On this one year anniversary, let’s be honest about what to call a movement that brings Islamists to power.
Thirteen months after a Tunisian street-vendor immolated himself and sparked the revolutions in the Middle East dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the bipartisan celebrations that attended those events last year appear premature, if not delusional. Now that Islamist parties are consolidating their power in the wake of the regime changes in those countries, President Obama’s claim that Egyptians merely wanted “a government that is fair and just and responsive,” or Senator John McCain’s assertions that Libyans were aiming for “lasting peace, dignity, and justice,” or Senator Joseph Lieberman’s article in Foreign Affairs that summarized the Arab Spring as a struggle for “democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world” each reflects dangerous wishful thinking rather than sober analysis.
This delusional enthusiasm of a year ago has not been chastened by subsequent events that have led to Islamist dominance across the region. That’s because the Arab Spring revolutions seemingly confirm a powerful narrative that for a decade has purported to explain the roots of jihadist terror, and the means for eliminating it. In his second inaugural speech, President Bush formalized this narrative in the Bush Doctrine, which articulated a foreign policy focused on ending the “resentment and tyranny” that left people vulnerable “to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder,” leading to terrorist violence that can “cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat.” Only the “force of human freedom” can “break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant.” When the uprisings of early 2011 removed brutal autocrats like Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Tunisia’s Zin El Abidine ben Ali, the power of democratic freedom seemingly unleashed by our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan now appeared poised to work its magic in the heartland of the Islamic world.
A year later the dictators are gone and elections have been held, but this optimism about the power of democratic voting now appears simplistic and naive. The liberal democracies some expected to develop in the Middle East appear to be no closer to reality than they did under the tyrants. In Tunisia, an Islamist party, Ennahda, took 90 out of 217 seats on the new National Constituent Assembly. Like most Islamist parties, Ennahda takes it inspiration from Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, whose credo is “God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” Exploiting the naïveté of Westerners who believe in the oxymoron “moderate Islamist,” Ennahda founder Rachid Gannouchi has assured the West and Tunisian secularists that his party is moderate and does not intend to subordinate their rights and freedoms to shari’a law. Yet Ennahda counts as supporters the more radical Salafists who do want strict adherence to shari’a, and who find broad support among the poorer, more conservative rural Tunisians.
Gannouchi himself sometimes sounds like an Islamist, as when he told listeners at an election rally, “God wants you to vote for the party that will protect your faith.” Some Tunisians are already acting on this imperative to “protect” Islam. Salafists stormed a university in Sousse to protest its refusal to admit a veiled female student. A group of Muslims tried to convert a church into a mosque, and though dispersed by police, they have been invited to ask the government’s faith ministry to effect the conversion. A violent protest erupted against a television screening of the animated movie Persepolis, a negative portrayal of the Iranian revolution in which Allah is depicted as a cartoon. To chants of “Your god has been insulted, come out and defend him!” a mob attempted to burn down the house of the station’s owner. While disavowing the attack, Ennahda called the screening a “provocation” that was equally responsible for the violence. Understandably, secular and liberal Tunisians are skeptical about Ennahda’s promises of moderation, which perhaps are tactical deceptions, given the party’s more hardline base and Muslim Brothers roots. Najib Chebbi, for example, who heads the Progressive Democratic Party, has called Ennahda “a nondemocratic force” with “an ideological project they haven't acknowledged yet.”
Next door in Libya, the continuing disorder in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall has created even more opportunities for Islamist domination. The epicenter of the rebellion, eastern Libya and the towns of Darnah and Benghazi––where the flag of al Qaeda has been seen flying over the courthouse––supplied proportionately more fighters against our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other country. These veterans of the al-Qaeda affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have now acquired weapons looted from arms depots, including assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and thousands of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles capable of bringing down commercial airliners. The LIFG fighters played a major role in the take-over of Tripoli and the capture of Gaddafi’s compound, and their leader, Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj, is the commander of the Tripoli garrison. These Islamist allies of al Qaeda will be a major force in whatever government, if any, eventually rules Libya.
Equally worrisome, like the other militias in Libya, the LIFG veterans have refused to disband and hand over their weapons, contrary to earlier pledges to surrender them to the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government. Just this month, gun battles erupted in Tripoli between militias from that city and those from Misrata, casting in doubt the possibility for a stable government anytime soon. In the east, some of the largest and best- armed of these militias with ties to Islamist groups are forming political parties. The NTC is unlikely to be a liberal counterweight to these well-armed Islamists. Its draft constitutional charter proclaims, “Islam is the religion of the state, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Shari’a).” On “liberation day” after Gaddafi’s death, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the NTC and Libya’s interim leader, confirmed these intentions when he told the crowd to shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.” One of his first pledges was to end the old regime’s ban on polygamy, since “the law is contrary to Shari’a and must be stopped.”
The Islamist ascendency is even more troublesome in Egypt, the most populous Muslim country in the region and birthplace of the Muslim Brothers, who have been the biggest beneficiary of regime change. In the first two rounds of voting, Muslim Brothers and Salafist parties took 70% of the vote, marginalizing the parties of the photogenic “Facebook kids” that charmed so many Western observers. Meanwhile, the Egyptian army, trained and financed by the United States and recipient of $1.3 billion in aid, continues its hold on power, joining in the murder of Christian Copts, brutalizing and killing protestors, and recently shutting down 17 international organizations that promote democracy. The outcome of the army’s stranglehold on Egypt and the struggle over control of the country could be yet another military dictatorship and increasing violence and chaos.
