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June 13, 2007

The Question of Political Islam
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I've written a new article on the U.S. and political Islam for the summer issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Readers of DA will know that I've long advocated a more proactive approach to promoting democracy abroad. Sometimes, however, this discussion has stayed at a somewhat meta-level. This article is a sustained effort on my part to really explain what "democracy promotion" means in practice, to outline how it would work on the ground, and to really flesh out the "Islamist dilemma" and how to address it head-on. In any case, make sure to give it a read. Here's a teaser:

In any case, Islamists are here to stay. The United States can no longer delude itself into thinking that it can build non-existent liberal-secular parties from scratch and somehow lead them to electoral victory. Arab liberals are in disarray and in no position to seriously contest elections, much less win them. Only Islamists have the mobilizing capacity and grassroots support to pressure Middle Eastern regimes to democratize. Thus, in not engaging groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States cuts itself off from large constituencies whose participation is vital to the process of political change. Instead of assuming that Islamist groups are obstacles to democracy, we should instead ask how they can help it come about...

Islamists will come to power whether we like it or not; in Iraq, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories, they already have, It is better to have links–and leverage–with these groups before they come to power, not afterwards. This leverage will increase our ability to hold Islamists to their democratic commitments, and will be critical in ensuring that vital American interests are protected when "friendly" dictators are finally pushed out of power. Autocracy is not permanent. It will, sooner or later, give way to an uncertain "something else." The question is whether the United States will position itself on the right side of the coming transformation.


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Blurb sounds good, I look forward to reading it.

Also, I saw in the paper that there's a House committee is making $200 million of Egypt's aid conditional on performance on Democracy issues. Sounds like those Egyptian bloggers are having some impact.

Umm, what, in Arabic, is the word for "Hallelujah"?

I finally got to reading it today. Excellent essay, although your history review depressed me some as it showed Bush administration democracy promotion to be even more hollow than my already cynical views.

I think all your recommendations are quite solid. The only place I think there could be a bit more elaboration is point three: '[T]he United States should seek to influence internal struggles within Islamist groups in key countries. This means recognizing that there are serious internal divisions between "reformists" and "conservatives."'

I'm pretty sure I agree with what you're getting at. However, that statement could also be interpreted to support the essentially failed policy of trying to bolster Fatah against Hamas. I think point three could work, but only for certain kinds of intervention.

As a quick follow-up, I think the examples you give in point #3 are the kind of interventions that could help. I just don't think the point as written excludes the kinds that are likely to fail.

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