Opening a USC conference on religion and international relations, author Jack Miles lamented mass confusion about America’s role in Islamic politics and said that, in fact, for the past four decades American presidents — Republican and Democratic — have aided Islamic extremism.
Miles, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book God: A Biography, opened the Religion, Identity and Global Governance (RIGG) two-day conference Oct. 18 with a spirited speech tracking the history of America’s political and religious identity.
About 100 professors and students from throughout the region attended the conference.
In introducing Miles, Laurie Brand, director of USC College’s School of International Relations (SIR) and professor of international relations, said that since Sept. 11, 2001, focus on Islam has intensified, but so too has confusion and misperception about America’s role in Islamic politics.
“Unfortunately,” Brand said, “the poor pre-existing knowledge base in this country about Islam, Muslims and Muslim majority countries opened the way for what has become a veritable cottage industry of writing and speaking about these topics, most of it by people who have little claim to expertise, many of whom are pundits whose political agenda can most charitably be called antagonistic.”
The ideal way to deal with this problem, she said, “is through close, honest intellectual cooperation among those with real expertise in religion, in history, in culture and in politics. Regardless of which religion or region one may be studying.”
In his 20-minute speech, Miles, a MacArthur Fellow and world expert on religion and international affairs, took note of a series of events that conservatives have dubbed “Islamo-Facism Awareness Week,” which starts Oct. 22. He cautioned that it would likely create more misperceptions and said even its title builds on an inaccurate and dangerous misconception.
Miles said language that transforms Islamic extremism into Islamo-fascism “confuses a part with the whole and inflates an aberration to the world-historical size of German Nazism or Russian communism.”
More disturbing, he said, is that “the fabrication of Islamo-fascism invites or provokes Christo-democracy as its perilously possible American equivalent.”
The privately sponsored week of “awareness” events — featuring speakers and panel discussions taking place at more than 100 universities and colleges, including USC — are meant to confront what conservative organizers call “the big lies of the political left: that George Bush created the [Iraq] war.”
But Miles said Islamic terrorism is much more complicated and deeply rooted.
Republican administrations were “more wholehearted in their willingness to lend diplomatic and fiscal support to the very Islamic groups that now arouse such alarm and hostility,” said Miles, a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Irvine.
American support of extremist elements began in the 70s, though the modern era of American involvement in the Middle East began earlier in the 20th century.
In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a historic meeting with King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud aboard a yacht on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, setting the stage for an American-Saudi defense treaty later that year.
At stake for America, Miles said, was the defense of Middle Eastern oil against any move by the Soviet Union.
“Roosevelt and his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, had been candid about this,” Miles said. “Oil was what concerned them, and they did not pretend otherwise.”
Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower expanded Roosevelt’s oil-premised relationship “to include utilitarian alliance with Saudi Arabia’s benighted version of Islam,” Miles said.
In 1957, Eisenhower proclaimed that “the United States would provide military aid to any Middle East country requesting such aid against overt aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.” That set a course that continued under the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.
To emphasize his point, Miles quoted Robert Baer’s 2003 book Sleeping with the Devil, “At the bottom of it all was this dirty little secret in Washington: The White House looked on the Muslim brothers as a silent ally, a secret weapon against communism.”
Miles noted that during the Eisenhower administration “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance as a counterpoint to godless communism.
In the confrontation with the Soviet Union, no argument “generated a deeper emotional appeal than the fact that the Russians persecuted religion, while we celebrated it,” Miles said. The U.S. decided that religion anywhere could be regarded as a potential ally in the East-West struggle.
“The notion that a religion could have a serious and dangerous political agenda of its own ... this notion was virtually inconceivable in Washington,” Miles said.
The U.S. began earnest support of the rise of Islamic extremism around the time the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Miles said.
The long-accepted view of history was that CIA aid to mujahideen began in 1980, after the Soviet invasion. But in 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, told Le Nouvel Observateur that secret aid went to the Islamist opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul six months before the invasion, inducing the Soviet military intervention, Miles said.
When asked whether he regretted supporting the rise of Islamic extremism, Brzezinski told Le Nouvel Observateur, “What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” according to Miles.
Brzezinski gave his interview five years after the Feb. 26, 1993, car bombing of the World Trade Center — a bombing that was meant to take down one of the towers, Miles said.
“It is on that date that everything in American defense planning ought to have changed …. ” Miles said. “Instead, once the Soviet Union fell, Afghanistan was effectively left to its own devices, and the American policy establishment only began to wake up to what it had helped create on Sept. 11, 2001.”
USC College’s School of International Relations and the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture launched RIGG last November. It is designed to develop courses, seminars and conferences that explore how religion shapes foreign policy throughout the world.
Created with the help of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion, and the USC Center for International Studies, RIGG is part of a $370,000 grant from the Henry R. Luce Foundation.