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To give one example: There is no law in Egypt that says Muslim women must wear the veil, and until the 1980s most didn’t. But following a campaign of intimidation by the radical Islamists and the spread of Saudi-funded Wahhabi propaganda, which claimed that unveiled women were essentially prostitutes and should be shunned and harassed as such, almost all Muslim Egyptian women are now covered. To give another example: until the Jasmine Revolution, there were legalized and government-regulated red-light districts in every city in Tunisia, which was the most secular, progressive, and modern Muslim country the Islamic world has ever known. After the revolution, the Salafis firebombed them all, and so now there are none. Again, there has been no change in the law, and the mainstream Ennahda party, which obviously is against legalized prostitution, has condemned the violence, while obviously welcoming the consequences of it.
The closest parallel to the odd combination of highly organized structure and denial of responsibility this defines the tactics of the “moderate” Islamists in their first step to gaining power through elections is the European far right. Both groups are crypto-fascist in nature, neither have viable views on day-to-day policy, and both rely on a grassroots network of thugs of whose activities they can publicly wash their hands. Jean-Marie Le Pen of France never once admitted any connection with the skinheads who did his dirty work beating up immigrants and Jews, yet such politicians are quietly understood by the grass roots to represent them.
And now that the revolutions have created a security vacuum and clearly failed to alleviate the economic woes and human rights abuses that spawned them—indeed, in the case of Egypt, quite the opposite—the Islamists offer something seductive in the absence of meaningful solutions: a simple answer, Islam is the solution. The Islamists, in other words, offer solace in the face of insurmountable problems. The terrible price that the ordinary people of these countries will have to pay for that solace will only gradually become evident to them, as it did to the historically very liberal and tolerant Iranian people.
FP: What does all of this mean for Israel?
Bradley: At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Israel breathed a sigh of relief. Tunisia doesn’t matter geopolitically one way or another, but Egypt of course does. And in Egypt there was a military coup. The Egyptian military is very pro the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and its army is funded, trained, and equipped by America. The triumph of the Islamists in Egypt’s parliamentary elections last week doesn’t change things much vis-a-vis Israel, at least not in the short term. The parliament has limited powers, and all this talk about the Muslim Brotherhood taking on the military to push them to hand over to civilian rule is nonsense.
With real power comes responsibility and accountability, and while the Muslim Brotherhood may be many things, one thing they certainly are not is stupid. Even with the cleanest, most efficient government the world has ever known, it would take a generation or more to cleanse the country of its corruption, brutality, poverty, illiteracy, chronic unemployment, nepotism, and so on. This is one reason the Brotherhood are more interested in forming a coalition with the liberal block in the new parliament than with the Salafis: that way, when the next elections come round, they can blame the liberals for the ills that still plague their nation. And the Brothers will avoid direct confrontation with the military because their first priority is not the defense budget or launching wars but imposing Islamist dogma on Egyptian society, and that is what will preoccupy them during the first parliamentary session.
More generally, Israel must be putting all its hopes on its undeclared and bizarre, but very real, alliance with Saudi Arabia, which despite spewing anti-Semitic venom of the kind not seen since the Nazis poses no military threat to the Jewish state, is aligned with Washington, and hates the Iranian mullahs like the plague. Along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia has led a region-wide counterrevolution, shoring up pro-Western Persian Gulf monarchies as well as those of Jordan and Morroco, and backing the Muslim Brotherhood and its franchises in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. The question we can’t answer at this stage is whether the Saudis, through their funding and Wahhabi doctrine, will be able to control the Islamist groups taking power everywhere in relation to their relations with the West and Israel, in the same way the House of Saud has more or less been able to control their own Wahhabi religious establishment.
FP: What isn’t the West doing right and what must it do in the future in facing this dire situation you describe?
Bradley: Unfortunately, the West just keeps making the same mistakes, over and over. After backing the Arab dictators in the name of stability, we’re now as a result backing the Islamists that have replaced them in the vague hope that the latter will live up to their promises of moderation. There was a chance that in the decade leading up to the so-called Arab Spring, serious and sustained pressure from Washington and Europe could have forced Tunisia and Egypt, for instance, to introduce meaningful reforms. And this might have averted the disaster of Islamist dictatorship we’re now seeing unfold throughout the region.
Washington’s current strategy of backing the Saudi counterrevolution is, sadly, the only option available to the pragmatists. The problem with the pragmatic argument, however, is that history has a habit of making mincemeat of it. The pragmatists backed one vicious South Vietnamese regime after another, but still lost the war and handed the region to China on a platter. The pragmatists backed the shah of Iran and the revolution in that country swept to power Ayatollah Khomeini. The shah fled at first to Egypt. Two years later his host Anwar Al-Sadat–who had given the shah refuge and was Washington’s closest Arab ally after making peace with Israel–was assassinated by radical Islamists.
In the 1980s, the Washington pragmatists armed Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The pragmatists backed Al-Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, another willing Western stooge, and Egypt just witnessed an action replay of the Iranian Revolution. Then, to come back to the central point, there is Washington’s eight-decade-long “engagement” with Saudi Arabia, the regional superpower–whence came Bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11.
By backing the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring, Washington proves only that it has learned no lessons from the past, and the consequences for the future of the Middle East, not least where pluralism and the fight against extremism are concerned, are dire. Washington should wake up to the fact that “moderate Islamism” is a myth. Islamism is a political ideology that takes a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran as a master plan for society: Islamic law, the segregation of the sexes, the subjugation of women, the submission of the masses to clerical authority. You are either an Islamist or you are not, in the same way that you cannot be a little bit pregnant.
As my new book shows, the only fundamental differences that exist between different brands of Islamism, whether Shia or Sunni, is in the speed and strategy with which they hope to achieve their aim of establishing an Islamist theocracy and the actual system of governance used to implement it. While we focus on short-term stability, foolishly putting our faith in so-called moderate Islam, the Islamists are more wisely putting their faith in the long term.
FP: John R. Bradley, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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