“I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!” –W.C. Fields
By Barry Rubin
Suddenly, a new term is foisted on us without serious debate or proof and we are supposed to rejoice at the triumphs of those now called “moderate Islamists.” The problem here is not just that I don’t believe such a thing exists but that no case can be made that it does. The tactics of some Islamists (participate in elections, advance slowly) are being confused with principles (impose Sharia law, overthrow all non-Islamist governments, defeat the infidels).
This is no abstract argument. In effect, we are being told to rejoice as the West’s worst enemies take power. We are being told about the alleged virtues of forces intent on repressing their own people; destroying women’s rights; trampling on non-Muslim, non-Arab minorities; genocide against Israel; overthrow all non-Islamist governments, and demolish Western interests. And on what grounds? Because in some statements, which must be cherry-picked from a sea of extremist expresions, they claim to be moderate.
Where are the academics and mainstream journalists laying out a persuasive case that Moderate Islamism exists, rather than just assuming it does? Where is an honest presentation of the “Moderate Islamists” many radical statements? Where is even an even-handed discussion based on a fair hearing for the doubters?
Where has this new “movement” suddenly come from? Remember, up until now the debate has been over defining “Moderate Muslims,” but now the most radical sector of Muslim politics–the enemy of Muslims who are moderate–is declared worthy of that designation. Yet the whole case for “Moderate Muslims” was based on saying that these people weren’t Islamists and indeed that they were fighting against Islamism.
Up until now, the only important group that might conceivably have been called “moderate Islamists” has been the Turkish Justice and Development Party. Yet examining that party’s views and behavior disproves the idea of any “Moderate Islamist” movement.
First, party leaders consistently denied they were Islamists, knowing any such admission would be political disaster because most Turks–even most of the party’s voters–don’t believe in “Moderate Islamism.” The party defined itself as center-right
Second, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the party’s leader, has publicly said that there was no such thing as moderate Islam but only Islam; that the minarets of mosques are the bayonets of the revolution; and that democracy is like a trolley and you just get off when you want. Do you need him to draw you a picture?
Third, Erdogan has now gotten off the trolley, since repression in Turkey is increasing with, for example, hundreds of political prisoners and more added each day.
So the phrase “moderate Islamist” is like something out of George Orwell’s novel 1984, along with such phrases as war is peace and freedom is slavery.
How should we know if someone is a moderate Islamist? There should be some historical record of this species’ development. There should have been highly visible ideological battle. Where are the admissions of past mistakes, the explanations of Moderate Islamist philosophy, a reinterpretation of Muslim texts, a struggle between “moderate” and “traditional” Islamists in a group like the Muslim Brotherhood? There’s nothing, not the least hint.
Professor John Esposito, the leading advocate of the Moderate Islamist theory (the CIA is the leading advocate in government rightly points out that Muslim reformers, “are often initially perceived and received as a threat by religious institutions and more conservative religious leaders and believers.,” even being threatened with death. So if the Muslim Brotherhood now embodies such a huge reform in Islamist and Islamic thinking as to justify leading a government that would substitute votes for divine instruction, where is the angry rebellion against such treason by powerful forces? Where is the revolt, even split, within its ranks against such heresy?
The answer is that while a few–notably tiny and isolated al-Qaida–hold a different view of what should be done, almost everyone else sees this as a merely tactical shift. No heresy, just a different way of implementing the proper goals.
Thus, the “Moderate Islamists” speeches, statements and internal articles remain extremely radical and even bloodthirsty. And when moderate statements are made (usually in English, almost never in Arabic or Turkish), they assert only that democracy is a good idea for gaining power, not that it is a good idea.
So what do those who believe in “Moderate Islamism” think is going to happen?
- Option A: The Islamists gain power and impose Sharia law. Then they lose the election, the opposition comes in and abolishes Sharia. The Islamists chuckle, “Oh well you can’t win them all!”
- Option B: The Islamists gain power but contained by public opinion, coalition partners, and the restraint of the military, they content themselves with making small changes and “sell out.” To put it another way, they become the Islamic version of European ChristianDemocratic parties. Yet this would require daily violations of their interpretation of Allah’s will in even the smallest acts–giving a construction license to a Christian church, appointing a woman judge. Muslims, even pious Muslims, can do things like this–because they either don’t want to impose Sharia or interpret it loosely–but Islamists cannot and don’t want to do so.
The closest real thing to moderate Islamism is the tiny al-Wasat Party in Egypt. But that group argues that the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t moderate!:
- Leaders of al-Wasat quit the Muslim Brotherhood precisely because they were convinced that it is hardline and cannot be moderated.
- Not a single leader of the Brotherhood joined these defectors.
- The Brotherhood today has about 40 times the base of support of the real (if it is possible to exist at all) “moderate Islamists.”
Thus, “Moderate Islamism” is not a movement but a propaganda line: Conceal your aims, neutralize the infidels with soothing words, get non-Islamist votes by promising to be flexible, and then spring the trap closed. In other words, we are merely talking about clever tactics, a situation that should have been obvious given decades of dealing with parallel Communist maneuvers.
And yet the great institutions of the Western democracies–a free press and, scholarly community fearlessly debating and seeking truth; a political leadership grounded in the real world—have fallen for this nonsense. Worse, much worse, they are trying to indoctrinate their own people to believe it. Yet events will increasingly contradict such assertions, just as they did about similar ideas that Iran’s revolution was going to be moderate or that the Palestinian movement would be moderates by power.
So how is this illusion of “moderate Islamism” going to be maintained?
- First, by underreporting of the Islamists’ radical statements.
- Second, by underreporting the Islamists’ extremist actions.
This is exactly what has happened in Turkey. The Turkish model is very ugly indeed. And note the New York Times coverage of Tunisia, pushing the line that real Arab liberals like the Islamists and that if you campaign against the Islamists the voters won’t like you. Actually, I pointed out that it was leftist parties that were eager to form coalitions with the Muslim Brotherhood that whitewashed the Islamists; the real liberals condemned them as phonies and extremists. So instead of supporting the true democratic reformers in their battle to avoid having their countries turned into Islamist states, the counterparts of these people in the West are subverting them!
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 book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com