by Barry Rubin
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman and well given.
– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
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Caesar, of course, was right in being suspicious and Marc Antony was wrong. Result: Caesar murdered; civil war; tens of thousands killed; Marc Antony dead. Makes you think. Or at least it should.
An interesting and important question about the Middle East (and one can treat it on a global level, too) is whether being in power or running in an election inevitably moderates those who are radicals. It is automatically accepted by many people that this is so. Yet an examination of evidence shows such behavior more rare than common.
Let’s begin by pointing out that some of the problem is the unthinking transference of things that might be true in private and personal life into the political sphere. As individuals mature and have experience, they often become more moderate. And there are many cases of individual politicians “selling out” and abandoning more militant ideas to become corrupt. Yet neither case necessarily applies to systems, movements, or ideologies.
Even more questionable is the view that the difficulties of having to make decisions in government forces leaders to become more responsible. For example, they learn that money is not unlimited and therefore priorities must be set. Supposedly, they say to themselves: Hey, collecting the garbage and fixing the potholes is what’s important, forget about all this silly stuff about fundamentally transforming society, imposing the Sharia, destroying Israel, or chasing America out of the Middle East.
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A problem with this argument is that it leaves out the political advantages for rulers of using demagoguery, incitement, and populism. To stay in power, a politician — particularly in a non-democratic country — gains advantage from militancy, real or feigned.
Another simplistic argument is that anyone who runs in elections and wins is automatically moderate because they participated in a legalistic, democratic process. This argument is quite full of holes. One should not confuse tactical caution with moderation. For example: President Hafiz al-Assad of Syria knew after 1973 that a direct confrontation with Israel was a losing proposition, so instead he backed terrorist groups and used Lebanon as a launching pad for the attacks. Being radical does not necessarily mean being suicidal.
Clearly, the most famous ideological dictatorships did not become more moderate. These include the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Communist Cuba, among many others.
But, wait: there is an escape clause of sorts. The USSR arguably became more moderate — but only with three caveats.
That process took place only after 70 years in power. Structural changes were involved, but there was an equally or larger accidental factor of the coming to power of one or two specific individuals. And after the start of a cautious moderation policy, the regime quickly collapsed, sending a warning to others who might have similar thoughts of loosening the reins. Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet bloc was taken as a lesson by Middle Eastern dictators: hang tough lest you simply hang.
One might make a stronger case with China having moderated. But again it took a very long time indeed, roughly a half-century, and of course some old features remain. Waiting for 50 years, however, is not what people are talking about when they speak of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt and quickly becoming teddy bears.
Turning to the Middle East, power does not bring about moderation. The Ba’athist regime in Syria remains radical after a half-century in power, and the same would be true of Iraq if not for the U.S.-led invasion. What about the PLO? It did sign the Oslo accords after one-third of a century of terrorism, but it did not keep the agreement as a result. The movement’s basic doctrine and strategy remains the same while its tactical shifts could be reversed in the future.
Of course, it seems to be a stretch to say there has been no moderation in the PLO and Fatah. Yet let’s remember the original moderation thesis here: the argument made in the 1990s was that the responsibility of power (collecting garbage; fixing roads; educating the kiddies) would so moderate the group as to lead it into a compromise peace treaty with Israel and the end of the conflict. That certainly did not happen, and the moderation thesis was a failure regarding Yasir Arafat. As for education, radical movements in power tend to train the children to be radicals, preaching the horror of compromise and the glories of aggressive war.
Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah, which dominates the government in Lebanon, have not moderated despite predictions to the contrary, and the wave of Islamism in the region makes such a change even more unlikely. Muammar Qadhafi of Libya never moderated, either. He just became more cautious after he was scared the United States might overthrow him in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq.
Then there’s Iran. The Islamist regime has been in power there now for almost one-third of a century without any clear sign of moderation. When the revolution took place in 1979, many Western experts predicted that the regime was already or would quickly become moderate. This was given as a reason for supporting or at least accommodating that government. Instead, its repression at home and efforts to spread revolution abroad led to war, suffering, and instability on a massive scale.
There is, however, one apparent exception to this list of cases in which the moderation thesis failed. Twenty-five years after the 1952 coup in Egypt, President Anwar al-Sadat changed course. Sadat had concluded that his regime was finished unless he did something drastic: a conciliation process with the United States and Israel to get back the Sinai oilfields and to reopen the Suez Canal, along with an easing of repression at home.
Of course, there are some ironies here as well. Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated for his moderation, and his regime is the one against which the 2011 revolution was conducted and which has led to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt. Thus, the Sadat shift may be used as the best evidence for the moderation thesis, but it is hardly overwhelming proof. Then, too, while one can cite national interest motives, it was a shift brought about by one man and not by deeper social change, as we see today when it is apparently being reversed.
In contemporary Egypt, if greater moderation prevails it would be because the armed forces tamped down on the Islamists. Yet that pressure is opposed by the moderation thesis advocates who argue that the Brotherhood will produce a more moderate regime on its own.
It is far easier to challenge than to prove the moderation thesis. At the very least it should be advocated only with great hesitation and questioned vigorously whenever it springs up.
Why has this not happened?
Instead, and we’ve seen this in hundreds of examples in the “Arab Spring” case, evidence of radicalism — deeds, writings, speeches — is systematically suppressed in the Western debate. Examples of alleged moderation, most often coming from public relations’ gestures or interviews with Westerners deliberately designed to mislead them, are highlighted by Western journalists and academics.
Because of political reasons and especially due to the ideological monopoly of certain forces over Western institutions, most of the academics, analysts, journalists, and politicians who speak on these issues get away with pushing the moderation thesis. They are virtually never asked to provide proof. Ignorance is no doubt a factor as well. This wrong idea thus sets current U.S. policy and creates a great risk of future crisis, instability, repression, and severe damage to U.S. interests.
And those who disagree, along with their evidence, are censored out of large-scale circulation to the general public.
While moderation can occur in radical regimes, it only happens under the following conditions: a long period of time, a major personnel change in the leadership, and devastating defeats that leaders perceive are going to lead to their fall if not addressed. These factors don’t apply, for example, to Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt today, who believe that — as President Barack Obama seems to agree — the tide of history is with them. They also believe that Allah, too, is on their side.
As you contemplate the issue you might want to see this excellent documentary made by an Iraqi Muslim moderate who lives in Norway. The point he makes repeatedly — and shows in his interviews with other Arabs — is that those Muslims who oppose Islamism have no doubt about the nature of the Brotherhood, its ideology, and goals. Indeed, they point out that the Brotherhood doesn’t even try to conceal its true nature in Arabic-language writings and activities. Yet we almost always hear that it is moderate in English by those granted the free run of the mass media and universities to inform the Western public on this issue.
And don’t miss the interview in the documentary with Gemal al-Banna, brother of the Brotherhood’s founder Hasan al-Banna and himself a Muslim moderate comparing the Brotherhood to the Communist movement and rejecting the idea that women must wear a hijab. Those who believe in timeless, unchanging, monolithic Islam might note that Hasan’s own sister refused to wear a hijab. As the film shows — in a sequence also available elsewhere — the proportion of women students at Cairo University who wore a hijab went from zero to ninety in 50 years. That’s not changeless theology but politics and a battle over how to interpret Islam. And the radicals who have successfully brought about these changes are not about to become moderate when they believe themselves to be on such a historical march forward.
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, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent 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 and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.