After 9/11, Muslims around the world watched warily as the U.S. launched the “Global War on Terror” abroad and passed the Patriot Act at home, with its consequent surveillance of the American Muslim community. The fact that the U.S. military response started with the invasion of Afghanistan but then pivoted to Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, made it clear that the U.S. juggernaut might take aim at any Muslim-majority country and that the American public would do little prevent it.
The use of “democracy promotion” as a justification for the occupation of Iraq was particularly troubling for the many non-democratic rulers dominating the Middle East. Bush’s notion that Iraq would be the first domino to fall in a chain reaction of democratic transitions made these rulers nervous.[i] Rulers were well aware of public dissatisfaction with the rampant corruption and lack of opportunities for economic or political engagement that characterized life for the majority of their citizens. The Bush administration had correctly identified democracy and good governance as important ingredients in efforts to prevent violent extremism. Arab rulers were eager to deflect attention from the ways in which their reliance on repression fostered disaffection and sometimes violence. For this reason, “radical Islam” became a useful scapegoat that reduced the risk that the U.S. might pressure rulers to democratize or address other systemic failures.
Arab rulers portrayed themselves as the only alternative to Islamists, knowing that most non-Muslim publics lacked the nuance or inclination to discern between an “Islamist” and a “terrorist.”
Characterizing Islam as the primary driver of violence, specifically the “wrong” interpretation of Islam, served a second purpose: rulers could paint Islamist political opposition groups as driving violent extremism. As a result, crackdowns on Islamist groups could be characterized as “countering terrorism.” Simultaneously, rulers could portray their own preferred interpretation of Islam, or “moderate Islam,” as preventing violence, thereby garnering international support for their continued rule. Arab rulers portrayed themselves as the only alternative to Islamists, knowing that most non-Muslim publics lacked the nuance or inclination to discern between an “Islamist” and a “terrorist.” (To clarify, in my usage, the term “Islamist” refers to an individual or organization that advocates for a greater role for Islam in public life.)
Read the full article in Manara Magazine.