Firewall or stepping stone? American support for moderate Islamists

Firewall or stepping stone? American support for moderate Islamists
Comment: Far from facilitating democratic transitions, US support for moderate Islamists as a firewall strategy was ill-advised and instead caused these transitions to abort, writes Robert Springborg
7 min read
21 Jul, 2016
The US strategy underestimated the polarisation resulting from the rise of Islamism [Getty]
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton strongly promoted the Obama administration's strategy of seeking to contain radical, violent Islamism by supporting its moderate counterpart, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

This "firewall" strategy ultimately fell victim to the crackdown on the Brotherhood in most of the Arab world, in the wake of their overthrow in Egypt in July, 2013. This raises the question of whether the strategy was well or ill advised.

One argument is that the very crackdown by Arab regimes on moderate Islamists attests to the soundness of the principle of backing "democratic" Islamists to bring about peaceful transitions away from authoritarianism, simultaneously containing the jihadi threat.

The targeted moves against them by governments in the past three years can be adduced as evidence that they posed mortal threats to authoritarianism, while the subsequent rise of violent extremism in Egypt and elsewhere can be interpreted as the consequence of the firewall of moderate Islamism having been torn down. Clinton and Obama, in this view, were on the right track, but their strategy was derailed by its very promise.

The opposite argument is that far from being a firewall, moderate Islamism is a stepping stone on the path to the radical, violent version. The Muslim Brotherhood in this view has served as a recruitment vehicle for jihadis of various types, to say nothing of them being harboured in the organisation itself.

Committed to Islamisation rather than to democracy, the Brotherhood are at best contingent democrats, ones willing to use non, even anti-democratic means, including violence, to attain their ends. 

Those such as Clinton and Obama who chose to back the Brotherhood, believed that this apparently "soft" version of Islamism would satisfy their followers and dissuade them from progressing to the "harder" version - ie extremist jihadism. The opposing view is that even the soft version of Islamism places the user on the slippery slope to jihadism.  

The Clinton-Obama strategy was ill advised because it underestimated the polarisation resulting from the rise of Islamism

The empirical evidence is mixed. Cases that can be interpreted to confirm the soundness of the firewall strategy range across the region. Ennahdha in Tunisia seems to exemplify democratic Islamism, willing to compromise its commitment to Islamisation to support a transition away from authoritarianism, simultaneously standing against the slide into violent extremism.

In Egypt, there was a dramatic increase in violence following the removal of the Brothers in 2013 and the decapitation of its leadership. This hobbled the organisation, and the emergence in Sinai and elsewhere of radical Islamists claiming allegiance to IS, and attests to the Brothers having served as a firewall, so long as the organisation was intact.

The Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco has brought its followers under the umbrella of the King, turning its back on more radical Islamists. Even in Syria, the erosion of the local branch of the Brotherhood under sustained pressure from the regime has been coterminous with the rise of the Jabhat al-Nusra and IS, suggesting again that moderate Islamism can indeed serve as a firewall.

But developments in Egypt, Syria and even Tunisia since 2011 can also be interpreted as the failure of the strategy. In all of these cases there has been no shortage of jihadis - whether moderate Islamists were under siege from government - as in Egypt, or actually in it, as in Tunisia.

Although Libya may be a case apart, it would be hard to construct an argument that Islamism there has deterred the rise of extremism. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ill-advised reliance on what she interpreted to be pro-US Islamists to provide security for her ambassador when in Benghazi resulted in his death at their hands.

For the US to support retrograde interpretations of the roles of women is paradoxical, to say the least

The Tripoli government - dominated by those associated with the Brotherhood - has been anything but moderate, finding at least tactical common cause with a host of radical extremists. At the very least then, the firewall strategy cannot be claimed to be universally applicable in the region.

The critical empirical evidence necessary for making a definitive assessment of the strategy, which is that of sources of recruitment of jihadis and the political behavior of moderate Islamists in the wake of crackdowns, is inadequate.

Although it appears that jihadis do have their own sources and means of recruitment independent from moderate Islamist organisations - as attested to by their extensive use of social media as opposed to the Brothers' use of kinship connections - there is also evidence to suggest graduation from the "softer" to the "harder" version of Islamism.

In addition, it seems that at least the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood has become divided on the issue of the use of violence, with some elements endorsing and engaging in it. 

Empirical evidence attesting to the real nature of moderate Islamists aside, the very fact of region wide repression of them would suggest that the Clinton/Obama strategy was ill advised because it underestimated the polarisation resulting from the rise of Islamism.

It overlooked inevitable, harsh regime responses to the threat posed by Islamism. It ignored the likely division between it and secular opposition forces, thus rendering impossible broad opposition coalitions. It can be argued that regime crackdowns were driven by anti-democratic sentiments, or by principled opposition to the substance of the message of Islamism and doubts about its commitment to democracy.

The firewall strategy thus appears in retrospect to have been flawed practically and theoretically

It can also be argued that secularists were profoundly intolerant of Islamists and their message of a stronger role for Islam in socio-political life. But it is incontrovertibly the case that the firewall strategy failed. Far from facilitating democratic transitions, it caused them to abort, becoming less, rather than more likely in the future. As for containing jihadi violence, the evidence is mixed. 

Even the most favourable interpretation of the strategic promise and the actual consequences of the firewall strategy do not address the normative issues entailed in US support of Islamism. Would it have been a good thing had the strategy worked and the moderate Islamists have become major, if not exclusive wielders of governmental power?

Many in the region and in the US would say, "Definitely not." Many components of the Islamist agenda are anathema to their fellow citizens, key of which turn on sharply contrasting views on gender. For the US to support retrograde interpretations of the roles of women is paradoxical, to say the least.

Moreover, it was optimistic to imagine that even democratic Islamists would be easier for the US to deal with than either existing regimes or successor ones that emerged as a result of the formation of broad-based opposition coalitions.  

The firewall strategy thus appears in retrospect to have been flawed practically and theoretically. It can be compared to the Reagan-Bush strategy, which was its opposite. Those presidents backed Islamism because it was violent, not peaceful. They supported mujahidin as a tool against the declining Soviet Empire, most notably in Afghanistan.

As subsequent events have amply demonstrated, at the very least, that strategy entailed huge future costs, which are still being paid. Playing with Islamism, in sum, is more akin to playing with fire than to building a firewall.   

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations. 

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.