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July 16, 2007

What Should We Do About Political Islam?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Michael van der Galien at The Moderate Voice (an excellent new blog, by the way) wrote a very thoughtful post a couple weeks ago in response to my recent piece in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas on the US and political Islam.

It’s interesting; the author begins by calling me a “neorealist” because I “reject traditional realism, which sometimes advocates working with/supporting dictators and, instead, advocate that the US should accept reality as it is: Islamist movements are very popular in the Middle East, and it is in the best interest to work with them as much as possible - especially with the moderate elements in Islamist movements.” That’s as good a summary as any. And, yes, this is about honoring and promoting our ideals abroad by supporting democracy and democrats in the Middle East, but doing so without rose-colored glasses. We must see the Middle East not as we’d like it to be, but as it is - and that means accepting some hard facts – that liberals and secularists are nonexistent, as far as organized constituencies go, and that mainstream, nonviolent Islamist parties will play a major role in the political evolution of their respective countries.

We have two choices – we can either seek to "destroy" political Islam or we can learn to live with it, and perhaps even work it to further both our interests and ideals. The former is not a viable option, for what I hope are obvious reasons. That leaves some type of accommodation as the only possibility.

Anyway, back to Michael’s comments. He mentions a few “mistakes” that I make in the article. He says, “Hamid believes that Islamists will moderate their stances/policies once they are in power." Michael takes issue with this. Well, my argument is more that the mainstream Islamists in question have already moderated, to the point where they meet (and have met, for some time) two clear standards – unequivocal renunciation of violence, and a publicly-stated commitment to the democratic process.

In any case, it is by no means guaranteed that Islamists will further moderate once in power. In fact, they will likely advocate certain “hardline” policies which we as Americans will disagree with. But with the right combination of engagement, dialogue, carrots, sticks, inducements, and incentives, the US and its allies can help fashion a political context, under which Islamist moderation will become more likely.

A good example of how this might work is Turkey. The EU had, until recently, played a central role in providing Turkey's ruling party - the Islamist AKP - with a set of incentives for moderation. The EU said essentially: if you liberalize your political system, and consolidate and strenghten the democratic features of Turkish government, we will consider accepting you into the EU. While the AK party is by no means perfect, and has made its fair share of mistakes, it is the most pro-democracy party in Turkish history, as evidenced by the slate of legal and political reforms it's implemented, which have expanded freedom of expression, strengthened rule of law, limited the role of the of the military, and further enshrined a separation of powers.

Van der Galien counters that “the AK party moderates its tone and stances, because if it didn’t do so, it wouldn’t be allowed to exist." This is partly true, but in this, Turkey is no exception. If Islamist groups in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco took more "hardline" stances and really chose to directly challenge the secular governments currently in power, they would not be allowed to exist. As a result, in order to stave off regime repression and avoid having their organizational infrastructure dismantled by the authorities, they have moderated – by forming cross-ideological coalitions with liberals and seculars, cooperating with regimes on security matters, softening their rhetoric on contentious social-moral issues, and by peacefully contesting elections.  

Van der Galien then cites three places where Islamists have taken over (Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iran) and appears to be arguing that three Islamist regimes in question are (or were) extremist and did not moderate. This is neither here nor there. Hamas doesn’t fit into my rubric because it’s not a non-violent Islamist party, and, in my piece, I was talking about non-violent groups that peacefully participate in the political process. As for Afghanistan and Iran (as well as Sudan), people often bring them up, but they have nothing to do with my broader points.

Islamist groups in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan came to power through non-democratic means. And, if groups – whether Islamist or secularist – come to power through non-democratic means, they usually rule undemocratically. And just because an Islamist group rules autocratically, it does not mean that it rules autocratically BECAUSE it is Islamist. That’s sort of like saying that the Nasser regime in Egypt (during the 1950s and 60s) was brutally authoritarian because it was secular. No, it ruled brutally because it was a revolutionary movement and such movements, forged through violence, coups, and military force, tend to exhibit these same qualities when they get the chance to govern. In short, the Sudanese, Iranian, and Afghani cases are immaterial to a discussion of what the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would do if it came to power democratically, through free and fair elections.

With that said, we have every right to be worried about what will happen if Islamist groups come to power in strategically-important countries. Will our vital security interests be compromised? How will Israel’s safety and security be affected? These are important questions which need to be asked. But the fact that there are risks (there always are) only supports my basic point that “it is better to have links - and leverage - with these groups before they came 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.”


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The question that needs to be answered is a philosophical/ethical one. What is one to do if a group which represents the minority of the population seizes (or threatens to seize) power and impose their doctrines on the majority?

It seems clear that those who took over after the Shah used a nationalistic argument to win popular support, but then went beyond nationalism to theocracy. Judging by the harsh measures they have used to maintain their ideological hold on the population their viewpoint can't be popular.

I'm guessing that secularism or nominal religious affiliation is growing in the middle east just as it is in much of the rest of the world. So a group which bases its ideology on imposing a theocratic form of government is not going to be supported by the majority. Whether they are more or less "moderate" once they come to power is secondary. What is primary is that their approach is, by its very nature, anti-democratic. Democracy and theocracy are mutually incompatible. One can not allow the public to make policy when policy flows down from unimpeachable divine sources.

It thus seems that the ethical position to take would be one that supports democratic institutions (and not just the appearance of them as in Pakistan). The issue then becomes one of practical politics. If we want to prevent a take over by anti-democratic forces for ethical (and not economic or strategic) reasons than what are the options? Force doesn't work. Covert support of various factions has had limited success. Economic sanctions seem to backfire.

The only person I'm aware of who has studied the problem directly is George Soros. He has attempted a variety of approaches to foster democracy in emerging states. Some of his ideas work better than others. What they seem to have in common is that they are locally managed and that they are run by people who are themselves ideologically driven - by Jefferson. Unfortunately this is a slow processes and inadequate when people are massing with AK47's to attempt a coup. Governments certainly don't have the patience to educate populations over a generation or more.

So what's to be done?

I think I disagree. The real problem is the current state of Islam itself. Islam needs to reform so it can coexist in the modern world. Working with Islamist political groups would only put off the day of reckoning. Success in Iraq is the best chance to avoid an ever-expanding global war. It is too soon to call the incursion into Iraq a failure.

I'm a bit confused as to why he called you a neo-realist. Your views seem to fall within classical international liberalism.

Anyhow, I think Michael van der Galien's pointing to Turkey's founding as a model has the same problem you've mentioned regarding using Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It sends the message that "we're perfectly willing to work with Islam, so long as you stop being Islamic."

All in all, great post Shadi.

"Excellent new blog"? Speaking as one of the co-bloggers, we've been around since May of 2004! That's ancient in the blogosphere.

Thanks for the compliment, though...whippersnapper. ;-)

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