A more likely outcome will be a modus vivendi struck between the military and the Islamists, one that lets the army keep its economic privileges, while the Muslim Brothers install an Islamized constitution, something a majority of Egyptians would support. In a Pew survey from last year, 84% of Egyptians support the death penalty for apostates, and 82% support stoning adulterers. In another poll from 2010, 85% of Egyptians said Islam’s influence on politics is positive, 95% said that it is good that Islam plays a large role in politics, 59% identified with Islamic fundamentalists, 54% favored gender segregation in the workplace, 82% favored stoning adulterers, 77% favored whippings and cutting off the hands of thieves and robbers, and 84% favored death for those leaving Islam. And 60% of Egyptians in a Pew poll in 2011 said that laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Koran. All these traditional Islamic beliefs and preferences are inconsistent with the foundational ideals of liberal democracy such as tolerance, separation of church and state, respect for individual rights, a flourishing civil society, and equality for all before the law.
Despite all this evidence, the Obama administration believes that the Muslim Brothers are “moderates” that can be integrated into a democratic government and restrained by electoral accountability. Only by ignoring the words of Muslim Brothers spokesmen could Obama nourish such a delusion. Consider a 2010 address by Muslim Brothers Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’: “The Muslim nation has the means [to bring about] improvement and change . . . It knows the way, the methods, and the road signs, and it has a practical role model in Allah’s Messenger, [the Prophet Muhammad] . . . who clarified how to implement the values of the [Koran] and the Sunna at every time and in every place.” Al-Badi’ is clear about how this “change” will be brought about: Muslim regimes “crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.” These remarks reflect the Muslim Brothers draft platform of 2007, which proclaimed that “Islam is the official state religion” and “the Islamic shari’a is the main source for legislation.”
Equally suggestive of illiberal Islamic doctrine as the likely inspiration for a future Egyptian government is the increasing violence against the Coptic Christian minority. In 2011, 80 Christians have been killed and scores of churches attacked. Yet such violence should not surprise us, given the sectarian intolerance expressed by Egyptian clerics. Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University and a “moderate” for many in the West, has called Christians “infidels,” those “who declare God is the Christ, son of Mary.” And he quotes Koran 9:29: “Fight … the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] until they pay the Jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” Such faith-sanctioned intolerance and violence are incompatible with a pluralistic democracy that respects the rights of all individuals regardless of sect or creed.
Given this Islamist perspective, the soothing words of moderation and non-violence currently coming from the Muslim Brothers may represent a temporary tactical deception necessary until their power can be consolidated and their true aims pursued. And such deception is apparently working. According to the January 4 New York Times, the Obama administration is seeking “to forge closer ties” with the Muslim Brothers, accepting “the Brotherhood’s repeated assurances that its lawmakers want to build a modern democracy that will respect individual freedoms, free markets and international commitments, including Egypt’s treaty with Israel.” To this end, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and ambassador to Egypt Anne W. Patterson, have met with top leaders of the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party, thus legitimizing an organization whose fundamental tenets are hostile to our interests and security, and whose self-proclaimed goal is “eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within, and sabotaging its miserable house.” Despite a historical record of misreading Islamic revolutions, starting with Iran in 1979, our foreign policy establishment continues to believe the tactical deceptions and soothing assurances of groups who despise us, but who want our money and good will as they consolidate their power and influence.
The Western response to the Arab Spring reflects the failure of imagination that blinds us to the powerful role of Islam in Middle Eastern culture and society. Hence France’s preeminent scholar of political Islam, Olivier Roy, has proclaimed that in Egypt, “This is not an Islamic revolution,” and claims that those who overthrew Mubarak “do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.” Likewise the Carnegie Endowment’s Marwan Muasher: “Islam as a solution is not enough for them; people want jobs and better lives and will demand results.” And the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski writes, “When the state isn't hostile to religion, ideological Islam isn't a bankable political issue. Elections usually turn on more pedestrian matters.” These analyses reflect the dominant narrative explaining the Arab Spring mentioned earlier: that the same lack of political freedom and economic opportunity and development that bred terrorist organizations and violence has now led to the overthrow of the dictators and the beginning of democratic regimes. In a pluralistic democracy, so the claim goes, doctrinaire Islamist parties will not be able to deliver these material boons, and the voters will punish their failure, leading to either the Islamists’ marginalization, or their moderation of their ideology in order to win votes.
This interpretation, however, assumes the secular West’s understanding of religion as a Marxian “opiate” that compensates for a lack of material goods. It also depends on a false distinction between traditional Islam, which is supposedly compatible with liberal democracy, and a presumably heretical Islamism given traction by a lack of political participation and economic development. But traditional Islam has always been thoroughly political, and the melding of state and religion has always been central to Islamic and Islamist politics alike, given the belief that Islam provides a complete, divinely bestowed blueprint for political, religious, social, and economic order. That’s why a program like the Muslim Brothers’ has wide support among Muslims across the region. Given this broad sympathy, the trade-offs and compromises that arise from sharing power in a consensual, pluralistic government are not likely to lead Islamist parties to moderate their claims for the priority of Islamic doctrine and law. It is more likely that Islamist participation in democratic institutions is a temporary tactic in the long-term strategy of creating an Islamic government similar to that in Iran.
If the trends of 2011 continue, the outcome of the Arab Spring will resemble the legacies of the Iranian Revolution and the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by the mujahidin: the Islamist Winter of more power, influence, and prestige for an ideology fundamentally and violently hostile to American interests and ideals.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.