The problem at present is not just that the Middle East may be heading for disaster and the Western strategic situation could be moving toward collapse, but that such an unfavorable outcome is made more likely by the fact that Western governments don’t seem to comprehend this situation and are following policies that make it worse. There are five main critical developments which threaten the region’s already fragile stability.
First, and most basic, is the rise of revolutionary Islamist movements everywhere in the region. While in 2000, the Islamists were bogged down, unable to seize power in any country (except Afghanistan) 20 years after Iran’s revolution, a number of events perceived by them as victories have given a big boost. Whether or not these are real successes, they are credibly portrayed as such to their constituencies.
These include: Hamas’s electoral success followed by its takeover of the Gaza Strip in a coup; Hizballah’s “victory” in the 2006 war with Israel and electoral gains in Lebanon; the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and inroads in Pakistan; Iran’s nuclear weapons project; the development of an Islamist insurgency in Iraq; the integration of the non-Islamist Syrian regime into an Iranian-led Islamist bloc; a brief seizure of power in Somalia followed by an insurgency there; the opening of a new, Iran-backed Islamist rebellion in Yemen; continued periodic international terrorist attacks, most notably the September 11, 2001, assault on the United States; the political success of a neo-Islamist regime in Turkey, which has promulgated a pro-Islamist foreign policy; and a growing Islamist movement among immigrants in Europe; among other developments. Equally important in this mix is the belief that the West is weak and uncertain in responding to these situations.
The belief that revolutionary Islamism is on the march brings new recruits and makes existing ones bolder. Certainly, the most important development in the Middle East would be the Islamist ability to seize power in additional countries. While this is not an immediate prospect, it has already made the existing regimes bend their policies to avoid antagonizing or to appease those who might otherwise be recruited by revolutionary Islamist movements.
Meanwhile, Western countries persist in acting as if the sole problem were al-Qa’ida. They, and especially the Obama administration, have not taken on the job of building a coalition against revolutionary Islamism but have spent more time–except regarding al-Qaida–in trying to engage Islamist forces and “proving” their friendliness toward Islam.
Second, Iran’s nuclear drive is continuing without seriously effective international opposition. After years of negotiations conducted by Britain, France, and Germany failed, higher sanctions were supposed to be imposed in the autumn of 2007. As of 2010, nothing has been done.
After the failure of an almost year-long attempt at engagement with Tehran, the Obama administration has already missed two deadlines set by itself (September and December 2009) and has made clear that if any higher sanctions are to be imposed, they will be narrow and defined to avoid damaging Iran’s economy. Meanwhile, a number of European states–and notably Italy–continue to do large, profitable business with the Iranian regime.
For Tehran, then, the opposition has been a joke, only reinforcing its conclusion that the West–and especially the United States–is a paper tiger.
What will happen if Iran does get nuclear weapons? The most often-discussed scenario is an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, a possibility for which the likelihood seems reinforced by the statements of Iranian leaders. In the face of such a threat, Israel may well at some point attack Iranian nuclear facilities, setting off a crisis that Western passivity in confronting Iran has made far more likely.
Yet this is far from the only problem posed by Iran possessing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons that can be fired on them. Other outcomes would include a high level of Arab and European readiness to appease a powerful nuclear Iran accompanied by fear of opposing it on any issue. To cite only one example, no Arab country will act to help an Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian peace process that they know Iran opposes. Oil costs would likely go high, due both to fear of Iran’s hawkishness on prices and fear of crisis in the Persian Gulf. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, revolutionary Islamists (both pro- and anti-Iranian) would reap tens of thousands of recruits from the belief that Iran proved Islamism was a success and provided a powerful patron.
Third, and clearly linked to the two previous points, is a flourishing of Iran’s strategic ambitions and that of the bloc it leads. Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents–with some support from Turkey–are linked in an alliance that is seeking regional hegemony. The main battlefronts are Iraq, Lebanon, and now Yemen.
While the Iranian-led bloc is fairly coherent, the other side is very much divided. Relatively moderate Arab regimes and Israel do not and cannot cooperate closely. Moreover, the country that could provide them with a powerful patron, the United States, is not doing so due to the Obama administration’s perceptions and policies. Some elements in this potential alignment–notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon–are moving toward high levels of appeasement or outright defection.
