Containment to Counter-terrorism: Islam and the enduring U.S.-Saudi alliance

by Benjamin Collinger

President Trump’s May 21 speech in Saudi Arabia returned Islam to its traditional status in U.S. foreign policy: a tool to combat extremism. By greeting leaders from 55 Muslim majority countries with religious language and omitting the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”, the president extended a trend that began in the early 1950s. Yet, instead of enlisting conservative Muslim allies to counter communism as the U.S. did during the cold war, Trump requested (in capital letters) their help fighting the global war on terror:

A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out. DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship. DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities. DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.

Ironically, American cold war strategy toward the Middle East was exactly the opposite; rather than drive extremists out, the United States’ goal was to cultivate earlier versions of extremist groups as a barrier to communist infiltration. American strategists believed that the principles of all religions – which they viewed as inherently antithetical to communism – could advance cold war interests. Since “Islam appears to the Western mind to command an allegiance that results in a large degree of uniformity among its believers,” policymakers on the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) reasoned in 1953, the religion could be exploited to suit U.S. objectives.[i] In this short essay adapted from a longer paper, I will briefly explain the ways in which the U.S. deployed Islam during the cold war and a few parallels to President Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia.

The U.S.-Saudi Arabia Alliance

The United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia helped it deploy Islam as a strategic asset during the cold war. U.S.-Saudi ties began with private sector oil concessions and President Roosevelt’s 1943 declaration that Saudi Arabia fell under the U.S. defense umbrella.[ii] The two countries grew closer via their common ideological and religious principles, which facilitated defense cooperation. After President Eisenhower’s January 1957 proclamation of support for any Middle Eastern government targeted by the “overt aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism,” the alliance drew closer.[iii] Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of the principles Eisenhower described, later called the Eisenhower Doctrine, separated its regime from Egypt just as Gamal ‘Ab al-Nasser moved closer to the Soviets as the Arab cold war deepened. In his memoir, Eisenhower described how his administration explored

the possibilities of building up King Saud as a counterweight to Nasser. The king was a logical choice in this regard; he at least professed anti-Communism, and he enjoyed, on religious grounds, a high standing among all Arab nations.[iv]

Although the perception of Saud’s credibility and Soviet advances were not completely true, a shared disdain for communism catalyzed Eisenhower’s partnership with King Saud.[v] King Saud wrote to the U.S. only 13 days after Eisenhower outlined his doctrine to Congress:

Communism is abhorrent to me. In my country there is not a single Communist and there will not be one, God willing, since communist principles contradict the precepts of Islam and the customs and traditions of my country. It is because of this that we constitute the strongest and most real democratic stronghold opposed to communism and subversive activities in the Middle East.[vi]

King Saud’s explicit rejection of communism was music to policymakers’ ears: the memorandum confirmed the PSB’s analysis about “Islam as a Barrier to Communism.”[vii] As a result, the U.S. was confident in making defense investments to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s location and vast oil reserves. The Dhahran air base provided U.S. forces with airlift capabilities, reconnaissance, combat aircraft, and a link to bases that surrounded the Soviet Union.

As Robert Dreyfuss explained, “It is no exaggeration to say that U.S. strategists realized that the defense of Western Europe was inconceivable without a parallel plan to control the Gulf.”[viii] Since the Saudis did not have to deal with nationalistic and anti-Colonial urban centers suspicious of foreign powers, a stable atmosphere dominated by Islam and friendly to American power prevailed. Immediately after the Saud-Eisenhower summit, the NSC began to compile a list of Middle Eastern and North African religious, social, and cultural groups that the U.S. could target with propaganda.[ix] In return, Saudi Arabia was a key partner in implementing this vision:

The Wahhabi vision went international in the 1960s in response to the threat posed by Arab nationalism and socialism… The Saudi government also developed close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Despite significant differences, they shared [an] antipathy to common enemies – Nasserism, secularism, communism.[x]

As one CIA official summarized, “Saudi efforts to Islamicize the region were seen as powerful and effective and likely to be successful. We loved that. We had an ally against communism.”[xi] The official’s blunt language illuminates the simple and dichotomous way U.S. officials viewed the situation: communism is bad; political Islam is opposed to communism; the U.S. should support political Islam. Such simplifications would later harm U.S. interests, but they created openings for countering common enemies and forming strong military alliances.

