In the fall of 1953, the Oval Office was the stage for a peculiar encounter between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a young Middle-Eastern firebrand. In the muted black-and-white photograph recording the event, the grandfatherly, balding Ike, then 62, stands gray-suited, erect, his elbows bent and his fists clenched as if to add muscle to some forceful point. To his left is an olive-skinned Egyptian in a dark suit with a neatly trimmed beard and closely cropped hair, clutching a sheaf of papers behind his back, staring intently at the president. He is just 27 years old, but he already has more than a decade of experience deep inside the violent and passionate world of militant Islam, from Cairo to Amman to Karachi. Alongside him are members of a delegation of scholars, mullahs, and activists from India, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, some dressed in suits, others wearing robes and shawls.
The president's visitor that September day was Said Ramadan, a key official and ideologue of a secretive, underground fraternity of Islamic fundamentalists known as the Muslim Brotherhood. As he stood at the president's side, Ramadan appeared respectable, a welcome guest if not a fellow statesman.
Officially, Ramadan was in the United States to attend a colloquium on Islamic culture at Princeton University, cosponsored by the Library of Congress. It was an august event, held with much pomp and circumstance in Princeton's Nassau Hall. Delegates sat neatly arrayed in stiff-backed pews in the high-ceilinged Faculty Room and attended lavish luncheons, receptions, and garden parties in the shade of bright fall foliage.
According to the published proceedings, the conference was the fortuitous result of the fact that a number of celebrated personages from the Middle East were visiting the country. "During the summer of 1953 there happened to be an unusually large number of distinguished Muslim scholars in the United States," the document notes. But the participants didn't just "happen" to have crossed the Atlantic. The colloquium was organized by the U.S. government, which funded it, tapped participants it considered useful or promising, and bundled them off to New Jersey. Conference organizers had visited Cairo, Bahrain, Baghdad, Beirut, New Delhi, and other cities to scout for participants. Footing the billto the tune of $25,000, plus additional expenses for transporting attendees from the Middle Eastwas the International Information Administration (IIA), a branch of the State Department that had its roots in the U.S. intelligence community; supplementary funding was sought from U.S. airlines and from Aramco, the U.S. oil consortium in Saudi Arabia. Like many of the participants, Ramadan, a hard-edged ideologue and not a scholar, was visiting the conference as an all-expenses-paid guest.
A now-declassified IIA document labeled "ConfidentialSecurity Information" sums up the purpose of the project: "On the surface, the conference looks like an exercise in pure learning. This in effect is the impression desired." The true goal, the memo notes, was to "bring together persons exerting great influence in formulating Muslim opinion in fields such as education, science, law and philosophy and inevitably, therefore, on politics
. Among the various results expected from the colloquium are the impetus and direction that may be given to the Renaissance movement within Islam itself." At the time, the United States was just beginning to feel its way around the Middle East, and American orientalists and academics were debating the extent to which political Islam might serve as a tool for American influence in the region.
For an organization established as a secret society, with a paramilitary arm that was responsible for assassinations and violence, to be characterized as a harbinger of a rebirth of Islam may seem odd. But such a view was entirely in character with U.S. policy at a time when virtually anyone who opposed communism was viewed as a potential ally. Whenever I interviewed CIA and State Department officials who served in the Middle East between World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union, they would repeat, almost like a catechism, that Islam was seen as a barrier both to Soviet expansion and to the spread of Marxist ideology among the masses. "We thought of Islam as a counterweight to communism," says Talcott Seelye, an American diplomat who, while serving in Jordan in the early 1950s, paid a visit to Said Ramadan. "We saw it as a moderate force, and a positive one." Indeed, adds Hermann Eilts, another veteran U.S. diplomat who was stationed in Saudi Arabia in the late '40s, American officials in Cairo had "regular meetings" with Ramadan's then-boss, Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna, "and found him perfectly empathetic."
Over the four decades after Ramadan's visit to the Oval Office, the Muslim Brotherhood would become the organizational sponsor for generation after generation of Islamist groups from Saudi Arabia to Syria, Geneva to Lahoreand Ramadan, its chief international organizer, would turn up, Zeliglike, as an operative in virtually every manifestation of radical political Islam. The hardcore Islamists of Pakistan (see "Among the Allies," page 44), whose acolytes created the Taliban in Afghanistan and who have provided succor to Al Qaeda since the 1990s, modeled their organization on the Brotherhood. The regime of the ayatollahs in Iran grew out of a secret society called the Devotees of Islam, a Brotherhood affiliate whose leader in the 1950s was the mentor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization, began as an official branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The radical-right Egyptian Islamic Jihad and allied groups, whose members assassinated President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981 and which merged with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda in the 1990s, grew out of the Brotherhood in the 1970s. And some of the Afghan leaders who spearheaded the anti-Soviet jihad that was run by the CIA in the 1980s, and who helped bin Laden build the network of "Arab Afghans" that was Al Qaeda's forerunner, were Brotherhood members.
It's no exaggeration to say that Ramadan is the ideological grandfather of Osama bin Laden. But Ramadan, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their Islamist allies might never have been able to plant the seeds that sprouted into Al Qaeda had they not been treated as U.S. allies during the Cold War and had they not received both overt and covert support from Washington; Ramadan himself, documents suggest, was recruited as an asset by the CIA.
The United States and its partners in nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan didn't create radical political Islam, whose theological forebears in the Middle East can be traced back to the eighth century. But consider, for a moment, an analogy with a movement closer to home. In America, Christian fundamentalism dates back at least to the 1840s, and right-wing evangelicals were an inchoate force throughout the 20th century. Yet until the emergence of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and such leaders as Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and Pat Robertson in the late 1970s, the religious right had no true political leaders and very little real-world impact. Similarly, the Islamic right did not arise as a true political movement until the emergence of Banna, Ramadan, and their co-thinkers. By tolerating, and in some cases aiding, the development of these early activists, the United States helped give radical Islamism the structure and leadership that turned it into a global political hurricane.