All of this is happening at a time when Iran’s rulers are the most radical faction. While challenged by an active opposition, the regime is still firmly in control of the country. Its perceptions are based on the belief that they are following the deity’s will and that their foreign rivals are weak, corrupt, and divided. This is a regime most likely to engage in adventurous actions, taking high degrees of risk in a perhaps mistaken belief that victory is inevitable. Such a situation is a recipe for crisis, sponsored terrorism and subversion, confrontation, and war.
Fourth, virtually unnoticed in the West has been Turkey’s switch to the Iranian-led bloc, pro-Islamist camp. While the Obama administration is still engaged in defining the Turkish regime as the very model of a moderate Muslim-majority democracy, the AKP regime is gradually transforming the country from a secular society to a relatively Islamized one, institution by institution.
This does not mean the AKP will succeed in remaking Turkey, but it has been very easy for the government to change Turkey’s historic foreign policy. In the past, Turkey viewed the United States as its patron–trying to prove itself a loyal member of the West in order to facilitate membership in the European Union–and saw Israel as an ally against a threat from Islamism, Iran, and Syria.
Now all this is reversed. Iran and Syria are seen by the regime as allies; Hamas and Hizballah are friends to be promoted; and Israel is portrayed as an enemy. The only reason the Turkish regime has found it easy to maintain good relations with the United States is that Washington has neither demanded Turkey do anything nor criticized Ankara’s statements or actions.
Fifth, connected to all the above points has been the loss of Western credibility. At a time when the main goal of the United States and Europe seems to be to avoid offending any Arab or Muslim-majority state, they have been on the defensive. While moderates have been demoralized, radicals have been encouraged by this perception of weakness and retreat.
Meanwhile, the main priority of U.S. and often European policy has been to promote an Israel-Palestinian peace process that has no chance of working, given the Palestinian Authority’s intransigence, weakness, and fear of its Islamist rival, Hamas. Ironically, even in the unlikely case of progress, any perspective compromise solution would inflame–not dilute–Islamist militancy, which would mobilize against such a “treasonous” outcome.
This is a pessimistic assessment, which does not mean it is not an accurate one. Many or most of these problems can be reversed given the West’s power and the broad range of supporters it could find in the region if only there were a comprehension of these problems and the will to confront them seriously and energetically. Yet that type of thinking and action still seem far from realization.
Perhaps the greatest, most dangerous miscomprehension is the nature of revolutionary Islamism and how it poses the greatest threat to regional, and even global, peace and stability today.
A young American named Ramy Zamzam, arrested in Pakistan for trying to fight alongside the Taliban, responded in an interview with the Associated Press: “We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.”
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who joined al-Qa’ida and tried to bring down a passenger flight to Detroit on December 25, 2009, wrote his father shortly beforehand that he now had a fervent commitment to what he called “real Islam.”
What these two say is well worth bearing in mind in order to understand the great conflict of our era. First and foremost, jihadism or radical Islamism is far more than mere terrorism. It is a revolutionary movement in every sense of the word. It seeks to overthrow existing regimes and replace them with governments that will transform society into a nightmarishly repressive system.
One might then put it this way: Revolutionary Islamism is the main strategic problem in the world today. Terrorism is the main tactical problem.
WHAT IS ISLAMISM?
Radical Islamism is the doctrine that each Muslim-majority country–its politics, economy, and society–should be ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship guided by the given movement’s definition of proper Islam. What Marxism was to Communism, and fascism to Nazism, jihadism is to Islamism. There are, of course, many versions–including both Sunni and Shi’a varieties–and this is hardly a united movement, which is one of its weaknesses. Yet while the doctrinal differences are relevant and do keep the groups apart, they are of secondary importance for understanding the ideology and movement as a whole.
In some cases, Islamists have a wider ambition to transform the entire world, starting with Europe. While this may seem ridiculous to most Westerners, it does not seem so to the Islamists who hold that view.
Only a minority of Muslims is Islamist, but that sector has grown sharply over the last 20 years and seems to be on the rise. Muslims are also among the greatest opponents of political Islamism, and often its victims. Among those rejecting it are conservative traditionalist Muslims and Arab (or other types of) nationalists, along with a very small group that can be called liberal reformist.
Three places have been under radical Islamist rule so far: Iran and the Gaza Strip, as well as,–temporarily–Afghanistan. An Islamist group using democratic tactics has gained control of the government in Turkey, where it is pursuing a step-by-step attempt to transform the country, which may or may not succeed. Radical Islamist movements have been active in well over 60 countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia in the east to Morocco at the western end of the Middle East, and beyond to Europe and North America.