Although U.S. officials could not predict the immense downsides to supporting religious or militant groups, a 1954 report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) did just that. CFR argued that supporting Islam as a barrier to communism may create the conditions for anti-Western movements to succeed. The Middle East’s

revulsion against the West, which, while often reinforcing the sense of dedication to Islam, has often created also a sense of identification with whatever theories and political forces were hostile to the West. In the Arab lands and Iran, the anti-Western nationalist movement has had a strong admixture of religious feeling, even fanaticism.[xii]

Not only does the report’s analysis reject the PSB’s belief in Islam as a barrier to communism, it also previews the argument against supporting Islamists; the inherently anti-Western nature of political Islam could prove counterproductive. Nevertheless, supporting forms of political Islam became a central component of U.S. foreign policy during the cold war in the Middle East.

Islam as a Strategic Asset

To support Islamic forces in the Middle East against communism, the U.S. emphasized

the mutual community of principles which exist between the Middle East and the West, including respect for religion, respect for the individual, freedom from state control, respect for private property, and the sanctity of home and family…[and] demonstrate[d] the ‘godlessness’ of the USSR as opposed to the mutual religious principles of the Middle East and the West.[xiii]

In other words, the Middle East was a region ripe for constructive engagement. Such engagement was important for more than just intrinsic reasons; the understanding of communism as antithetical to shared cultural principles could serve the American cold war effort. As a result, policymakers gradually exploited the dichotomy between communism and Islam while providing the American public with the vocabulary – including ‘godlessness’ – to express it. President Trump’s usage of religious language represents a continuation of this strategy.

American intelligence agencies believed that their analysis of Islam and the region could serve as an opening to covert operations. The NSC operationalized the PSB’s analysis by attempting to eliminate

neutralist tendencies by exposing the realities of Soviet life and the…hostile intentions of the USSR toward the [Middle East], and by identifying Soviet Communism as today’s only imperialism and communist atheism as the common enemy of all religions.[xiv]

Identifying communism as the “common enemy of all religions” provided the framework for policymakers to use Islam as a propaganda tool. For example, a 1953 State Department brochure published in Iran featured a mosque on its cover with quotations from the Qur’an, Hafez, Jesus Christ, Isaiah, Mo-Tzu, Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, Abraham Lincoln, and Ghandi. Ahmed Khaled al-Rawi explained that the propaganda’s aimed to demonstrate

that all the religions and sublime ideological and philosophical doctrines of the world were similar because they preached the same morality, which was contrasted with the supposedly immoral and debased ideology of communism.[xv]

Feeling that such appeals to morality were persuasive, policymakers were optimistic about “Islam’s willingness to meet the challenge of Communism” especially because of the retrenchment of religious leaders back to orthodoxy in the face of modernization.[xvi] To capitalize on such retrenchment, U.S. intelligence services used Islam

in the Arab countries but also…[in] other parts of the Islamic world. Surprising though it may seem today, given the demonization of radical, militant political Islam in American public discourse, for decades the United States was in some respects the major patron of earlier incarnations of just these extreme trends, for reasons linked to the perceived need to use any and all means to wage the cold war.[xvii]

Such activities took place across the Middle East and even within the U.S. As mentioned above, the State Department issued brochures in Iraq to demonstrate the comity between people of faith and their inherent opposition to communism. A similar strategy – intended to play upon emotion – occurred with Voice of America broadcasts to Muslims in Iran about the dangers of communism.[xviii] Such broadcasts were not new to U.S. intelligence agencies. Under a CIA project immediately after World War II that worked to liberate the Soviet Union from communism, the U.S. employed Muslims at Radio Liberty in Munich to appeal to Muslims within the Soviet Union.[xix] Ian Johnson explained the CIA’s reasoning:

In the media age all that mattered was to have a spokesperson who could attend the Hajj or a conference, declare himself a Muslim leader from the West, take up the freedoms back home, and criticize Soviet repression.[xx]

The U.S. would pursue a similar tact in the Middle East. For example, Dean Acheson and Kermit Roosevelt wanted to promote a “Moslem Billy Graham” to “mobilize religious fervor in a great move against communism and actually got as far as selecting a wild-eyed Iraqi holy man to send on a tour of Arab countries.”[xxi] As the “Moslem Billy Graham” example indicates, policymakers did not always conduct “psychological operations” with “appropriate and careful consideration to the basic cultural, social and psychological factors of the area.”[xxii] Since their knowledge of Islam was slim, U.S. intelligence agencies often failed to account for differences within Islam.  As Ahmed Khalid al-Rawi noted, “The U.S. propaganda interest in Islam was manifested in different ways, but there was no indication to suggest that the USIA [U.S. Information Agency] directed some programs exclusively at Sunnis and others at Shiites.”[xxiii] Given the sweeping claims the PSB and other policymakers made about Islam, the intelligence agencies’ disregard for nuance is not surprising.

