Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam
by Robert Dreyfuss
Metropolitan Books, 2005
388 pages, $27.50
As if inspired by the Middle East, the United States has based its entire policy towards it on the region's adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." To address this kind of imperial impunity, Tom Englehardt of TomDispatch.com fame helped conceive the American Empire Project, a series of books by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Michael Klare, and now Robert Dreyfuss, a frequent contributor to The Nation and Rolling Stone.
As one reads Devil's Game, one realizes that since the US has never exactly collared Fundamentalist Islam, it wasn't, as the book's subtitle suggests, ours to "unleash." However, as Dreyfuss demonstrates, our policy certainly contributed to a culture in which a mutant strain, Islamist (political Islam) terrorism, has flourished.
But the US was only following in the footsteps of the British, who divined that Arabia was sitting on oil and forged a mid-nineteenth century alliance with the House of Saud and the Wahhabis. The latter two had joined forces a century earlier and spent the years since laying siege to Arab territory. Their final conquest, in the 1920s, left 350,000 amputations behind for those unfortunate enough to fall under the heading of haraam (forbidden).
That, as well as what's halaal (permissible), is dictated by the Koran, which, if the Fundamentalists had their way, would serve as their nation's constitution. The notion of an Islamist state was first floated by Persian Jamal Eddine al-Afghani, who adopted an Afghan name in deference to his pan-Islam world view. He, in turn, paved the way for a young Egyptian scholar named Hassan al-Bana to found -- with a grant from the British -- the infamous Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.
Over the next quarter century, the British intelligence service MI6 would wield the Muslim Brotherhood as a scimitar to help Egypt fend off the left, especially communists, who the Brothers despised for their atheism. The US, too, soon came to see the Brotherhood's usefulness and, along with a burgeoning alliance with King Saud, hoped to create an "arc of Islam" as a southern barrier against communism's spread.
While Bana networked with politicians, the Brotherhood's covert branch engaged in espionage and assassinations. Whether or not their leaders were true believers, "Its commingling of elite insider politics and underground violent militancy," Dreyfuss writes, "marked the true start of what we now call 'political Islam.'"
The US funded the Brotherhood's attempt to overthrow Egypt's non-aligned, but Soviet-friendly Prime Minister Nasser and, in Iran, the ayatollahs' successful coup of left-leaning Prime Minister Mossadegh. In what could stand as a raison d'être for the American Empire Project, Dreyfuss writes: "Around the world... the CIA was busy getting rid of leaders not because they were communists," but simply because "their independent streak made them untrustworthy interlocutors in the war between the superpowers."
Meanwhile, anger over Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War fueled an Islamic resurgence. Then, when Anwar Sadat, a former Muslim Brother, assumed power in Egypt, he restored Egypt's relationship with the US, as well as the Saudis, and welcomed the Brothers into Egyptian mainstream politics for the first time.
Despite another defeat, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war authenticated Sadat's Islamic credentials. However, after the Egyptian-Israeli accord, the Islamists, many of whom were followers of Sayyid Qutb, turned on him.
Qutb, Islamism's self-styled guiding light, became radicalized while living in the US (bitter, no doubt, that American's couldn't pronounce his name). Though not a cleric, he conjured up a fatwa-like rationale to assassinate Arab leaders who failed to adhere to his Koran commentary (30 volumes worth!). Eventually martyred by Sadat, he, of course, became bin Laden's lodestar.
So phobic, however, was America of Communism that, even after the Muslim Brotherhood killed Sadat, the ayatollahs overthrew the Shah, and a Hezbollah truck bomb in Lebanon killed 241 Marines in Lebanon, the US still viewed Islamism as its tool. Perhaps, that's because, besides being anti-communist, the Muslim Brotherhood supported infitah, Sadat's plan to expand free enterprise.
In a suprisingly intriguing section of Devil's Game, Dreyfuss reports that since commercial banks were "Jewish" and didn't operate according to Islamic law, Muslim fundamentalists founded their own banks with the assistance of American financial institutions like Citibank.