The fact that radical Islamism relates to a religion, Islam, is very important (see below) but should not blind observers to the fact that this is basically a political movement and not–at least in the modern Western sense–a theological one.
Of course, Islamism is rooted in Islam but a strong opposition to Islamism-a standpoint shared by many Muslims who may motivated by a traditional view of Islam, ethnic or nation-state nationalism, or a different radical ideology (Arab nationalism most likely)-is in no way an expression of bigotry against a religion.
Similarly, the idea that opposition to Islamism is in some way “racist” is absurd since no “race” is involved. Just as opponents of Communism (capitalist, imperialist) and fascism (Jews, Bolsheviks) could be discredited by calling them names, the same is done with those who oppose Islamism.
Very roughly, Islamism is parallel to Communism and fascism as revolutionary mass movements. Analogies should not be carried too far but are useful in understanding certain basic points.
There are a wide variety of Islamist groups. A small but energetic international grouping of local organizations called al-Qa’ida; Muslim Brotherhood branches, Hamas, and Hizballah are the best known. In virtually every Muslim-majority country and throughout Western Europe there are such organizations working very hard to gain state power.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP OF ISLAMISM TO ISLAM?
On one hand, some refer to Islam as a “religion of peace” that has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. Yet this cannot account for the fact that the jihadists and radical Islamists can cite writings in Islamic holy texts and well-respected clerics that support their positions. Certain concepts–like jihad as a holy war of violence, the killing of any Muslim who wants to change his religion, and the subordination of non-Muslims in Muslim-ruled society–are well-established in Islam and accepted, at least in theory, by the majority of Muslims.
On the other hand, there are those who say that jihadism, radical Islamism, and the use of terrorism is normative Islam, that they are all the same thing. Yet this cannot account for the fact that Muslim-ruled and Muslim-majority societies for many centuries ignored the precepts cited by the revolutionaries or held other interpretations. In the 1970s, when Islamists began to raise the call for jihad against their own societies–deeming them to be forms of pre-Islamic paganism–these arguments seemed for most Muslims to be crackpot and heretical.
When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said that by joining al-Qa’ida he was embracing the “real Islam,” even his own father and almost all those around him in Nigerian society held another view of Islam. Polls show that large numbers of Muslims today accept revolutionary Islamism as a proper interpretation of their religion. Yet the same polls show that large numbers of Muslims reject that idea completely.
The answer to these apparent contradictions is simple: A struggle of different interpretations is going on. This does not mean that either conservative traditional Islam–or radical Islamism–or the much smaller group of liberal reformers for that matter is voicing the “real” Islam. For all practical purposes (though not theoretical ones), the “real” Islam of this historical period will emerge depending on who wins the battle.
It should be needless to say that outside observers will not determine this outcome, nor can they define any “real” or “proper” Islam, any more than someone during the great wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe could define the “real” Christianity which most closely adhered to the founders’ intentions or the holy texts. Christianity and Judaism evolved while at the same time different interpretations developed within them. Today’s world is defined by history in which a large part is the decisions and actions made by people rather than theoretical theology or texts as the dominant factors.
Islamism grows out of Islam and its advocates easily find widely accepted and very basic Islamic principles that justify their world view and behavior. Yet Islamism is an interpretation of Islam and not the only one possible. Indeed, for centuries there have been different interpretations.
To argue that Islamism is the inevitable or “correct” interpretation of Islam is as silly as it is to argue that it is some external, heretical ideology that has “hijacked” Islam. Perhaps one could make a rough parallel to the relationship between Communism and either liberal or democratic socialism, and of fascism compared to conservatism or nationalism. Yet the link between Islamism and Islam is closer than that since it is not just a spinoff but one “legitimate” claimant to be the normative interpretation of that doctrine.
What Islam “means” can only be interpreted in practice by Muslims in a process of debate and struggle. The decades to come will reveal how this unfolds. For outsiders to claim that Islam is “really” a religion of peace or “really” inevitably aggressive is meaningless. Yes, as history has shown, no matter how powerful a religious text seems to be worded, followers of that religion can always find ways to ignore or reinterpret those texts.
Just as the Islamists can base their case on original Islamic texts, their Muslim opponents can argue from centuries of practice as well as their own interpretations. The reason that the Islamists (who were earlier called “fundamentalists” for precisely this reason) have to go back to the seventh century texts–though of course there are some medieval texts they also use that support their case–is that the intervening centuries did not follow their precepts.
