Political Islam's Adaptive Radiation

November 26, 2012 Topic: Civil SocietyReligionSociety Region: Middle East

Political Islam's Adaptive Radiation

America makes strategy tactically and country-by-country. Resurgent Islamism across the Middle East shows that sometimes we need to think big. 


While there is no single version of Islamism or Islamic government that is likely to emerge across the region, local factors alone will not be sufficient to understand the course of events as they unfold. Regional considerations—driven by ethnic divisions, military power, religious debates, economic conditions, technological tools and media coverage—will prove equally important in empowering certain visions for the future.

The importance of regional or macro-level concerns makes it dangerous to rely exclusively on country or micro-level expertise, though deep social, cultural, economic and political understanding of individual countries and the region remain important. Despite the need for this expertise, the incentive structure of American government does not place primacy on institutional investments in deep knowledge and cultural expertise. In an environment of adaptive radiation, it is time to move away from responding to all events at a country or tactical level. Only a broader strategic approach, based on a well-articulated notion of U.S. national interest and grounded in the pragmatic political realities of a region undergoing major change, will position the United States to address the turbulent events likely to unfold in the future.


Scott Helfstein is the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

The views expressed in this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy, Department of Defense or U.S. government.