Dr. Abdullah F. Alrebh, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan
As we are now on the eve of one of the more consequential American Elections since the end of the Cold War thirty years ago, it is worth asking how the outcome will affect domestic Islamists. In the U.S., as elsewhere in the West, most organized Islamist groups derive from Muslim Brotherhood roots and therefore try to work within pre-existing systems to achieve their desired end goal of an Islamic state. The dynamics of how American Islamists interact with the political system have shifted fairly radically over time.
A Different Time
The Republican Party, sometimes called the Grand Old Party or GOP, has religious conservatives as a core voting bloc. Evangelical Protestants are the largest part of this bloc, but it is also made up of significant numbers of Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and—at least until 2001—Muslims. Difficult as it is to remember an era before 9/11, Muslims used to be most at home in the Republican Party.
The doctrinal differences among the believers were less important than the political questions—abortion, LGBTQ rights, the teaching of evolution, prayer in schools—and on those there was broad agreement. For this reason, Islamists, who were some of the most important organizers of the American Muslim community, tended to support the GOP.
It can also be added that throughout the 1990s, Islamists had been alienated from the Democratic Party by some of President Bill Clinton’s policies. After the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 by two white Christian terrorists, the Clinton-driven legislative response included measures that tightened up the financial system against terrorists. One of the primary impacts was to shut down and even prosecute Islamists running what they described as “charities,” which were providing resources to groups like Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Clinton-era anti-terrorism legislation that Islamists argued was discriminatory against Muslims became an issue in the 2000 Election campaign, with the Republican candidate George W. Bush condemning the use of “secret evidence” in immigration hearings, and the Democratic candidate (Clinton’s Vice President) Al Gore defending the law.
During the Cold War, especially after the changes in the Democratic Party in the late 1960s, Muslims strongly identified with the Republicans in the common enterprise of opposing Communism, a militantly atheist ideology than had destroyed Islam to a large degree within the Soviet Union. When the Soviets invaded Muslim-majority Afghanistan in 1979 and tried to impose their ideology on that country, too, the Republican President Ronald Reagan supported the anti-Communist resistance as part of his Reagan Doctrine that supported anti-Communist insurgents everywhere. The Afghan resistance contained powerful Islamist elements. The Democrats were much more reticent about this policy.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had ramifications for the whole world. The most obvious is that some of the “Arab-Afghans,” the few thousand Arabs who had fought the Red Army alongside the Mujahideen, had been introduced to doctrines and networks that they had not before, and then began to take these ideas home. Islamist insurgencies broke out in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere in the 1990s. In Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden returned home as a popular hero, and was then bitterly disappointed to see the Saudi government invite in Western troops to fight Saddam Hussein after his annexation of Kuwait, rather than relying on Bin Laden’s band of jihadists. Bin Laden would soon be expelled from the Kingdom and his citizenship revoked; the long road to 9/11 had begun.
More Recent Times
9/11 changed everything, as the cliché has it, and one thing it changed was the alignment of Muslims in America. Bush had won the Election in 2000, so Republicans were charged with the security response to the atrocity; some of the measures disproportionately affected Muslims and the Islamists pounced, stoking a narrative of victimhood and discrimination. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was changing. Where President Clinton had retaliated swiftly and with force when Al-Qaeda struck the U.S. Embassies in East Africa and repeatedly stated his intention to overthrow Saddam, now the Democrats were averse to American power entirely and focused more on questions of identity, which covered over the differences between liberals and Muslims on social policy.
With the Democrats back in power in 2009, under President Barack Obama, a “new beginning” was announced for relations between America and Muslims. When the so-called Arab spring broke out two years later, and allied governments were toppled, Islamists came to the fore in many of these countries. The U.S. approach was spelled out by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stated, “it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful and committed to nonviolence, … and we welcome, therefore, dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us.” This was somewhat alarming to traditional U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Israel—all of whom were already displeased at how quickly the Obama administration had cut loose Egypt’s ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood did come to power in post-revolutionary Egypt, but its missteps proved too many and its downfall was quick. The new Egyptian government has joined firmly with the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis in opposing Islamist influence throughout the region. With the change of President, from Obama to Donald Trump, in January 2017, the U.S. was aligned with this policy, eliminating the outreach tendency of Obama years and bringing in a sounder strategic approach that seeks to marginalize the Islamists.
By this point, the divorce between the GOP and the Islamists is complete. Republican Senator Ted Cruz even proposed a bill to Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization, a measure already taken by several Middle Eastern governments. If Trump wins, this course is expected to be continued.
If Trump loses, and his Democratic rival Joe Biden becomes President, there could be a departure in U.S. policy that seeks a more accommodationist approach with the Islamists. Domestically, Islamists might also have more space as Democrats are very wary of any action that appears to target Muslims, as the terror-finance cases did in the 1990s. The Democrats have argued that Trump is Islamophobic, and drawing a sharp distinction with all things Trumpian has become central to the Democrats. It is this impulse behind Biden including quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith in his speeches to demonstrate his tolerance of Islam and respect for Muslims.
Where We Are Now
The Muslim Brotherhood at its origins, in Egypt in 1928, was seeking to create a legitimate order after the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate; the movement settled on an ideology of Islamic revivalism that was strongly anti-Western and expansionist, looking to create one polity over all Muslims. As the Brotherhood developed, grew, branched out, and then suffered repression in one state after another in the 1950s and 1960s, it began to move into those free Western countries it despises, where it had the operational space to proselytize and to plot its next moves for its various home countries. Over time, the direct bonds between the “mother” organization and the Western satellite branches frayed, but the ideology held quite consistently.
Just like in the Middle East, most of the Brotherhood-derived Islamic organizations in the U.S. drew on demographics that were far more educated, professional, and affluent than not just other immigrants but than the native U.S. population. Even without the history outlined above through the Cold War, the Clinton era, and the post-9/11 world, the simple socio-political dynamics of America would incline this population to vote Democratic. It has been no surprise to see mainstream American-Muslim youth organizations mobilized at such scale to stand with Biden against Trump—and, indeed, non-mainstream. One of the few mistakes Biden has made is allowing his campaign to appear as if it was accepting support from Linda Sarsour, an activist tied to Brotherhood-derived groups, who is best-known for her repeated antisemitic remarks.
As with all recent immigrant groups in the U.S., for Arabs and Muslims the question of their motherland looms large. The economy, healthcare, and systemic racism are all issues, but unlike most voting blocs there is a real interest in foreign policy since it can impact the course of events for family and friends. For Islamists, who see their time in America as temporary, a safe haven while they plot triumph in their homelands, the aim is to use the awesome power of the American state to pressure its enemies and bolster its friends. Islamists have also become adept at cloaking these power-politics preferences in Left-wing garb that appeals to Democratic audiences. Thus, the Islamists’ agitprop against traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. is presented in terms of “democracy” and “human rights”.
Today, despite the public prominence of “the Muslim vote” because of Trump’s rhetoric, immigration policies, and other fears over the treatment of Muslim NGOs and charities, the vote is not actually that significant in concrete terms. It matters in a handful of states in any meaningful way—in Michigan, Minnesota, and New York—and in none of those states can Muslims make the decisive difference. That said, Muslims are within the coalition of minorities marshalled by the Democrats, and their status is far higher than their numbers would suggest. Policies affecting Muslims have the capacity to mobilize Democrats in a way policies affecting most other minorities do not. Whether this remains true after Tuesday, and whether the latent tension between Muslims’ social conservatism and the ever-more-radical social liberalism of the Democratic Party ever becomes a schism, we will have to wait and see.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.