Indeed, that is precisely their complaint. It is important to remember that the Islamist argument is that Islam has not been practiced “properly” for centuries, which is also an indirect admission that there are other interpretations of that religion that have been accepted overwhelmingly both by clerics and by the masses.
What eventually emerged to dominate Islam is the conservative traditionalist version. Far from seeking political control, it subordinated itself to the rulers. It was no longer a revolutionary doctrine. A key point in this approach was the argument that as long as the ruler was a believing Muslim, he should be obeyed.
In addition, conservative traditionalist Islam generally held that no Muslim could judge and condemn as heretical the beliefs or behavior of other Muslims unless they were really obvious and extreme ones. Islamism had to combat these and other tenets of conservative traditionalist Islam. Another principle was that as long as the ruler was a believing Muslim, he was a satisfactory ruler and did not have to be a cleric or to enforce full Islamic law.
This does not mean that there is some statistically dominant moderate Muslim silent majority that wants democracy, equal rights for women, etc. There is a conservative and relatively passive majority that opposes revolution. That is not at all the same thing. Moreover, unless there is a successfully persuasive response from traditionally oriented clerics that “proves” the Islamist brand of Islam is wrong, the conservative constituency will be open to being courted and perhaps won over by Islamists who cite chapter and verse with their own documented interpretation.
To summarize this complex issue in one sentence: There should be absolute honesty by outside observers in understanding how the most sacred texts of Islam appear to validate revolutionary Islamists, but an equal understanding that a struggle is going on among Muslims in which different interpretations are contending. The real question in regard to any political movement is which passages it decides to highlight and how they are interpreted.
There are too many people, whose views tend to dominate the Western media and academia, who simply ignore extremist statements about jihad, the treatment of non-Muslims, the killing of anyone who converts from being a Muslim, and other such matters. They want to brand and destroy anyone who provides an accurate account as Islamophobic, which is an extremely counterproductive response.
At the same time, there are others who point out these passages and insist that the problem is Islam itself as an immutable religion. Both of these conceptions are wrong. Both misconceptions handicap any understanding or response to the contemporary challenge of Islamism.
For example, to call Islam a “religion of peace” because that is supposedly what the word Islam means is quite false. On the contrary, “Islam” means “submission” (to the will of God). The true implication is that peace can only be achieved when all submit to God’s will, which Muslims believe is embodied in Shari’a law. This provides a good example of how the Islamists are on legitimate, but not irrefutable, ground in making their claims.
On the other hand, it is not accurate to claim that because some militant statement is in the Koran that makes Islam inevitably aggressive. The “real Islam” is only the sum total of all Islam’s history and schools of interpretation. Speaking generally, from around 750 when the Umayyads took power to 1979 when Iran had its Islamist revolution, there was virtually never any state ruled by Islam as a religion. That is why there are two distinct words: “caliph” for the leader of Islam as a religious community, and “sultan” for the political ruler. When these were embodied in the same individual, it was almost always the sultan who ruled and the caliph who provided useful reinforcement for a political regime.
True, Saudi Arabia was guided by an extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam but it was not a theocracy. The true rulers of the country were the Saud family and its political will, not the ulama (religious clerics). And when the monarchy and mullahs clashed, the former had its way.
Another key factor has been the centuries of religious experts who have interpreted Islam in different ways. Even when they overwhelmingly affirmed “militant” interpretations in theory, it still remained a question as to whether such things were implemented in practice. There were always, of course, limits. The fact that no one explicitly and strongly challenged the idea, for example, that those converting from Islam should be severely punished and killed if they persisted, does strengthen the hand of contemporary Islamists that they represent mainstream views.
Thus, while Islamism is not the only possible interpretation of Islam, its approach is certainly shaped and justified by basic Islamic texts. Unless Muslims and especially qualified clerics among them reinterpret these tenets, Islamism will continue to have a strong advantage in competing with conservative traditional Islam while liberal reformism will remain a tiny, powerless viewpoint.
For non-Muslims to reinterpret Islam to their own specifications, explain what it “really” means, and provide bland reassurances that it is a “religion of peace” that would never countenance terrorism and totalitarianism is ludicrous. When Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, says that the problem is “al-Qaida completely perverting a wonderful, peaceful religion,” he is saying something that fails to explain why the basic ideas held by that organization are supported by millions of people who have every reason to believe themselves to be pious Muslims.