Few in the West are aware that not only are Islamists firmly esconced in the capitalist camp -- Mohammed, after all, was a trader -- they have no problem with the uneven distribution of wealth. Nor have they much interest in supporting the downtrodden. Can't you just hear the cries of "What's the Matter with Cairo?" echoing across moderate Islam?
The next Islamist venture the US funded was, of course, the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation. It's bad enough that we sponsored the likes of mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose men flung acid in unveiled women's faces and flayed Soviet soldiers alive. But, Dreyfuss reveals, we also encouraged raids into Russia.
Risking a confrontation with the Soviet Union aside, US support for the mujahideen, the author asserts, was a catastrophic miscalculation. It not only gave rise to the Taliban, it created a worldwide network of veteran Islamist fighters.
Meanwhile, the US, in a state of euphoria over the Soviet defeat, continued to view these now-unemployed freedom fighters -- have Stinger, will travel -- as allies. But, thanks to our alliance with Israel and our support of Egyptian and Algerian repression of Islamists, they turned on us.
Finally, after the 1996 destruction of the US military's Khobar Towers facility in Saudia Arabia, the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, we created task forces concentrating on Al Qaeda and bin Laden. After pointing out how CNN, PBS's "Frontline," and the European press found him with ease, Dreyfuss calls our efforts to locate bin Laden, despite a $27 billion intelligence system, as "laughably incompetent."
However, it's when he arrives at the Iraq War that Dreyfuss is most compelling. Dismissing the administration's democracy pretext for the invasion, he claims that, "Neoconservatives want to control the Middle East, not reform it, even if that means tearing countries apart... The Islamic right... is just one more tool for dismantling existing regimes."
To back this up, he quotes a prominent Neocon theoretician eager to see bin Laden assume power in Saudi Arabia. That, he believes, would provide us with just the pretext we need to invade and occupy the oil fields. In the same vein, we tainted the secular Saddam Hussein with Islamism by asserting he was linked to Al Qaeda.
This is where it gets confusing, because once Saddam was deposed, we forged an alliance with an ayatalloh, Ali al-Sistani and allowed the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood's official branch in Iraq. Dreyfuss, however, fails to explains this. Why? Oh, maybe because the administration's apparent lack of concern over creating an Islamic, Iran-friendly state is inexplicable.
However, in a subsequent essay, "Political Islam vs. Democracy," that functions as an epilogue to Devil's Game, Dreyfuss calls it "an utterly paradoxical and self-defeating strategy." It's as if Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith, not to mention Sovietologist Rice, weaned on anti-Communism, instinctively reverted to the Cold War, when we operated under the illusion Islamists were our allies.
The same essay yields a stinging summation: "But like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Mickey Mouse character whose naïve and inexperienced use of magic blows up in his face, American efforts to play with the forces of political Islam have proved to be dangerous, volatile, and often uncontrollable."
Taking the respected Dreyfuss's research and findings on faith, a reader new to Middle-Eastern history will likely be transported by his command of narrative. One reservation, however, is the author's nonchalant downplaying of threats, presumably because they're just fear-mongering by the hard right. For example, he declares Al Qaeda poses no "existential threat to the US." Nor, he twice asserts -- neither occurrence footnoted -- is there any shred of evidence that Al Qaeda has, or is about to acquire, weapons of mass destruction.
In light of nuclear jeremiads issued by the likes of Graham Allison (Nuclear Terrorism), Paul L. Williams (The Al Qaeda Connection), and Ted Turner's Nuclear Threat Initiative (including its recent film, Last Best Chance), Dreyfuss makes it easy for the hard right to call liberals soft on security.
Meanwhile, if the US insists on continuing to fight the fires of terrorism with the gasoline of its aggressive policies, perhaps then our only hope lies with Islam itself. Though treated to scant coverage in the West, the leaders of 40 countries recently convened in Makkah, Jordan for a summit conducted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
While reaffirming traditional goals like the withdrawal of Israel from Palestine, its main purpose was summed up in the Makkah Declaration: "We are determined to fight terrorism in all its forms." Though their ten-year action plan sounds tentative, one can't help but be encouraged when OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu exclaims, "I am excited like a child."