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November 02, 2005

The Need for a Coherent Policy Toward Political Islam
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush administration continues to exhibit a marked unwillingness to put real pressure on Egypt (and other friendly autocratic regimes in the region). For example, in May when thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, were arrested, the State Department stayed quiet. Not surprisingly, our silence was cited in Arab capitals as yet more proof of American hypocrisy.  In June, Condoleezza Rice gave a much-hyped policy speech at the American University in Cairo, where she stressed the need for international monitors and spoke eloquently of the day when an “independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.” In the end, though, it was more of the same – strong words, nice rhetoric, and no follow up.

Unfortunately, with only 7 days until the start of Egypt’s crucial parliamentary elections, the US continues to take a hands-off wait-and-see approach. If we have the political will to invade a country and embark on a long-term project of democratic engineering, the least we could have done with Egypt is dispatch an army of election observers to embarrass the regime into playing fair with the ballot boxes. We didn’t. Which leads us to the most important question – what explains the US hesitation to put its money where its mouth when it comes to democracy promotion ?

Democracy in the Arab world provides US policymakers with a confounding dilemma, one yet to be resolved. If there were in fact truly free and fair elections in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria, Islamists would stand a good chance of winning a plurality, perhaps even a majority of the vote (in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front already has a plurality in parliament). The prospect of an Islamist victory at the polls – especially in strategically vital countries like Egypt – has always made American policymakers a bit nervous about the prospect of Arab democracy. So instead of allowing the Arab people to make their own choices, we opt for the “safer” route – managed democracy, façade democracy, sham democracy, no democracy. And the world plays along with the charade because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Of course, the “safe” route has contributed to a toxic political environment in the region, conducive to the rise of religious extremism, rabid anti-Americanism, and terrorism.

With all that said, there is good reason to believe that the Bush administration is genuine in its desire to spread democracy in the Arab world. But there are many in the administration whose fear of Islamists coming to power overwhelms their desire to encourage real democratic reform in the region. This helps explain why President Bush has failed to back up his lofty rhetoric with substantial policy changes on the ground.

The key then is demystifying political Islam. For starters, this means engaging in a productive dialogue with Islamists, but only with those who have unequivocally renounced violence and committed themselves to the democratic process. Once we begin to better understand who the mainstream Islamists are, what they want, and what they believe on issues that are vital to American national security, only then can we confidently move forward with a long-term vision of political development in the Arab world. In other words, we cannot have an effective democracy promotion policy without first having a coherent policy toward political Islam.


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With all that said, there is good reason to believe that the Bush administration is genuine in its desire to spread democracy in the Arab world.

This is the same kind of thinking that led the liberal hawks to imagine that Bush would fight the war in Iraq the way they wanted.

Where is the evidence that Bush shares your goals? Bush has called Pakistan a democracy several times. His 1st choice to run Iraq was a convicted embezzler. His second candidate, Alawi, was a Baathist thug. (Sy Hersh claims we tried to rig the vote for Allawi). Today Chhalabi is back in Bush's good graces and this crook and his friends are in charge of Iraq's finances.

Please, please, please stop this wishful thinking! Many of the people in the Bush administration and the military are racists, and have no interest in a productive dialogue with Islamists. These are people who don't even want to talk to Democrats.

Absolutely brilliant. This is the crux of the problem with democracy promotion and the critical question to answer in the Middle East. What if democracy is really ugly - non-respecting of human rights, unstable, prone to interstate violence?

As for Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, and their brethren, the US should have been leaning on them for 5 years starting the Iraq war - to modernize, to engage the Islamist and simultaneously oblige them to disarm, etc. In other words to really, serious makes moves from façade democacy towards real democracy. Double bonus points because doing so in earnest puts pressure on Saudi Arabia to tame its Wahabbists.

I'm sure this will draw the wrath of the committed anti-war folks, but I'm not convinced that "managed democracy" is such a bad start, as long as it's really a step towards democracy. This caveat is where I share the above commenter's serious cynicism about the Bush administration. They like to play games with democracy promotion, but only if it's the Bernard Lewis, transformational-war-and-then-you're-out type. Which leaves things far worse than we found them.

A good place to look at the evolution of interventionist democracy in action is Latin America over the last 50 years. Most Latin American countries are now real, stable, if often highly corrupt democracies. Recently, a number of them have survived massive political turmoil (Argentina's default, Lula's ascencion in Brazil, Chavez's takeover of the Venezuela state oil company, PDVSA) with minimal or no violence. While I don't let the US off the hook for the nasty actions of the regimes it supported, or the nasty actions it undertook itself, it's undeniable that the region has made serious political progress, and some comparison are in order.

The problems with unleashing democracy immediately (or at least abandoning a highly controlled, undemocractic form of government) are still wracking sub-Saharan Africa. No civil society, no competent government managers, no national identity, etc. People may eventually make it through to real functioning democracy, but only after years of bloodshed. Yes, I know that in many ways, neither the US nor the Soviet Union has truly let sub-Saharan Africa try democracy, but where has done even some of it, the results have not often been that pretty. Democracy does not grow overnight.

Engagine viable political Islam is Islamic reform. Only by allowing these countries to play out the large questions about how Islam, democracy, and human rights should interact can the religion embrace these precepts. Reza Aslan's excellent book No God But God makes a compelling case that democratic governments need not (and often cannot) be secular, but they absolutely must be pluralist. Our foreign policy needs to embrace this distinction and let Islamic democracy take its course.

"we cannot have an effective democracy promotion policy without first having a coherent policy toward political Islam."

Maybe we should start with a coherent policy toward political Christianity in the USA. Just for practice.

Here's an idea I can't keep very serious about: If each sub-african government that could afford it, bought a bunch of cheap rifles and gave one to every male citizen over the age of 23, along with a short course in maintaining firearms, a couple hundred rounds of ammunition, and put them on a target range and shot 5 of those rounds....

Part of the genocide etc problem is that it's so cheap and easy to do. If every village was armed even with cheap .22s then it would be harder to go after them. There might be more cases where they got killed off rather than give them too much chance to fight back, but they'd at least have to be taken seriously.

It makes it much harder to run an oppressive dictatorship when all the people are armed. Of course, if they don't get along that makes it much harder to run any kind of government....

Civilised places have police to handle small-scale disorder, and armies to back up the police if it gets too severe. Places that don't have enough of a tradition that way, need something more fundamental. "One gun, one vote" has an undeniable meaning even for people who don't believe in democracy to start with.

It makes sense to me. But I can't pretend I'm confident it would get results that humanitarians would like.

Nice post. Engaging in a productive dialogue probably includes Americans unequivocally renouncing violence in committing themselves to the democratic process too.

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