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Political Islam and Foreign Policy in Europe and the United States


  • Author’s note: I thank Jocelyne Cesari for her comments on an earlier version of this paper at our panel discussion “Islam in International Politics” at the 2006 APSA convention in Philadelphia. Thanks to Andreas Wenger, Victor Mauer, and Daniel Möckli for inviting me to present this paper at ETH Zurich in September 2006 at the conference “A Strained Partnership: European-American Relations and the Middle East from Suez to Iraq,” and especially to Dalia Dassa Kaye for her suggestions at our panel on “Current Issues.” The paper also benefited from discussions with graduate students at Northwestern in my “Politics of Religion in International Relations” seminar in 2005, and from the comments of three anonymous reviewers for Foreign Policy Analysis.


This paper is about the epistemological underpinnings of European and American foreign policy toward political Islam. European and American approaches to political Islam rely upon commonly held secular assumptions about religion and politics that have significant effects on foreign policy in Europe and the United States. Secularist epistemology produces an understanding of “normal politics” that lends a particular coloring to the politics of Muslim-majority societies. These secularist understandings affect foreign policy in two ways: first, the appearance of Islam in politics is equated with fundamentalism and intolerance, and second, the forms and degrees of separation between Islam and politics that do exist in contemporary Muslim-majority societies either do not appear at all or appear as ill-fitting imitations of a Western secular ideal. Rather than a backlash against modernity or a return to tradition, political Islam is a modern language of politics that challenges and, at times, overturns fundamental assumptions about religion and politics embedded in Western forms of secularism.