by Barry Rubin
Much of the mass media seems to be saying, to paraphrase John Lennon and Yoko Ono, “All we are saying is give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance.”
There are three arguments supporting this policy that are worth discussing in large part because the Muslim Brotherhood’s advocates don’t have any others.
The first, which one hears everywhere, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is full of factions that are moderate and hip young people who want real democracy. If this were true, it should be easy to prove. Here are some of the ways to do that:
Who are the leaders of these factions? What is their composition? Where have they put forward alternative positions? What posts do they hold in the movement? Was there a battle among factions on choosing the Brotherhood’s parliamentary or presidential candidates? How have they reinterpreted in a more liberal way Sharia law? Do their opponents in Egypt recognize the existence of these factions? Do those who defected from the Brotherhood say that the movement they formerly thought to be irredeemably radical has changed?
At the same time, the Brotherhood’s leadership continues to come up, without contradiction in the ranks, with the most extreme, intolerant, and bloodthirsty positions. Even if it were to be established that other factions exist, one would have to show that these factions had some chance of directing policy.
And the young hip people in Turkey’s old fogey Islamist movement have now been running the country for almost a decade, carrying out the work of fundamental transformation in that once secular polity toward being an Islamist state. They are far from finished.
It used to be that public debates depended on the ability of those arguing for a given thesis to provide proof. Now they are conducted by one side simply censoring out the other. Apparently on the question of Muslim Brotherhood moderation, the science is settled.
Incidentally, in countering my view on this point, the BBC interviewer kept referring to a New Statesman article on the Brotherhood which he said showed the group was becoming moderate. Not to my surprise, the author was Fawaz Gerges, a propagandist for the Islamists who has done zero research on the subject.
A second argument, expressed, for example, by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is that we must “hope” for the best. There’s nothing wrong with hoping for the best but that’s not the most effective type of national strategy. In this case, “hope” means doing nothing, saying nothing, and thinking nothing. And we should also remember that hope in the Palestinian Authority’s moderation even as it forms a partnership with Hamas and refuses to negotiate with Israel.
So the problems with hope are: it can paralyze action including efforts to shape the situation; it comes too late, after the new dictators are already in power; and it quickly goes over into being wishful thinking.
It’s also nice if there’s some evidence for having a belief that things will turn out all right. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote that “hope is the thing with feathers.” So is cowardice.
Dickinson wrote of hope:
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,/And on the strangest sea;/Yet, never, in extremity,/It asked a crumb of me.
Precisely, hope requires you to do nothing. No need for action, confrontation, responsibility, or risk. And some cannot distinguish between the call of that little bird and that of the Sirens, who lured the ships (of state?) onto the rocks where all aboard perished.
Third, there’s the “This is what democracy looks like” argument. Wadah Khanfar, former head of al-Jazira, has an op-ed entitled, “Islamism’s Positive Side,” that appeared in the Guardian and also The Age, in Australia. Naturally, readers are not told that al-Jazira is an Islamist operation. It’s sort of like presenting a Communist in his role as leader of a front group to tell you that the Communists are very trustworthy.
Still, it is refreshing that Khanfar admits:
In the Arab world, too, there has been mounting tension between Islamists and secularists, who feel anxious about Islamic groups. Many voices [there] warn that the Arab Spring will lead to an Islamic winter, and that the Islamists, though claiming to support democracy, will soon turn against it.
Well, perhaps the secularists and others who fear Islamism in the Arabic-speaking world actually know something. After all, they are the ones who are going to be oppressed, imprisoned, killed, and fleeing for refuge in the West.
He continues, “Stereotypical images that took root in the aftermath of 9/11 have come to the fore again.”
You mean like the image that Islamists are extremists who hate Jews and Christians and willing to use violence?
No, he only means the image that Islamists only “use violence as a means and an end.”
He complains that groups like al-Qaeda are “Islamist’’ in the West, despite the fact al-Qaeda rejects democratic political participation.” Read that carefully. He is actually daring to say that al-Qaeda has hijacked the word “Islamist.”
But of course Khanfar knows well that the Islamist electoral strategy is very recent and is being used only because Islamists think — and they’re right — that they can gain state power that way.
All the points Khanfar and the other advocates of Islamism make are purely tactical. For example, he writes, “Reform-based Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, work within the political process.”
But work within the political process to do what? To pass laws that oppress women, suppress minorities, destroy human rights, sabotage Western interests, and wipe Israel off the map, that’s what.
His final argument is that the West has made Islamists mad by supporting dictatorial regimes. But Islamists have their own ideology, agenda, and worldview. This is the same approach for Western policy that made the Carter administration try to be nice to the new Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Obama administration to cuddle with the Syrian regime. Didn’t work then; won’t work now.
Moreover, the West never supported dictatorial regimes because it liked the form of government but because those regimes were helpful to Western interests. Now the Islamist apologists want the West to support what will soon be dictatorial regimes that hate them and seek to do them harm.
What does Khanfar want specifically? He tells us: The West should not support moderate democratic opposition parties. Of course, this is already Western policy in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. While the Islamists help each other with money and other assistance, the West should shut out the real pro-democratic forces so they die. Alternative media will be shut down; human rights groups harassed; dissidents imprisoned.
And here’s a bonus, the fall-back excuse: Well, they haven’t done anything yet so let’s wait and see. That’s fine for regular people. But analysts are supposed to tell people what’s happening and give some sense of the trends. In this case, you have a radical group — two radical groups now that we have the Salafists, too — with a 70-year-long record and that’s making statements every day (in Arabic). We have the case of Turkey, too, which is milder but gives a sense of the direction of events.
Another group that’s supposed to do more than just wait, see, and react is the government. That’s true, of course, unless the government (of the United States in this case) is enthusiastically positive about the Brotherhood victory, apologizes for the Brotherhood, doesn’t help real moderates, and is trying to beat down the only hope for containing the radicals, the armed forces.
With no serious opposition or criticism abroad, majority support at home, and with the opposition increasingly intimidated at home, the Islamists will rule forever even if they do hold elections, especially when they — as we have seen in Iran — are counting the ballots. This is what theocracy looks like.
Question: Are the elite newspapers in the United State, the United Kingdom, and France running op-eds warning about Islamism as twenty-first century totalitarianism? I haven’t seen any.
A short history of Obama Middle East policy:
November 2011: We believe that Islamism is not a threat and that they will become more moderate once in power. There is nothing to worry about.
October 2012: Oops! Sorry about that!