Charles D. Jackson, an expert on psychological warfare, identified appeals to emotion as the main objective of American propaganda efforts in the Arab world: “All our speeches and proposals are made as if we are talking to Anglo-Saxons. They are based on reason with no emotion. The Arabs don’t give a damn about that.”[xxiv] Jackson’s reasoning highlights the explicitly orientalist conceptions that structured U.S. propaganda efforts. His statement that “the Arabs don’t give a damn” about reason mirrors the system of knowledge that Edward Said critiques:

The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal.”…the Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organized world of his own, a world with its own national, cultural, and epistemological boundaries and principles of internal coherence.[xxv]

Jackson blatantly appeals to the dichotomy Said describes by portraying Arabs as irrational and Anglo-Saxons as the opposite. His sweeping statement was built upon the conception that the Arab world is broadly homogeneous and subordinate to the West. A similar system of knowledge seems to structure President Trump’s view of Islam, and it is no surprise that anti-Muslim sentiment has risen with him.

Forging a Consensus

The U.S. foreign policy establishment’s view of Middle Eastern countries and their citizens came in part from academia. In fact, a propaganda branch of the State Department paid for a conference at Princeton University in 1953.[xxvi] The “Colloquium on Islamic Culture” featured hand-picked speakers from across the Arab world and American academics friendly to U.S. policies. The goal: forge an academic, religious and political consensus on Islam’s role in the struggle against communism. Perhaps the modern day parallel is the new “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” which President Trump inaugurated in Saudi Arabia, intended to forge a consensus against terrorism. But rather than inviting members of the Muslim Brotherhood to engage intellectually as the U.S. did in Princeton, President Trump in Saudi Arabia this week spoke against mobilizing religious fervor. At the conference in 1953, Pakistani scholar Mazheruddin Siddiqi, a fellow at the Institute of Islamic Culture in Lahore, confirmed policymakers’ thesis that Islam could contain communism. His view mirrored the PSB report’s argument that the public’s shift in thinking away from theology makes the Middle East vulnerable to communist influence. Siddiqi also attacked secularists as the greatest danger to the region’s stability:

It is the socio-economic significance of Islam that makes it a standing barrier against Communism. The Muslim masses are attached to the Islamic idea, just because it offers them the promise of social and economic equality and freedom of expression. If any attempt is made to deny the socio-economic content of Islamic teachings, Communism is sure to rush into the vacuum that would be created.[xxvii]

In other words, if Islam cedes its exclusive claim to the promise of social and economic equality that holds the Muslim world together, the Middle East will become a “spiritual vacuum” vulnerable to communist infiltration. Siddiqi’s opinion – that secular movements leave a vacuum for communism – reflects the same logic that the State Department used to justify their view that secular nationalism was inherently threatening. Thus, his speech confirmed U.S. officials’ judgement and likely empowered them to “eliminate neutralist tendencies” in the fight against communism.[xxviii] It was precisely this dichotomized thinking that led U.S. officials to support extremely conservative religious regimes, and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 to transform Egypt into an Islamic state.[xxix] The group began demonstrating its usefulness to U.S. objectives when one of its members fired eight shots at Egyptian President Gamal ‘Ab al-Nasser in October 1954. Although the assassination attempt failed, it marked a turning point in the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in U.S. strategy against Nasser and communism in the Middle East. As Robert Baer, a former CIA covert operations specialist, explained, Washington viewed Nasser as a communist after his efforts to nationalize industry. Because of such consensus, the CIA endorsed covert action against Nasser, even if it was rarely directly involved on the record:

Like any other truly effective covert action, this one was strictly off the books. There was no CIA finding, no memorandum notification to Congress. Not a penny came out of the Treasury to fund it. In other words, no record. All the White House had to do was give a wink and a nod to countries harboring the Muslim Brothers, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.[xxx]

It is difficult to investigate U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood or related organizations without extensive connections to CIA operatives since much was off the record. But U.S. support for radical trends vis-à-vis its support for Saudi Arabia – such as the formation of the Muslim World League, the country’s shelter to and financing of the Muslim Brotherhood – entangled the U.S. substantially.[xxxi]

Although concrete evidence of such activities is scant, many documents generally outline the amount of money allocated to “information activities” in the Middle East during the 1950s. Such spending, while not a clear indicator of action to support specific groups, notes where covert operations and propaganda were most likely focused. A 1954 NSC document indicates that the U.S. spent $1.6 million from 1952 to 1953 on “information activities” in Egypt (Egypt’s revolution occurred in 1952), and planned to increase spending by $200,000 per year through 1957. “Information activities” during the same period were $1 million lower in Iraq despite the United States’ “campaign of truth” in that country; the annual total in Iraq would remain the same or decline through 1957.[xxxii] In comparison, the U.S. spent only $100,000 on “information activities” in both Saudi Arabia and Jordan – the conservative Arab regimes – between 1952 and 1953. Thus, countries perceived as vulnerable to communism were the clear focal point of U.S. containment policy and directed numerous actions and alliances.

