The Buzz

Accepting a Legitimate Islamism

The term “Islamist” has long conjured up frightening images of bearded men bent on imposing their image of God’s will over the rest of society. Now the Arab Spring has strengthened the hand of Islamist parties across the Middle East and North Africa. Washington has been left in the awkward position of wanting to embrace the democratic revolutions but deeply troubled about their potential to lead to the ascendance of political Islam as a major force in the region.

Writing in the current issue of National Journal, Michael Hirsh makes a simple point: whether we like it or not, the United States no longer has any real choice but to work with Islamist parties. Hirsh reports that the U.S. government has already accepted the concept of a “legitimate Islamism,” in the words of a State Department official he quotes.

In the years immediately following 9/11, “the United States was intent on forestalling the rise of political Islamism everywhere,” Hirsh writes. Now, in contrast, Washington has made a distinction, combining a relentless offensive against the worst of the Islamist groups like al-Qaeda with a willingness to work with the comparatively “moderate” organizations emerging in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. The most prominent example is Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a note of humility both in Hirsh’s writing and the mentality he outlines. The ongoing revolutions in the Arab world are not really about us and Washington has only limited leverage to shape their course. Indeed, as former deputy secretary of state James Steinberg notes in Hirsh’s piece, to attempt to shape them too overtly would only play into the hands of the more radical Islamists by enabling them to more easily portray America as the “foil” of “the great Satan.”

Without ceding any ground to al-Qaeda or other militant groups, the United States will either have to deal constructively with organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, or it will find itself increasingly marginalized and irrelevant in the region. Hirsh captures this central insight in a smart bit of reporting and analysis.