On a political and strategic level, the threat comes from revolutionary Islamist groups. This movement may be rooted in ideas more broadly held among Muslims, at least given many–but by all means not all–contemporary interpretations held by believers in that religion.
Yet Islam is not going to be reformed in the next few decades, nor are Muslim-majority countries going to become paragons of modernized, democratic, Western-style societies with high living standards for all. The task for both the West and the non-Islamist regimes ruling those societies, then, is not to create some utopia there (especially given the differences in vision about what constitutes an optimal society), but by defeating the radical movements. This may involve some increase in representative government and social justice in these countries, but outsiders can do virtually zero in making such changes.
Equally, in seeing the need to support the existing regimes and conservative traditional Islam as a lesser of two evils, it should not be assumed that the main competing viewpoint to Islamism is some kind of moderate, reformist Islam. In fact, the real alternative at present in most Muslim-majority, and certainly Arabic-speaking, countries is conservative traditional Islam. This approach is largely ready to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” that is to accept the idea that the incumbent, dictatorial, government of the land is the ruler.
It does not favor Western-style democracy, modern secular-oriented society, or equality for women. The conservatives oppose Islamism because they oppose change in general. This means that they reject the Western “root cause” argument–which is partly untrue any way–that since Islamism thrives on inequality and poverty, the best way to fight it is to remedy these internal problems.
On the contrary, the conservatives believe that change is destabilizing and democracy is dangerous. Their approach is to defeat the Islamists through a combination of repression, asserting their brand of Islam, anti-Western demagoguery, and rejecting any “reform” of Islam or liberalized society in order to assuage traditional Muslims. Not only do the conservatives oppose Westernization and even large elements of modernization due to their own beliefs but also because they fear this will make much of their own pious subjects appear to be traitors. Their reading of why Iran had a revolution may well be closer to the truth than the Western interpretation.
What is most important from a strategic perspective–that is from the standpoint of outside powers–is that the conservatives do not favor violent revolution at home, clerical or theological rule, or jihad against the West, and are relatively more tolerant (with Saudi Arabia being the sole exception) of different currents of Muslim practice. The Arab conservative-traditional Muslims may oppose peace with Israel but are also aware that attacking that country is likely to lead to defeat. Precisely because they want stability, they are not in search of foreign adventures, though they demagogically use militant rhetoric.
That is the real choice of forces at present, and it is not one whose composition can be altered by the external world to make. The West can be nice to reformers and try to help keep them from being thrown into prison, but it cannot create a third force in this battle. The alternatives are to help the conservatives or–through neutrality, concessions, or a foolish engagement with extremists–to help the radical regimes spread their influence and revolutionaries to seize power.
Regarding Islamism, then, it is not that Islam has been hijacked by it; rather, different forces with a real claim to authority are fighting over control of the steering wheel. An ideal solution is not possible. What is necessary is to use the usual tools of international relations, economic power, and military might to destroy the direct threat of revolutionary extremist groups, aggressive Islamist regimes, and terrorism.
STATE SPONSORSHIP AND NATION-STATE AMBITIONS
It is also, even when not so visibly state-sponsored, often an instrument of specific states, most notably Iran and Syria. Trying to spread Islamist revolution has been a major goal since the takeover of Iran itself and fits closely with Iranian great power ambitions. Not all leaders have pursued this with equal vigor, but it is a high priority of the current rulers. A wide variety of organizations from barely disguised front groups to powerful Islamist organizations in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians are used for this purpose. Most recently this pattern has been extended to Yemen. Some are pure assets, others client groups with a measure of independence.
While itself not an Islamist regime, Syria has understandably calculated that the Islamist side serves its interests very well. Thus, the idea that Syria can easily be pulled away from its alliance with Iran, and backing for Islamist groups like Hamas and Hizballah is a fantasy.
It is quite true that al-Qa’ida has shown that Islamist groups don’t have to be state-backed, but the fact is that many of them still are able to operate because there is a regime behind them.
TACTICS AND STRATEGIES
Like Communist movements in the past, Islamist movements use a wide variety of strategies and tactics. The use of a non-violent tactic–like participation in elections–does not indicate that the group has ceased to be revolutionary. Actually, it is tough pressure by the regime that might force the Islamist leadership to postpone revolutionary activity to the distant future (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood), repress it altogether (Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood), or get it tied up in electoral knots (Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood).
