Why Islamism Can't Be Compared to Communism

A specter is haunting American policy: The specter of Islamism. Not that the specter is a chimera: it exists and elements of it are fully as dangerous as we believe. But misleading historical analogies with Communism and the Cold War cloud American perceptions and encourage us - dangerously - to mistake parts for the whole.

Soviet "Communism," though its nature and degree of danger to us varied significantly throughout its 74-year existence, was, at least during the height of the Cold War, a highly centralized movement and organization with a coherent ideology and clearly articulated revolutionary aims. Many erstwhile cold warriors long for the (idealized) clarity of the Cold War, when any "Communist" offshoot was obviously an enemy (itself an over-simplification). These days, peering through a similar lens, they regard Islamism as a monolithic movement with coordinated leadership, a coherent ideology, an unabashedly violent strategy, and an aim of world jihad with all possible speed. Not all of these are true even of al-Qaeda, representative of the most dangerous form of modern Islamism, and are demonstrably false in the case of the majority of Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.

Islamism has never had a central directorate or coordinating body. Even its name is imprecise and vague; perhaps the only possible short definition is "modern political Islam." Its two original ideological sources are the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (based on the Islamic awakening of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and Wahhabi Islam, allied with the Ibn Saud family but confined primarily to the Arabian desert until the creation of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. The Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928 with the explicit aim of reviving Islam in the wake of European colonization of much of the Muslim world and Ataturk's abolition of the caliphate in 1924. While it supported the Palestinians in 1948 and reportedly engaged in assassinations in Egypt around the same time, since the 1970s, if not earlier, it has repudiated its extreme elements (such as the ideology of Sayid Qutb) in deeds as well as words. Instead, in recent years, the Brotherhood has taken a major role in Egyptian opposition politics through thinly disguised proxies. Its potential electoral strength is now estimated at no more than 20% in any free and fair election.

Beginning in the '30s, the Brotherhood established affiliates in most Muslim countries, based on its ideology of Islamic renewal and local direction. The best known affiliate, and the only one both nationalist and violent (in addition to being engaged in electoral politics), is Hamas, which is considered to be unique given the "special role" of Palestine in Arab and Muslim discourse.

With Saudi Arabia's massive oil enrichment in the 1960s and '70s, Wahhabism also began to play a significant role in international Islamic education and Muslim political movements. Its intolerant, Jihadist-oriented ideology has inspired much of the "Islamist" violence since the 1970's, enlisting many recruits who had grown up in Brotherhood-affiliated organizations but then repudiated them, choosing instead the cause of violent jihad. Al Qaeda is the most prominent such organization, founded by Osama Bin-Laden from Saudi Arabia, with its ideology largely supplied by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who split from the Egyptian Brotherhood and its nonviolence decades ago.

The Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are the bitterest of enemies. The Brotherhood thinks in terms of spreading its message over decades and generations. Hamas's participation in the 2006 elections was one of the few instances in which a Brotherhood-affiliated movement directly sought power. More typically, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has announced that in the free elections that have been promised, they will a) not field a presidential candidate and b) contest only a minority of legislative seats.

This is not to say that the Brotherhood's program isn't Islamic and regressive. Its ideology includes increasing the role of Islam, diminishing the role of women, and delegitimizing and advocating the destruction of Israel. My point is different. The Muslim Brotherhood's version of "Islamism" (with by far the most active adherents) is not the Comintern, nor monolithic, nor dedicated to world revolution. By contrast, its extremist distant cousins, some of which are disavowed offshoots such as al-Qaeda, explicitly embrace violent jihadism, engaging in terrorism with the aim of world Islamic revolution.

Overestimating an enemy's strength can be as dangerous as underestimating it. President Bush, in the wake of 9/11, missed a chance to work with moderate Islamists, choosing instead to demonize all of them and thus turning most of the Muslim world against us. President Obama seemed at first to repudiate that policy, as in his June 2008 Cairo speech, but has been unwilling to do the hard analytical - and politically risky - work of differentiating those groups we may be able to work with, such as the Egyptian Brotherhood and some of its affiliates, from those we must isolate and seek to destroy, such as al-Qaeda.

The frequent implicit, as well as explicit, invocation of the Communist specter misleads us into seeing all Islamists in one monochromatic shade of green. It prevents us from seeing which groups are primarily focused on local issues and seem to accept working within democratic political norms, and which are truly dangerous. The point is not that the Brotherhood-type groups are our allies - though they might be in certain circumstances, by identifying and helping to isolate groups such as al-Qaeda, to take one example. Rather, it is to recognize when we should stop boycotting them and understand that their participation in political structures in fact serves fundamental American interests by making politics more inclusive and representative, thus undercutting the true violent extremists. By contrast, continuing with our wholesale demonization works against our interest by marginalizing and excluding us from a constructive role in the Arab and Muslim worlds.