Studying Islamic Movements in the Age of Trump

By Abdullah Al-Arian, Georgetown University

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.

Scholarly specialists on political Islam are set to face considerable obstacles in their contributions to scholarly and public debates during the Trump administration. The White House has shifted the focus of its national security policy towards fighting “radical Islam,” appears to support the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and has generally moved to blur the lines between different strands of Islamic activism. These policy shifts will pose sharp challenges to those scholars who have specialized in studying such movements.

Islamist movements have been a central and growing element of political science research on the Middle East. The emergence of political movements espousing Islamic values as an organizing principle has been part and parcel of the decolonization and nation-building processes across the Arab world and beyond since the early twentieth century. Movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in interwar Egypt by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher who argued that colonialism and nationalism had disempowered Muslim societies, have contributed to the cultural landscapes of these societies even as they have existed largely on the margins of the reigning political order.

Although Western scholars examined this phenomenon from its earliest days, yielding such seminal works as Richard Mitchell’s 1969 book, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, research into Islamic movements accelerated rapidly in the 1980s, in the wake of major events like the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat by Islamic militants, and the successful move into electoral politics by Islamist movements in countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Jordan.

As American policymakers faced the challenge of contending with the rise of both violent extremist groups and nonviolent religious opposition movements within Middle Eastern societies, scholars provided much needed nuance and contextualization in the form of deeply researched studies based on years of fieldwork. These works quite often explained the emergence of Islamic movements as the product of historical processes and recent socioeconomic and political developments. They also offered a typology that distinguishes between movements that call for gradual political change through education, charity, legal reform, and democratic participation, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and groups that challenge the status quo through militant violence, such as al-Qaeda.

However, by offering their scholarly assessments, academic experts frequently found themselves subject to accusations that they were advocating for these movements or excusing their worst excesses. This appraisal became even more pronounced after 9/11, when the entire field of Middle East studies confronted the serious charge of having downplayed the threat of Islamic extremism. For interpreting the grievances and motivations behind the militant insurgency that emerged from pockets of disaffected Arab youth, some critics charged that such analyses verged on justifying the attacks, even as many in the policy community agreed that it is necessary to understand the root causes behind these events in order to address them more effectively.

The wave of uprisings that swept across the Arab world beginning in late 2010 again pushed scholars to address the role that Islamic movements were poised to play in the post-authoritarian transitions. Many argued that it was in the interest of the U.S. to abandon its longstanding support for dictators and get on the right side of history. This entailed supporting popular calls for democracy and respecting the electoral choices of Arab societies, even if that meant accepting the rise to power of Islamist parties who have been historically critical of American policy toward their nations. In interpreting the electoral success of Islamists and warning of the consequences of restoring repressive regimes, scholars were not necessarily advocating on behalf of a particular group or party. Rather, in the same way that critics of the 1953 U.S.-led coup in Iran foresaw the long-term damage it would do to U.S.-Iranian relations, so too did scholars who voiced concerns over the 2013 coup in Egypt believe that American support for the Sisi regime’s human rights abuses was bound to backfire.

Based on the signs so far, scholars offering similar critiques are unlikely to find much of a reception in the new administration. President Donald Trump appears to have empowered ideologically driven pundits with a history of hostility toward Middle East specialists. Many of these same forces have previously lobbied Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. During his confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson suggested that the Trump administration would combat the Muslim Brotherhood alongside its battle against al-Qaeda. Having previously echoed the sentiments of the region’s most repressive rulers, it came as no surprise when Sisi became the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election or when Bashar al-Assad labeled the new American president a “natural ally.”

Not only would the Muslim Brotherhood’s designation signal a significant shift in U.S. policy, but the move would also likely impact scholars hoping to contribute their knowledge to the formulation of that policy. To be sure, there have always been challenges in the study of social movements in the Middle East. Access to relevant archival material in authoritarian regimes is sparse to non-existent. Scholars frequently risk brushes with state security officials, as in the tragic case of Giulio Regeni, the Italian graduate student brutally murdered last year, likely by intelligence agents, while conducting fieldwork on Egyptian labor movements. However, along with the hazards of doing research on a contentious topic abroad, American scholars now have an added layer of concern awaiting them at home. It is too soon to tell what legal ramifications there may be for researchers of a movement that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. But in practical terms, the move can be expected to have a major chilling effect on American scholars attempting to do research on the Muslim Brotherhood as well as on public and private institutions that provide resources to that endeavor.

The highly politicized and hastily devised measure has implications far beyond the study of the original Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, which currently finds itself outlawed and on the run from the Sisi regime and its regional allies. The Ennahda Party was the initial victor in the post-authoritarian transition in Tunisia and continues to play a prominent role in a democratically elected government that maintains strong ties with the U.S. The Jordanian monarchy, another American ally, just oversaw elections in which members of the Muslim Brotherhood won the largest single share in parliament. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood plays a prominent role in the American-backed Syrian National Council that aims to displace the Assad regime. Political parties with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood have played roles of varying significance in the governments of Kuwait, Bahrain, and Morocco. There is little to be gained from the decision to give a blanket terrorist label to the Muslim Brotherhood, beyond cutting off the U.S. government from crucial knowledge of key developments in the region.

Specialists who have devoted their careers to providing valuable insights about a frequently misunderstood subject now find themselves in a precarious position with little precedent, even in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite the antipathy that the Bush-era neocons expressed toward political Islam, their commitment to democratization (however superficial it may have proven to be) meant that on some level they had to account for the possibility that Islamist parties would be the primary beneficiaries of elections (as in Egypt in 2005 and Palestine in 2006). With Trump and his team committing themselves fully to supporting secular authoritarians and generalizing their enmity from Islamic militancy to Islam writ large, that is no longer the case.

But if the incoming administration has determined that it has no need for scholarly expertise on matters that are sure to impact U.S. policy in the years ahead, that is no reason for researchers to sit idly by awaiting the election of a more receptive president. Rather, they should seize the opportunity to engage more directly with Americans who would benefit from obtaining a deeper understanding of the ways in which our elected leaders’ policies have shaped political outcomes in other parts of the world, and in turn, the consequences that developments in those societies have had on us at home.

Abdullah Al-Arian is an assistant professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.