The United States is at war with a very different, mythic Islam of its own making that has nothing at all to do with this Islam of the Qur’an. To make sense of that conjured threat, scholarly studies of Islam or Islamic movements are of no help at all. Even the examination of the real-world history and practice of empire has limited value, unless the perceived Islamic dimension is considered.
The American imperial project cannot be brought into clear view without assessment of the distinctive rationale that the Islamist Imaginary provides. The task is not an easy one. The Islamist Imaginary has no simple and unitary existence. Rather, it is a complex amalgam that shapes both the delusions of empire and a conjured threat to imperial power into a co-evolving composite. It is a “difficult whole,” in the helpful language of complexity theory.
The Islamist Imaginary, unlike Islam itself and political movements of Islamic inspiration, does not exist outside of the imperial interests that shape it. It has no independent cultural or historical reality, outside its role as predatory threat to Western global interests. The American empire, in turn, requires a hostile and threatening enemy, which today takes the form of Islam of its imagination, to realize and rationalize its expansionist project that must remain unacknowledged and unspoken. The two elements of the imaginary and empire co-evolve.
The needs of a threatened empire as vulnerable victim change over time. The Islamist Imaginary transforms itself to meet those needs. Imaginary and empire circle one another in a dance of predator and prey. Their roles are interchangeable, a clear sign that they are not entirely real. The predator is prey; the prey is predator. They develop in tandem in a complex process of mutual adaptation. Boundaries give way between the real and the imagined. In the end it is the imagined that haunts our imaginations and drives our policies.
The dominant notion of civilizational conflict between the Islamic world and the West rightly highlights the Islamic ideological roots of the most persistent resistances to American global dominance, provided that we recognize that the conflict has political and economic causes. However, this same notion obscures an important history of instrumental cooperation between Islam and the United States. American assertions of imperial power have had a consistent and often compliant Islamic dimension. It is now rarely acknowledged, though, that the cooperative dimension is at least as important for understanding the relationship today of the Islamic world and the West as the contrary record of oppositions to American hegemony of Islamic inspiration.
Of the “many Islams,” America has for decades actively fostered and manipulated its own useful preferences. These “preferred Islams” of earlier periods are part of the story of the Islamist Imaginary of our own. The consequences of the manipulations of these preferred Islams have not always been those intended, at least not in the long run. They have often entailed violence that in the end was turned back first on U.S. clients and then on the United States itself. Yet, for all these qualifications, it remains true that the preferred Islams, cultivated and shaped by the United States, have been critical to the post–World War II projections of American power.
At the end of World War II, President Roosevelt made an historic agreement with the house of Saud in Saudi Arabia. In exchange for privileged access to oil, the United States guaranteed the royal family’s hold on power, declaring the defense of Saudi Arabia a vital U.S. interest. The eighteenth-century origins of the current Saudi regime in the alliance between Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud, a local chieftain, and Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a puritanical and ultraconservative Islamic reformer, proved no obstacle.
U.S. material support for all the usual instruments of repression enabled the Saudi royals to impose themselves on “their” people, despite Islam’s deeply rooted antipathy to monarchy. It also allowed the interpretation of Islam to take firm hold in Saudi Arabia and, through Saudi oil revenue funding, make itself felt worldwide as a powerful reactionary tradition. The royal family’s self-appointed role as guardian of Islam’s most holy sites, Mecca and Medina, provided the requisite religious cover for the U.S.-backed repression that secured their hold on power. This critical Saudi connection ensured American triumph over its European rivals for control of Middle Eastern oil. It also ensured a linkage between American empire and one of the most reactionary forces in the Islamic world, if not the world at large.
Complicit Saudi Islam played a critical role in the subsequent geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. The United States knowingly used the retrograde Wahhabi Islam of the Saudis as a counterweight to progressive Arab nationalisms. These nationalisms had shown themselves willing to open doors to the Soviets in exchange for support for their projects of independent national development. By doing so, they threatened to challenge American hegemony over the Middle East and its precious oil resources.
