According to an April 2 report published by Intelligence Online, for some months now, Washington has been putting out feelers to various Islamic activists who spearhead the opposition to the Syrian regime.  According to this source, American diplomats are also cultivating contacts in Qatar with TV preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “with whom they frequently discuss the Syrian question.”  The Americans are said to be supported in this endeavor by the British, as evidenced by the Blair government’s approval of the sheikh’s visit to London last July.  “The Americans are counting on Qaradawi to help them bring together the moderate elements of the Moslem Brotherhood in Syria,” the report concludes, while the Saudi and Jordanian governments prefer to see a Sunni regime come to power in Syria as a counter to the growing Shiite influence in Iraq and Lebanon.

The veracity of this report needs to be confirmed, but, as Leon Hadar points out, “it doesn’t sound crazy if you take into consideration the current U.S. alliance with the pro-Iran Shiite fundamentalist parties in Iraq.”  The Iraqi scenario entailed replacing an unpleasant secularist autocrat with Ayatollah Sistani’s people.  And, to bring down Bashar al-Assad—another secularist autocrat who presents no threat to America—we are now cultivating some allegedly “moderate elements” of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I do not know whether to laugh or to cry.  Any Islamist alternative to Assad would certainly prove far more detrimental to American interests than the status quo.  Furthermore, today’s Syria presents a diplomatic realist with many creative possibilities.  Assad and the old guard he has inherited are nervous and keen to make a deal with Washington if they are left in peace.  They have removed most of their soldiers from Lebanon, and the eventual completion of that withdrawal is not in doubt.  They have signaled repeatedly that they are ready for concessions, most recently when Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer came to Damascus on April 13.  It is rumored that they may even accept a peace treaty with Israel and let her keep some parts of Golan “on lease,” if Syria is removed from Mr. Bush’s list of rogue states.  Syrian diplomats point out that their country has never been guilty of a terrorist outrage comparable to Lockerbie, and yet Libya’s Qaddafi—having done his penance—has been allowed back into polite society.

In the last years of his father’s life, Assad had emerged as an advocate of modernization and economic reform.  After coming to power in June 2000, he has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the first independent newspapers for more than three decades to begin publishing.  Syria’s economy is being opened up, with plans for private banks for the first time in decades.  In brief, Syria seems much better poised for the sort of domestic transformation that would be in line with Mr. Bush’s vision of a democratic Middle East than, say, Saudi Arabia is.

By contrast, the quest for a “moderate” variety of the Muslim Brotherhood is absurd.  The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization based on a simple credo: Allah is our objective.  The Prophet is our leader.  The Koran is our law.  Jihad is our way.  Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.  It was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher nurtured on Wahhabism, as an Islamic revivalist movement that opposed the ascendancy of secular and Western ideas in the Middle East.  The Brotherhood advocated a return to integral Islam as a solution to the ills that had befallen Muslim societies; this program was embodied in the Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimoon.  It blamed the Egyptian government for being too soft on Israel and started performing terrorist acts in Egypt, which led to a ban on its activities.  An Ikhwani tried to assassinate Egyptian President Nasser in 1954, and four others succeeded in killing Anwar al-Sadat in September 1981.

Today, the Brotherhood has branches in every traditionally Muslim country and all over the world, including the United States.  Some minor regional differences notwithstanding, they all share the same long-term goal: the establishment of a worldwide Islamic state.  They all believe that the Koran justifies violence to overthrow un-Islamic governments, and they all call for the destruction of Israel and see America as a sworn enemy.

Al-Qaradawi, far from being a “moderate,” is a mainstream Brother.  His Ikhwani affiliations led to his imprisonment in Egypt in 1949, then in 1954-56, and again in 1962.  For some years, Al-Qaradawi has been a media superstar in the Arab world, thanks mainly to his regular program Al-Shariaa wa Al-Haya (Islamic Law and Life) on Al Jazeera.  His comments on social, political, moral, and sexual issues enjoy a popularity and authority that could be replicated here only by blending Oprah and Billy Graham.  His call for Muslims to fight Americans (whether troops or civilians) in Iraq—because they are occupiers and fighting them is a religious duty—carries special weight.

During the Cold War, Washington routinely pandered to various Islamists as a means of weakening secular Arab nationalist regimes.  In the mid 1950’s, the White House even promoted the idea of forming an Islamic bloc, led by Saudi Arabia, to counter Nasserism.  To his peril, Sadat freed dozens of Ikhwanis to help him deal with opposition in his own ranks (and, in that same period, Israel backed Islamists, including Hamas in the West Bank, to challenge Arafat and the PLO).

Such policies reflect either an impressive degree of stupidity or a naiveté not normally associated with the policymaking community.  To any sane person, the lesson of American involvement in Afghanistan after 1979 should have been that militant Islam cannot be turned into a tool of policy.  Blowback is the apt metaphor: The strategy of effective support for Islamic ambitions in pursuit of short-term political or military objectives of the United States has helped turn Islamic radicalism into a truly global phenomenon detrimental to U.S. ideals and interests.

If those brilliant minds advocating Chechnya’s independence, Bosnia’s centralization under Izetbegovic’s heirs, Kosovo’s “sovereignty” under the KLA, and Al-Qaradawi’s disciples at the helm in Damascus are neither idiots nor innocents, the only reasonable conclusion is that they want to create new hotbeds of Islamic radicalism in order to justify their quest for global hegemony and hasten the destruction of Christianity.