On the other hand, it is no accident that the most militant Islamist groups have flourished where government is weakest: Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents.
As for terrorism, this is a strategy and tactic that appeals to these movements for very specific reasons. These include the following points. While the Islamists claim they are only conducting a “defensive jihad”–since there is no caliph, offensive jihad isn’t supposed to happen–they are actually conducting offensive revolution.
The ideas that America is being attacked because jihadists dislike its freedom or that it is being targeted because of its policies are both partly true. Yet precisely the same point could be made about Communism, Nazism, and Japanese imperialism. The problem of American culture and freedom, however, does not relate to what goes on in the United States but the fear that this model will spread inevitably to their own societies.
The complaint about U.S. policy is related to the fact that America is seen as a protector of the regimes the Islamists want to overthrow. The motive here is not that these regimes are tyrannical, but that they are not Islamist. Lebanon and Turkey, the most democratic states in the Muslim-majority Middle East, have especially strong Islamist movements.
Another reason for targeting the United States or others in the West is that killing infidels is popular among the Islamist constituency as a sign of power to defeat the stronger West. The alternative is to focus terrorist attacks on the local governments. However, killing fellow Muslims is less popular and the governments strike back with ferocious repression, while they are more likely to tolerate movements that only attack non-Muslims at home or abroad.
Why is terrorism used as a method in this context?
–It expresses the total and dehumanizing hatred Islamists have toward their enemies.
–It shows their disinterest in any compromise since the use of terrorism will dissuade their enemies from making deals.
–They believe that intimidation works and the history of terrorism shows they are not wrong in doing so.
–Terror, at least against non-Muslims, generally pleases their constituency and thus strengthens their base of support.
–This tactic fits with certain Islamic beliefs and texts while well-known clerics do not condemn terrorism–at least against non-Muslims–strongly, explicitly, and consistently.
It is tempting to say that terrorism is a tactic of last resort when repressive regimes permit no other route. However, in most–though not all–cases, terrorism is used against the less tyrannical societies for a simple reason: The truly repressive ones quickly kill the terrorists. To cite just one example of how a tough regime deals with this problem, when Egypt was fighting an Islamist terrorist insurgency in the 1990s, the government persuaded wanted men to turn themselves in by the expedient of throwing their parents into jail.
Finally, and of the greatest importance, the reason for terrorism in the contemporary world is not due to poverty, to U.S. or Western policies, or to hatred of Western freedoms. Terrorism in and from the Middle East exists because revolutionary Islamist movements are seeking to seize state power in a score of countries, and some of them think that terrorism will be a productive strategy in achieving that goal.
Neither greater democracy nor prosperity provide simple solutions to the Islamist challenge. Many Islamist leaders and cadre come from well-off families. They are driven by ideological, cultural, and religious factors just as left-wing students in the West seek utopian transformations of society. Equally, they are not driven by antagonism to tyranny since their goal is to establish a new, worse tyranny. Both the Nazis and Communists came to power by overthrowing democratic regimes, in part through elections. With Islamism’s strength, the problem is not the lack of democracy by the rulers but the lack of a strong democratic movement to compete with it.
In every Arabic-speaking country, Islamist groups now constitute the main opposition. The governments in Egypt and Jordan, recognizing the need to avoid a higher level of confrontation, allow large Muslim Brotherhood groups to operate in practice (though the Brotherhood is still formally illegal in Egypt), run in elections, and even win some seats. The elections are, however, fixed to ensure that the Brotherhood never wins. Moreover, there are periodic arrests to show the Islamists who is in power and to keep them within certain limits. This is also the situation with the local Islamists in Morocco, Kuwait (where there is relatively little repression), and several other countries.
None of these governments is really democratic and none of them show a strong effort to help the poorest and address grievances. Yet would a drastic change in these policies really greatly enhance stability or is this a result that Western observers mistakenly project on the basis of their own societies and moral preferences?
The Islamist movements will only be defeated by the destruction of violent groups as well as a widespread perception among Muslims that they either cannot take power or are a disaster as rulers.
Better government and higher living standards in their own countries would help to some extent in some countries. Aside from not overestimating this factor, it should be added that the West has no way to make these things happen by overthrowing and replacing regimes (as Iraq and Afghanistan show), by changing its own policies, or by pressuring the incumbent regimes to change.
*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement
(Palgrave Macmillan), Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).