Muslims arrive to attend the Friday prayer at al-Azhar University, a historic center of Islamic learning, in Cairo. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

By directly entering a confrontation with the Islamic State group, the U.S. leadership and foreign policy community correctly sense that what is at stake is not merely a military confrontation but also one that has ideological and even religious dimensions. They are, however, particularly ill-equipped to understand, much less participate in, the non-military aspects of the struggle. And the consequences may not only be misunderstanding but, more troubling, a return to the pattern of opportunistic alignments with autocrats that served U.S. policy well in the short term at tremendous long-term cost.

To be fair, the U.S. foreign policy community can learn quickly. Washington is full of smart and experienced people. A decade or two ago, there was impressive expertise in the city on matters of security and political economy in the Arab world: Washington talk could share much about the personalities of Arab leaders, the capabilities of Arab militaries and the structures of the public sectors in Arab economies. But there was often precious little knowledge about domestic politics in many Arab states because there seemed to be so little politics of interest. Those domestic political forces that could be detected in Washington seemed not to be of tremendous power or significance. That lack of interest and knowledge gradually eroded over the past 10 years, and Washington regional experts began to move beyond naïve and selective but enthusiastic quotations from the Arab Human Development Report to far more sophisticated discussions about the electoral capabilities of Islamists and the organizational presence and cohesion of anti-Islamist forces.

The war against Islamic State militants might impose another long, hard study session. Already there are signs of naïve enthusiasm – a recent op-ed in the New York Times lumping a bewildering array of Sunni and Shiite political forces on one side while positing Saudi Arabia as part of an anti-Islamist coalition on the other, or State Department officials depending on Egypt’s al-Azhar University and the Saudi mufti to dissuade would-be jihadis from the path of the Islamic State. To the extent these comments registered in the region, they sparked utter bafflement. Saudi Arabia is seen, quite rightly, as a very deep-pocketed sponsor of some religious trends; statements by Ahmed el-Tayeb, the sheikh of al-Azhar, such as those referred to by U.S. officials, are likely to be ignored or derided by the Islamic State’s audience if they even notice them.

Washington insiders who wish to avoid such ill-advised analysis and policy pronouncements will not find an easy path to greater sophistication. It is not as easy as holing up for a weekend with a few books on Islam. Three factors make the Arab world very confusing turf today for those working to understand the religious and ideological struggles in the region.

First, political fault lines do not always coincide with the religious ones. One could listen to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a populist pro-Muslim Brotherhood firebrand in Qatar, and mistake him for a religious leader associated with the post-coup order in Egypt when both talk the exact same way about wasatiyya (centrism). Both similarly hold forth about fiqh al-awwaliyyat (the jurisprudence of priorities, suggesting that the extreme literalism of Salafi approaches gets tied up in minutiae and misses the underlying ethical sensibilities of Islamic law). But when Qaradawi and the same Egyptian official enter the political realm, they sound less like identical twins but instead use insulting language more appropriate for expressing road rage. The transformation comes largely from their conflicting evaluations of recent political events. The Saudi religious establishment shares some doctrinal overlap with some of the more radical Sunni groups in the region but ultimately has become a pillar of support for the Saudi state. The U.S. habit of defining as “moderate” any individual or political force who seems to have positions consistent with U.S. foreign policy priorities of the moment – a habit that many officials kicked some years ago – seems suddenly to have sprung back. But it provides a particularly poor key to understanding the region.

Second, various religious authorities in the region, even when they are competing against each other, do so on different playing fields. Those in the foreign policy community seeking to understand religion and politics in the Arab world need to follow a dizzying array of debates. Some of the most influential leaders are more media personalities than heads of organizations or venerated institutions; they communicate by call-in programs, tweets, Facebook posts, and public rallies. These “new preachers,” as they are sometimes called, are all over the political map (and some stay off the map completely by avoiding political topics). Other respected authorities argue more through traditional tools of learned treatises or well-reasoned fatwas. The Muslim Brotherhood makes its influence felt through social presence and disciplined organizations. Salafis gather around venerated teachers, focusing on close textual study and attempting to discover correct religious practice. And some actors speak primarily through action ­– with forms of action varying tremendously from charity work to spectacular violence. There is no single public square in the Arab world but a whole host of arenas of contest and argument, many of which are difficult to follow.

Third, authority does not easily move from one realm to another. El-Tayeb, for instance, is a learned and cosmopolitan figure; he is a cultured interlocutor interested in dialogue and horrified by extremism. But as the leader of al-Azhar, he also is head of a powerful institution in the Egyptian state and somewhat controversial within that institution (not so much because he represents centrist religious tendencies but because he is seen as imposing centralization and control). Fairly or not, he is identified outside of Egypt (and sometimes inside of it) as very close to the regime. To expect him to persuade disgruntled youth in Syria of the error of the Islamic State’s ways would be about as promising a technique as it would have been to fly the Archbishop of Canterbury to Waco, Tex. to lecture the Branch Davidians.

And indeed, to the extent the conflicts afflicting the Arab world are religious in nature, even learned U.S. officials are unlikely to be very successful in assembling coalitions of the willing. There is every reason for officials and pundits to educate themselves but very little that they can do to participate directly in these struggles.

This is not a counsel of despair, however. The grievances that are very widespread in Arab societies – about a political order that is perceived to be unjust at the domestic and international levels; about the way that political power is used in a manner that seems utterly unaccountable; about the securitization of political disputes – are very real and have produced both the political upheavals of 2011 as well as the environment in which groups can take political, social and economic grievances and render them into a religious language. Over the past decade, the U.S. policy community has come to a more sophisticated understanding of those underlying problems. It is time to draw on that understanding now.

The approach of aligning with authoritarian regimes and the religious establishments that are associated with them is a do-able diplomatic task. Over the long run, however, it may simply worsen the underlying disease.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of “When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012).