The Islamic Challenge and the United States

Ehsan Ahrari
McGill-Queen's University Press
ISBN: 978-0773548169
Susan Froetschel

Singling out an enemy or adopting a monocausal approach to analyzing complex challenges like terrorism or oppression is tempting, but unhelpful. While prioritizing targets makes sense, focusing on a single culprit is limiting. Too often, practitioners of this technique overlook vast histories and systemic roots, then express puzzlement as to why the sore they pick at continues to fester.   

Such has been the US approach to conflict in the Middle East, as exemplified by Donald Trump’s May 21 speech to the Muslim world from Saudi Arabia. Before a summit of Arab leaders, he pointed to “one goal that transcends every other consideration.… to meet history's great test – to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.” Trump then singled out Iran as “a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region” – this just hours after Iranian voters re-elected pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani over a hardliner.  Trump’s words overlooked the Saudi role in spreading fundamentalist ideologies or funding extremist groups like the Islamic State terrorists who viciously target Iranian Shiites. The US president may not realize that the United States and the United Kingdom, hoping to prevent nationalization of the Iran’s oil industry, conspired to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953, instead embracing a despot. He refuses to consider that Iran has reasons for worry after US-led invasions of countries in either direction, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

The United States has singled out enemies in the past. Egypt was a centerpiece of US foreign policy during the 1960s and then Iran after the 1973 revolution. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Syria have also had turns – and now again Iran.  And global terrorists can be charged with the same error as their main fight is with the United States as lone superpower.

Of course, the challenges are far more complex, as thoughtfully revealed by The Islamic Challenge and the United States. The book by Ehsan M. Ahrari, written with Sharon Leyland Ahrari, offers thorough background for those intent on understanding the intricate foreign relations, numerous and ongoing conflicts, and factors contributing to terrorism.

The author is a former professor with the US Air War College, and despite the book’s title, he does not resort to analysis of Muslim-majority nations vis-à-vis the United States. Instead, the book offers systematic, concise examination of history, unfolding connections along with the many reasons for action and inaction.

Ahrari places responsibility on autocratic leaders who “loathe quality education and its most crucial features – the promotion of critical thinking, original ideas, innovations, and creativity – that might also lead to demands for political change from their citizenry.” Low education standards weaken political, legal and moral opposition, and this contributes to violence, poverty, militaries that secure regimes rather than citizens, prisons that radicalize, and a form of populism that maintains only violent militancy can bring about political change, not by advancing societies but by dragging them back to the seventh century and erasing a history of despair. Global powers may destroy the functioning of groups like Al Qaeda, but will struggle to eliminate the ideology without substantive changes in foreign policy.

There is hope, though, in Pew Research Center findings that strong majorities in many Muslim-majority countries prefer democracy over strong leaders and support freedom of religion.

 Ahrari is precise, defining Islamism as a “politico-religious movement focused on the acquisition of territory, and then declaring those territories as part of their caliphate.” He reviews the history and philosophies shaped the Middle East including the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Takfiri doctrine and other Islamist theorists, as well as US support for jihadists against the Soviets during their war in Afghanistan from 1980 to 1989, Arab monarchs’ establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council to counter revolution within their own borders, and ambitions for global jihad via the internet and social media to radicalize alienated, angry minds everywhere.

He argues that the Islamic State is but the latest model for Islamism and the quest for territory – and warns that future groups will strive to be more brutal. An extremist strategy is wearing down the United States and other powers by enticing their over-reach. The chapter on Central Asia’s five states – Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – is especially riveting as Ahrari describes how the region of brutal and corrupt regimes is prone to cataclysmic change even as China, Russia and the United States compete for dominance.

Readers may not agree with all of Ahrari’s conclusions, though the book becomes all the more worthwhile in forcing readers to confront their own biases. For example, American readers may not accept the assertion that the United States is driving “secular fundamentalism… no less absolutist and demonizing of the jihadists than is the jihadists’ own conduct of jihad against the United States.” As Ahrari notes, the United States may not intend to disparage Islam, but an undercurrent of disagreement remains: The United States consigns religion to the realm of private affairs, while it remains a central issue in politics of Muslim-majority countries. Americans generally accept that, for some citizens, religious devotion may outweigh devotion to country, yet they also resist inevitable quarrels over doctrine or outspoken adherents  leading multicultural communities. Manipulation of any religion for political purposes distracts from public priorities, spurring the shift from collective to individual spirituality.

Muslims – like any group of citizens – are fragmented over political approaches, and many readers would welcome analysis on jihadists from North Africa and South Asia and how jihadist ideology and cultures are melding.

Ongoing conflicts ensure a tenuous position for some autocrats, and Ahrari warns that this may mean more Islamist groups will gain power over territory, by force or the ballot box. The book was published shortly after Trump took office, but Ahrari is prescient in advising global leaders to tread cautiously when planning strategy with autocrats.

Countries must increasingly cooperate on areas of concern even while disagreeing on other matters, Ahrari urges, and even the United States and Iran could find common ground, especially in battling extremists. In the meantime, young Iranians who support Rouhani and his reforms resent kneejerk negative views from the US about their country. Still, Iranians remain strong, and Ahrari describes how sanctions encouraged self-reliance for Iran – now the most diverse economy in the Middle East with non-oil revenues at more than 50 percent.

The book concludes with recommendations on new strategies including reduced support for autocrats, an end to drone and other attacks on civilian populations, and a reduced US military presence in the Middle East. International cooperation is required to negotiate an end of Israeli occupation of Palestine – to encourage good governance for the region with more transparency while reducing inefficiencies and corruption.

The region does not need more weapons, and the Trump administration is not alone in supplying arms to questionable parties: President Ronald sold weapons to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein despite opposition from Congress. Soviets supplied both sides during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Among the biggest mistakes on the part of the United States was arming jihadists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The jihadists did not credit the US for their victory, and supplying more weapons to a region with shifting allegiances only adds complications for future generations. 

Susan Froetschel is the managing editor of YaleGlobal Online and the author of mystery novels set in Afghanistan, the most recent of which is Allure of Deceit, published by Seventh Street Books.

Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center


Books on the history and foreign policies in the Middle East should be required reading for anyone making decisions about the region. The same mistakes have been repeated far too many times.