Robin Wright has exhibited a disturbing tendency over the years to essentialize - as in her recent coining of the term "Salafi Crescent," as if salafis are a unified mass movement now poised (as in some big game of Risk) to carve a path across the Middle East.
I vividly remember her appearance at the University of Michigan in 1984 as part of a panel on current Middle Eastern issues. That appearance was around the same time as the publication of her first major book, Sacred Rage: the Wrath of Militant Islam, and her comments reflected the kind of essentializing of "militant Islam" that the title reflects. I was especially struck by how she was challenged repeatedly from the audience, by people who seemed to have a much better nuanced appreciation of current developments among militant Islamists. By the end of her time on stage, she was reeling - and I had formed an opinion of her that led to my continuing decision to enjoy her reportage, but avoid relying on her as in any way a go-to authority on the Middle East.
Nonetheless, a lot of what she says in her new NY Times essay here is spot-on, especially about the US's consistent choice to align itself with the Wahhabi salafi monarchy of Saudi Arabia. As she concludes:
The Salafis represent a painful long-term conundrum for the West. Their goals are the most anti-Western of any Islamist parties. They are trying to push both secularists and other Islamists into the not-always-virtuous past.
American policy recently had its own awakening after 60 years of support for autocratic rulers. The United States opted to embrace people power and electoral change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Yemen. Yet Washington still embraces authoritarian Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia, tolerating their vague promises of reform and even pledging the United States’ might to protect them.
Foreign policy should be nuanced, whether because of oil needs or to counter threats from Iran. But there is something dreadfully wrong with tying America’s future position in the region to the birthplace and bastion of Salafism and its warped vision of a new order.