anti-Americanism

In a new article, John Esposito, no doubt one of the world’s foremost experts on political Islam, tries to explain the roots of anger in the Islamic world, but also the roots and goals of Islamism more generally. Washington’s failure to distinguish between moderate and extreme Islamism — in his opinion — is feeding the cycle of extremism:

As Islamist parties continue to rise in prominence across the globe, it is necessary that policymakers learn to make distinctions and adopt differentiated policy approaches. This requires a deeper understanding of what motivates and informs Islamist parties and the support they receive, including the ways in which some US policies feed the more radical and extreme Islamist movements while weakening the appeal of the moderate organizations to Muslim populations. It also requires the political will to adopt approaches of engagement and dialogue.

He implicitly mocks the Washington doctrine of supporting democracy, but only if their favorite candidates win and enforce their favorite policies:

A critical challenge for US policymakers will continue to be the need to distinguish between mainstream and extremists groups and to work with democratically-elected Islamists. US administrations have often said that they distinguish between mainstream and extremist groups. However, more often that not, they have looked the other way when autocratic rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have intimidated and suppressed mainstream Islamist groups or attempted to reverse their successes in elections in the past several decades.

Global terrorism has also become the excuse for many Muslim autocratic rulers and Western policymakers to backslide or retreat from democratization. They warn that the promotion of a democratic process runs the risk of furthering Islamist inroads into centers of power and is counterproductive to Western interests, encouraging a more virulent anti-Westernism and increased instability.

The article includes reference to a detailed Gallup study of opinions in the Muslim world. His final conclusion comes as no surprise to most Muslims and careful observers of the Muslim scene, and clearly contradicts the “clash of civilizations” view that “they hate our way of life”. In fact, they mostly want a similar way of life, but feel that failed and malicious policies by their own and foreign governments are frustrating their aspirations to better economic and political conditions.

Of course, as in most cases, the true cause of the problem is economic in nature:

In a major policy address, Ambassador Richard Haass, a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, acknowledged that both Democratic and Republican administrations had practiced what he termed “Democratic Exceptionalism” in the Muslim world: subordinating democracy to other national interests such as accessing oil, containing the Soviet Union, and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For better understanding the role of oil in U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic world, especially in recent years, there is no better reference than Kevin Phillips’ recent book: American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.

Esposito concludes:

Finally, most fundamental and important is the recognition that widespread anti-Americanism among mainstream Muslims and Islamists results from what the United States does—its policies and actions—not its way of life, culture, or religion.