The United States’ alliance with Saudi Arabia and other monarchies would not exist in their current form without U.S. officials’ interest in using Islam as a barrier to communism during the cold war. Through its alliance with Saudi Arabia and covert actions, the U.S. foreign policy establishment supported the earlier incarnations of Islamic extremism. Such actions foreshadowed American support for the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan a decade later while indirectly building the ideological foundation and financial support for the terrorist groups of the 21st century.

Had the U.S. not been so hostile to Arab nationalism and removed itself from religious disputes, movements for democracy might have developed in those conservative countries. Instead, the U.S. wielded Islam as a tool that abetted repression in the Middle East due to the paranoia of the cold war. Today, the Trump administration must examine whether seemingly unconditional alliances with countries who have abhorrent human rights records – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey among them – is prudent.

The U.S. risks repeating the same mistakes it made during the cold war. Just as the repression of communism at home and abroad was destabilizing, the war on terror will strengthen state security apparatuses at the expense of free expression. Abetting draconian regimes and omitting human rights considerations from foreign policy will generate more extremism than it eliminates. As President Carter noted in 1977, “a foreign policy that is democratic [and] based on fundamental values” is not mutually exclusive with one “that uses power and influence”.[xxxiii] President Trump should consider a realpolitik that positions human rights and democracy promotion as strategic assets and necessities for U.S foreign policy. In light of how U.S. policy catalyzed the early versions of terrorism, he would do well to learn the lessons of the cold war.

Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Executive Director of The Contemporary

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The photo above is in the public domain.

[i] Psychological Strategy Board, “Psychological strategy program for the Middle East outlined,” (February 6, 1953 U.S. Declassified Documents Online, accessed April 15, 2017), 50.

[ii] Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States helped unleash Fundamentalist Islam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005), 67.

[iii] Rashid Khalidi, “The Superpowers and the Cold War in the Middle East,” in The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics, and Ideologies, ed. David W. Lesch and Mark L. Haas (Boulder: Westview Press, 2014), 160.

[iv] Dwight Eisenhower, The White House Years, Vol. II: Waging Peace (London: Heinemann, 1965), 115-116.

[v] Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 121.

[vi] King Saud, “Memorandum from King Saud to H.E. President Eisenhower on his views concerning Saudi Arabian Relations with the U.S.A. and affairs of the Middle East.” (January 18, 1957, U.S. Declassified Documents Online, Available from:, 15-16.

[vii] “Psychological strategy program for the Middle East outlined,” 50.

[viii] Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 10.

[ix] Nathan J. Citino, From Arab Nationalism to OPEC: Eisenhower, King Saud and the Making of U.S.-Saudi Relations (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 95.

[x] John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-108

[xi] Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 125.

[xii] John C. Campbell, The Defense of the Middle East (New York: Frederick C. Praeger, 1960), 299.

[xiii] Ibid, 4.

[xiv] National Security Council, “United States objectives and policies with respect to the Near East,” 5428 (July 24, 1954, Digital National Security Archive, Available from: Accessed March 5, 2017), 42.

[xv] Ahmed Khalid al-Rawi, “The Campaign of Truth Program: U.S. Propaganda in Iraq during the Early 1950s,” in Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspective, ed. Philip Muehlenbeck (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press), 127.

[xvi] “Psychological strategy program for the Middle East outlined,” 51.

[xvii] Khalidi, “The Superpowers,” 163.

[xviii] Al-Rawi, “The Campaign of Truth,” 127.

[xix] Ian Johnson, A mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 51.

[xx] Johnson, A mosque in Munich, 78.

[xxi] Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 87.

[xxii] “Psychological strategy program for the Middle East outlined,” 3.

[xxiii] Al-Rawi, “The Campaign of Truth,” 126.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1977), 40.

[xxvi] Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 75.

[xxvii] Jefferson Cafferty, “Colloquium on Islamic Culture and Saeed Ramadhan.” U.S. Department of State. 27 July 1953, 86-89.

[xxviii] National Security Council, “United States objectives and policies with respect to the Near East,” 5428. (July 23, 1954, Digital National Security Archive, Available from: Accessed February 4, 2017), 42.

[xxix] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 16.

[xxx] Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003), 99.

[xxxi] Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 132.

[xxxii] “United States objectives and policies with respect to the Near East,” 18.

[xxxiii] Jimmy Carter, “Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame,” May 22, 1977. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

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