America Must Have an Enemy 3
Complicit Saudi Islam played a critical role in the subsequent geopolitical
competition with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. The United States
knowingly used the retrograde Wahhabi Islam of the Saudis as a
counterweight to progressive Arab nationalisms. These nationalisms had
shown themselves willing to open doors to the Soviets in exchange for
support for their projects of independent national development. By doing so,
they threatened to challenge American hegemony over the Middle East and
its precious oil resources.

Personified most effectively by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Arab
nationalists threatened to chart the kind of independent path of development
that is intrinsically anathema to any imperial power. A combination of
external blows and internal manipulations brought these nationalist
assertions to an end by the late 1960s. In the wake of the collapse of the
nationalist project, the United States saw no problems when a state-
controlled Islam provided ideological cover for the compliant Egyptian
successor military regimes. Egypt after Nasser was effectively brought
within the American orbit and voided of all genuine nationalist content. For
such regimes, the threat to their hold on power came from the left and the
memories among the masses of the material and social advances
registered under progressive Arab nationalist banners. Such successor
regimes were no less repressive in pursuing their regressive aims than
their predecessors had been in advancing more progressive objectives of
autonomous development and improvement of mass welfare. Once again,
Egypt provided the prototype, with Anwar al Sadat as the “believing
President” who expelled the “Godless” Soviets, opened Egypt to American
penetration, and welcomed disciplined Islamists back into public life as a
counter to the “atheist left.” The Americans embraced both Sadat and the
domesticated Islam in which he draped himself. In the end, however, Sadat’s
cynical manipulation of Islamic symbols as a cover for policies of alignment
with America and capitulation to Israel on the issue of Palestine incited the
anger of Islamic extremists. Khalid al Islambouli assassinated Sadat on
October 6, 1981, shouting “Death to Pharaoh!”

When an already weakened Soviet Union blundered into Afghanistan in 1979,
the United States turned to yet another variety of politicized Islam to hasten
Soviet defeat. U.S. intelligence services, with assistance from their regional
counterparts, actively and effectively mobilized the resources of Islamic
militants, drawn from all over the Islamic world and including the Saudi
Osama bin Laden. Enormous levels of funding were provided from American
and Saudi sources, variously estimated but certainly in the billions. They
aimed to take advantage of Soviet vulnerability in occupied Afghanistan. The
strategy worked: Defeat in Afghanistan helped precipitate the demise of the
Soviet Union.
America and Islam