Personified most effectively by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Arab nationalists threatened to chart the kind of independent path of development that is intrinsically anathema to any imperial power. A combination of external blows and internal manipulations brought these nationalist assertions to an end by the late 1960s. In the wake of the collapse of the nationalist project, the United States saw no problems when a state-controlled Islam provided ideological cover for the compliant Egyptian successor military regimes. Egypt after Nasser was effectively brought within the American orbit and voided of all genuine nationalist content. For such regimes, the threat to their hold on power came from the left and the memories among the masses of the material and social advances registered under progressive Arab nationalist banners. Such successor regimes were no less repressive in pursuing their regressive aims than their predecessors had been in advancing more progressive objectives of autonomous development and improvement of mass welfare. Once again, Egypt provided the prototype, with Anwar al Sadat as the “believing President” who expelled the “Godless” Soviets, opened Egypt to American penetration, and welcomed disciplined Islamists back into public life as a counter to the “atheist left.” The Americans embraced both Sadat and the domesticated Islam in which he draped himself. In the end, however, Sadat’s cynical manipulation of Islamic symbols as a cover for policies of alignment with America and capitulation to Israel on the issue of Palestine incited the anger of Islamic extremists. Khalid al Islambouli assassinated Sadat on October 6, 1981, shouting “Death to Pharaoh!”
When an already weakened Soviet Union blundered into Afghanistan in 1979, the United States turned to yet another variety of politicized Islam to hasten Soviet defeat. U.S. intelligence services, with assistance from their regional counterparts, actively and effectively mobilized the resources of Islamic militants, drawn from all over the Islamic world and including the Saudi Osama bin Laden. Enormous levels of funding were provided from American and Saudi sources, variously estimated but certainly in the billions. They aimed to take advantage of Soviet vulnerability in occupied Afghanistan. The strategy worked: Defeat in Afghanistan helped precipitate the demise of the Soviet Union.
That direct contribution to unchallenged American hegemony was neither the last nor the most significant by the violent transnational Islamic networks the United States helped finance and train for work in Afghanistan. As a result of the successful American-sponsored guerrilla war against the Soviet Union, violent extremist groups proliferated. They created havoc, everywhere not least in New York City on September 11, 2001. These terrible events were reprisals for American Middle East policies and the work of assassins, whom the United States initially encouraged and even in some cases trained.
The crime against humanity committed on September 11, 2001, had the unintended consequence of serving the breathtaking expansionist plans of the neoconservatives who dominated the Bush administration. Only a plausible enemy was lacking to make their execution possible. From the storehouse of the Western historical imagination, age-old images of a hostile Islam were retrieved. Islamic terrorists conjured up in a believable form for a frightened America the “threat to civilization” that every empire requires to justify its own violent acts of domination.
The Islamist Imaginary in the service of the neoconservative version of empire was born. The administration used all the resources of media control at its disposal to make sure that no links were made between the 9/11 crime and unjust U.S. Middle Eastern policies and the bloody instrumentalities the United States forged to enforce them. Plans for the United States to topple the Taliban and occupy Iraq, and for the Israelis to “resolve” the Palestinian issue by force, were all in place before 9/11. The most expansive version of the neoconservative agenda to advance U.S. and Israeli interests found forthright expression in a position paper written for the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party in 1996. It is entitled “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” and was published by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. The document calls for a “clean break from the peace process,” the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the elimination of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, as prelude to regime changes in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The authors all became influential players in the second Bush administration.
President Bush’s elaboration of a more comprehensive strategy of global hegemony came in the fall of 2002 in a document called “National Security Strategy of the United States.” The United States would never again allow a hostile power to approach parity with U.S. military capabilities. The United States would take the offensive to ensure its continued “full spectrum” dominance. Endlessly repeated images of 9/11 provided the backdrop for a doctrine of “preventive” wars that would give a defensive coloration to what were, in reality, projections of American imperial power. The president rallied a cowed Congress to a strategy of endless wars to ensure global hegemony under the cover of a worldwide War on Terrorism whose features, while murky, were still recognizably Islamic.
An innocent and wounded America recast its public role in the Middle East as the champion of democracy and the bulwark against the Islamic wellsprings of irrationalism that ostensibly fed global terrorism. The stage was set for the full-blown evocation of the Islamist Imaginary. There was already an established American practice of manipulating Islam, including the most backward-looking and violent versions, for imperial ends. This time, however, strategic planners for the Bush administration departed from the established pattern with a breathtaking innovation.
At each prior critical strategic moment, America had made use of an existing form of Islam that could be reshaped to serve its needs. The Saudi connection yielded a royal, reactionary, and repressive Islam with which America cooperated without complaints for decades. The American-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, in contrast, called forth an assertively violent rather than simply repressive Islam. America enthusiastically assembled, funded, and trained its transnational advocates. At the same time, the subservient successor regime in Egypt needed a domesticated “house Islam” that would support the right-leaning, authoritarian government. The Sadat regime would preside over the deindustrialization of Egypt and facilitate the ruthless pacification of the Palestinians. The United States had little good to say about Nasser and his Arab socialist policies. It did, however, welcome his efforts to “modernize” the venerable mosque-university of al Azhar. Nasser pursued a strategy of enhancing the role of Islam in Egyptian life while at the same time bringing al Azhar under firm state control. The number of mosques doubled and Islamic broadcasts from Cairo, supported by the government, reached to countries across Dar al Islam. Sadat, for his part, sought to manipulate official Islamic figures and institutions to support his right-wing domestic policies and global realignment into the American orbit. The Americans welcomed Sadat’s self-interested efforts to wrap his pro-American policies with whatever legitimacy a domesticated Islam could provide.
