by Barry Rubin
Well, now at least the debate is in the open and we can see just how questionable are the talking points of those who claim the United States has nothing to fear from Islamists.
The New York Times publishes an article with the promising title of “Fast-Changing Arab World is Upending U.S. Assumptions,” yet sadly, the article shows that certain assumptions are not changing at all. Indeed, are not even discussed. To summarize the article’s thesis: before Obama’s election, the United States thought that pro-American regimes were good and radical Islamists were bad — but now we know better.
For decades, Obama’s predecessors supported a number of Arab governments, including those in Egypt and Tunisia but not Syria. Obama put the emphasis on engaging Syria, but did not directly challenge the Egyptian and Tunisian governments until uprisings began against them in January 2011. Then he threw those two under the bus as fast as possible. But that policy did not apply to anti-American Syria, which he abandoned only in August 2011 after four months of full-scale revolt and massacres far more intense than those which made it abandon the Egyptian and Tunisian governments during the first week of demonstrations.
What makes the effort to talk seriously about the Middle East nowadays so frustrating is that the “mainstream” debate, as illustrated by the Times article, devotes no space to suggesting the following: perhaps the rapid rise of Islamists might be bad for the United States, and the outbreak of violence from Salafist groups, two armed cross-border attacks on Israel, or other events suggest that the threat had been underestimated.
No, not at all. When talking with “experts,” and in the journalist’s own editorializing, the only theme is that the United States used to overestimate the Islamist threat, but now it knows better.
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I was fascinated by a remark by State Department spokesperson Victoria J. Nuland:
It’s a new day in Egypt. It’s a new day in a lot of countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
True, it is a new era but it is an era when radical Islamists are seizing power or threatening to seize power in lots of countries. That’s not a sunny good morning in the Middle East. In addition, Nuland’s is a very kind of American-style suggestion that whatever went before doesn’t matter. The history of these radical groups and their ideology is of no importance. We’re all starting over with a clean slate.
The Times journalist explains:
American officials did not always carefully distinguish between Islamists, who advocate a leading role for Islam in government, and violent jihadists, who espouse the same goal but advocate terrorism to achieve it.
To say that a group like the Muslim Brotherhood just advocates “a leading role for Islam in government” is not quite the point. The issue: what do they want to do with this “leading role”? Might they have some agenda after they give Islam a leading role in government, such as destroying women’s rights, oppressing Christians, attacking Israel, forcing the people to conform to the Islamists’ definition of Islam, and smashing U.S. interests?
It is the ability of leading mass media outlets to produce sentences like the following that drives me to despair:
American hostility to Islamist movements, in fact, long predated Sept. 11, in part because of the United States’ support for secular autocrats in Arab countries.
In other words, it is all America’s fault for not being sufficiently sensitive in comprehending the perspective of the Islamist movements. What about the other, unmentioned, part: the fact of the Islamist movements’ hostility to America, their support for terrorism, their blood-curdling expressions of anti-Semitic hatred, and their stated intention of repressing everybody else at home?
Two brief historical examples: A) In March 2002, the Muslim Brotherhood announced it had established an armed wing, eight of whose members were ready to be suicide bombers in attacking Israel. B) When an Islamist inspired by Brotherhood leaders’ call for his murder tried to assassinate Egypt’s Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, a top Brotherhood official testified in the terrorist’s defense that he was right to try to murder the aged author.
So is there any risk from the rise of revolutionary Islamists today? Absolutely not, explains the Times writer. According to him:
[Experts] suggest that Americans should not assume that the rise of Islamists puts the United States in greater danger from terrorists. The opposite may well be the case, they say.
More recently, of course, we have the formation of Salafist morality squads, attacks on churches, and the extremely radical rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential campaign when all the niqabs were lifted to show the ferocious hatreds and extremism underneath.
Then the article quotes two experts. One explains that the revolution in Egypt “is an important step in combating terrorism in the region and undermining its appeal.” The other says that Egyptian terrorists were just mad about the Mubarak dictatorship so they have no remaining motive to use violence. But “If Islamist groups like the Brotherhood lose faith in democracy, that’s when there could be dire consequences.”
How do we prevent the Brotherhood from losing faith in democracy? Simple. Turn all the power over to them. Then presumably having their faith in democracy proven, they don’t actually need to kill anyone outside the country or repress anyone within the country.
To add insult to injury the author cites a supposed reason proving there is no problem with revolutionary Islamists taking power:
An earlier precedent might be the Zionist militants who took part in terrorist acts against the British before the creation of the State of Israel, then became leading politicians who were warmly welcomed in Washington.
I’m thinking of holding a contest so that you can explain why this “precedent” doesn’t hold. Once the state of Israel was established, those “Zionist militants” had no further demands. They didn’t want to fundamentally transform the country using mass repression nor did they have any active demands internationally. Certainly, they didn’t seek to wipe Britain off the map and if anything they were pro-American.
The mind that can make such a comparison is incapable of comprehending international affairs.
So here we are in the middle of 2012, and all of the events of the last eighteen months don’t seem to have taught the current administration’s policymakers or its supportive scribes anything. Can’t they even consider: “Hmm, perhaps this “Arab Spring” thing isn’t working out so well … “, or, “Maybe the rapid rise of revolutionary Islamist movements is just a little bit scary. Maybe we should be cautious about promoting it”? Can’t they?
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.