Islam and power
Thursday, February 9,2006 00:00

GEORGE W. Bush is not a man for second thoughts, but even he might have had some recently. Ever since 9/11, Bush has made the promotion of democracy in the Middle East the centrepiece of his foreign policy, and doggedly pushed the issue. Over the last few months, however, this approach has borne strange fruit, culminating in Hamas’s victory in Gaza and the West Bank.

Before that, we have watched it strengthen Hizbullah in Lebanon, which (like Hamas) is often described in the West as a terrorist organisation. In Iraq, the policy has brought into office conservative religious parties with their own private militias. In Egypt, it has bolstered the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the oldest fundamentalist organisations in the Arab world, from which Al Qaeda descends. "Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbours, and join the fight against terror," Bush said last week in his State of the Union address. But is this true of the people coming to power in the Arab world today?

This is an issue that deserves serious thought, well beyond pointing to the awkwardness of Bush’s position. Bush’s prescription is, after all, one accepted by many governments: it is also European policy to push for democratic reform in the Middle East. And in fact, little has happened over the last few months that makes the case for continued support of Muslim dictatorships. But recent events do powerfully suggest that if we don’t better understand the history, culture and politics of the countries that we are ‘reforming’, we will be in for an extremely rocky ride.

There is a tension in the Islamic world between the desire for democracy and a respect for liberty. This is most apparent in the ongoing fury over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a small Danish newspaper. The cartoons were offensive and needlessly provocative. Had the paper published racist caricatures of other peoples or religions, it would also have been roundly condemned and perhaps boycotted. But the cartoonist and editors would not have feared for their lives. It is the violence of the response in some parts of the Muslim world that suggests a rejection of the ideas of tolerance and freedom of expression that are at the heart of modern Western societies.

Why are all these strains rising now? Islamic fundamentalism was supposed to be on the wane. Five years ago, the best scholars of the phenomenon were writing books with titles like ‘The Failure of Political Islam’. Observers pointed to the exhaustion of the Iranian revolution, the ebbing of support for radical groups from Algeria to Egypt to Saudi Arabia. And yet, one sees political Islam on the march across the Middle East today. Were we all wrong?

There are those who argue that the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the war on terror, and the bloodshed in Afghanistan and Iraq have all contributed to the idea that Islam is under siege — providing radicals with fresh ammunition. This is not, however, a wholly convincing case. For one thing, opposition to the Iraq war is not a radical phenomenon in the Middle East, but rather an utterly mainstream one. Almost every government opposed it. Moreover, the rise and fall of Islamic fundamentalism was a broad and deep phenomenon, born over decades. It could hardly reverse itself on the basis of a year’s news.

The political Islamist movement has changed over the last 15 years. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Islamic fundamentalists had revolutionary aims. They sought the violent overthrow of Western-allied regimes to have them replaced with Islamic states. This desire for Islamic states and not Western-style democracies was at the core of their message. Often transnational in their objectives, they spoke in global terms. But it turned out that the appeal of this ideology was limited. People in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and countless other places rejected it; in fact, they grudgingly accepted the dictatorships they lived under rather than support violent extremism. In this sense, political Islam did fail.

But over time, many of the Islamists recognised this reality and began changing their programme. They came to realise that shorn of violent overthrow, revolution and social chaos, their ideas could actually gain considerable popular support. So, they reinvented themselves, emphasising not revolutionary overthrow, but peaceful change, not transnational ideology, but national reform. They were still protesting the dictators, but now they organised demonstrations in favour of democracy and honest politics.

There were extremist elements, of course, still holding true to the cause of the caliphate, and they broke off to create separate groups like Al Qaeda. But it is notable that well before 9/11, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood condemned terrorism directed against the Mubarak regime, and it recently distanced itself even from the tactics of the Iraqi insurgency. For its part, not only did Hamas decide to participate in the elections, but it campaigned almost entirely on a platform of anti-corruption, social services, and assertive nationalism. Only Al Qaeda and its ilk have condemned any participation in elections.

This coming to terms with democracy, however, should not be mistaken for a coming to terms with Western values such as liberalism, tolerance and freedom. The programme that most of these groups espouse is deeply illiberal, involving the reversal of women’s rights, second-class citizenship for minorities, and confrontation with the West and Israel.

Some of these forces have gained strength because of a lack of other alternatives. For decades, the Middle East has been a political desert. In Iraq, the reason that there are no countervailing liberal parties is that Saddam Hussein destroyed them. He could not completely crush mosque-based groups and, by the end of his reign, he actually used them to shore up his own legitimacy. In much of the Muslim world, Islam became the language of political opposition, because it was the only language that could not be censored. This pattern, of dictators using religious groups to destroy the secular opposition, played itself out in virtually every Arab country, and often beyond. It was the method by which Pakistan’s Gen. Zia ul-Haq maintained his own dictatorship in the 1980s, creating a far stronger fundamentalist movement than that country had ever known.

The broader reason for the rise of Islamic politics has been the failure of secular politics. Secularism exists in the Middle East. Arabs believe that they have tried Western-style politics and it has brought them tyranny and stagnation. Islamic fundamentalism plays deeply to these feelings. It evokes authenticity, pride, cultural assertiveness, and defiance. These ideas have been powerful sources of national identity throughout history and remain so, especially in an age of globalised economics and American power. In face of the powerlessness, alienation and confusion that the modern world breeds, these groups say simply, ‘Islam is the solution’.

Inevitably, we have to ask ourselves what to do about these movements that are rising to power. The first task is surely to understand them — understand that they thrive on pride and a search for authenticity. These forces play themselves out in complex ways.

Elections have not created political Islam in the Middle East. They have codified a reality that existed anyway. Hamas was already a major player to be reckoned with in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood is popular in Egypt, whether or not Hosni Mubarak holds real elections. In fact, the more they are suppressed, the greater their appeal. If politics is more open, these groups may or may not moderate themselves, but they will surely lose some of that mystical allure they now have. The martyrs will become mayors, which is quite a fall in status.

But to accept these forces is not to celebrate them. It is important that religious intolerance and anti-modern attitudes not be treated as cultural variations that must be respected. Recent months have only highlighted that promoting democracy and promoting liberty in the Middle East are separate projects. Both have their place. But the latter is the more difficult and more important task. And unless we succeed at it, we will achieve a series of nasty democratic outcomes, as we are beginning to in so many of these places.

This fight is not one the fundamentalists are destined to win. The forces of liberalism have been stymied in the Middle East for decades. They need help. Above all, the forces of moderation thrive in an atmosphere of success. Two Muslim societies in which there is little extremism are Turkey and Malaysia. Both are open politically and thriving economically. Compare Pakistan today — growing at eight per cent a year — with General Zia’s country, and you can see why, for all the noise, fundamentalism there is waning. If you are comfortable with the modern world, you are less likely to want to blow it up.

There are better and worse ways to handle radical Islam. We should not feed the fury that helps them win adherents. The Bush administration’s arrogance has been a great boon to the nastiest groups in the Middle East, which are seen as the only ones who can stand up to the imperial bully. But give Bush his due. He has correctly and powerfully argued that blind assistance to the dictatorships of the Middle East was a policy that was producing repression and instability. But he has not yet found a way to genuinely assist in the promotion of political, economic and social reforms in the region.  We have stopped partnering with repressive Middle Eastern regimes, but we have not yet managed to forge a real partnership with Middle Eastern societies.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. Write to him at [email protected]