In each of these instances, the Islamic dimension derives from a “found Islam” that originated to meet the needs of local actors. It had its own independent roots in the soil of the Islamic world and served, in the first instance, identifiable aims of already existing regimes or movements. The Bush administration sought to pioneer a distinctive variant on this general pattern, in ways that would clarify the new cultural and intellectual dimensions of its exercise of global power. Iraq was made the case in point.
The Islamist Imaginary: America’s Preferred Islam
The preferred Islam of the Bush administration comes into view most clearly and authoritatively in a Rand Corporation study. For that reason, rather than any scholarly value, Cheryl Benard’s work merits very close attention. I know of no other source as revealing about the way Islam was understood by the circle of neoconservative intellectuals to which Benard belonged in these critical years of assertions of American imperial power. The book carries the engaging title Civil, Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies. It was prepared with the imprimatur of Rand’s National Security Research Division in 2003. Benard’sassessment of the Islamic world quiets the apprehensions that resistance in the name of Islam raised for America’s neoconservative strategic planners.
The worries of the Bush team were not entirely misplaced. There was an Islamic threat, not to America per se but rather to American empire. There still is. To be sure, American propaganda exaggerates both the power and moral depravity of the Islamic enemy. The idea that hostility toward America in the Islamic world springs from frustration with the obvious and inherent failings of the Islamic world and envy at the equally obvious success and innate superiority of the West is sheer nonsense, no matter how frequently and portentously repeated. It parrots the message of every expansionist imperial power that history has known. It does so for all the obvious reasons. The colonized are at fault and their failings invite, even demand, colonization. There is no better way to exculpate the West for the consequences of its historical record of violent occupation and exploitation of Islamic lands. Attention is shifted from any serious evaluation of American dominance of the Middle East and its destructive policies in Palestine, Afghanistan, and most dramatically Iraq.
Benard takes the reality of an Islamic threat as a premise of her argument. Her analysis begins with a presentation of the self-imposed predicaments of the Arab Islamic world that threaten to spill over and endanger others. In Benard’s formulation the entire world, and not just the United States, is the innocent and vulnerable witness to the tumultuous internal disorders in the Islamic world. “What role,” she asks, “can the rest of the world, threatened and affected as it is by this struggle, play in bringing about a more peaceful and positive outcome?” Benard states clearly that these dangerous predicaments of the Islamic world are entirely self-imposed. She writes that “Islam’s current crisis has two main components: a failure to thrive and a loss of connection to the global mainstream. The Islamic world has been marked by a long period of backwardness and comparative powerlessness; many different solutions, such as nationalism, pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, and Islamic revolution, have been attempted without success, and this has led to frustration and anger.” To conclude, Benard gravely notes that “at the same time, the Islamic world has fallen out of step with contemporary global culture, an uncomfortable situation for both sides.”
Benard’s assessment eliminates any reference to the West’s colonization of the Islamic world, and of the physical and psychological damage those violent assaults caused. There are no hints at all of an American imperial presence in the Islamic world through an impressive and constantly expanding network of bases. There is no consideration of the ways that presence constrains autonomous development. There are no references to the awkward facts of consistent American political and economic interventions, often violent and consistently aimed at undermining economic and political autonomy. Israel, heavily armed with all forms of weapons of mass destruction, a cruel occupying force, and the regional superpower, mysteriously disappears from view. These awkward realities are overshadowed by the Islamist Imaginary.
Only with these erasures can Benard take for granted the irrational grounding of the Islamic threat. Her analysis highlights the ways that the usual state-based threats to the national security exemplified by the Soviet Union in the era of the Cold War have been replaced by the challenge of nonstate actors, operating below the nation-state horizon. To face this threat, she argues that American strategic planners must make Islam itself a resource. In short, like her predecessors Benard is in the business of strategic manipulations of Islam to serve American economic and political ends. She evokes a malleable Islam that can be turned into an instrument to confront the Islams of resistance, while obediently serving America’s ends. However, Benard does so with a difference.