I had the opportunity to review an article by Shadi Hamid, Project on Middle East Democracy‘s Director of Research, called “Parting the Veil.” It is well worth the read, I checked at the articles section at POMED, but they didn’t publish it online yet, I am sure they will later. I will keep an eye on it, and when they do, I will let you know. For now, some thoughts on this article.
“Parting the Veil” is an interesting, thought provoking read. I cannot say that I agree with everything Hamid writes, but he makes some good points, and raises some interesting questions.
The main point the author makes is that the West – better, the US – should stop disenfranchising and isolating Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Hamid, there is only one way forward in the Middle East: and that’s by promoting Democracy there.
In essence, the author advocates a policy I would like to describe as neorealism. He rejects traditional realism, which sometimes advocates working with / supporting dictators and, instead, advocates that the US should accept reality as it is: Islamist movements are very popular in the Middle East, and it is in the best interest to work with them as much as possible – especially with the moderate elements in Islamist movements.
Working with oppressive regimes will not work because:
1- Democracy will take over in the Middle East whether we like it or not, and Islamist movements are very popular – they will take over.
2- Oppressive regimes bread terrorism, we saw that with 9/11. The author also refers to a 2003 study, by Princeton University’s Alan Krueger and Czech scholar Jitka Maleckova, which concluded: “The only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.”
Hamid’s article is well structured, and he generally uses strong arguments to back up his claims. However, he also makes some – in my opinion – mistakes. For instance, Hamid believes that Islamists will moderate their stances / policies once they are in power. They have to, according to Hamid. To prove that Islamists moderate once in power, Hamid refers to Turkey and Iraq.
What is wrong with his reasoning is that Turkey was created by Atatürk and that the Turkish government was, for a long time, not ruled by Islamists at all. In fact, Atatürk was a strong secularist. Atatürk created a secular (laicism) Turkish state, in which Islamists were forcefully repressed. The party that’s currently ruling Turkey is – indeed – run by Islamists, however, this party has been created, after another Islamist party was made illegal, because the government considered this party to pose a threat to Turkey’s secular system. In other words: the AK Party moderates its tone and stances, because if it didn’t do so, it wouldn’t be allowed to exist.
When we look at Iraq, Hamid’s argument makes even less sense. Al-Maliki was not considered to be a staunch Islamist when he came to power (although he was supported by Islamists in Parliament of course) and, at this moment, Islamists are committing dozens of terrorist attacks on a daily basis. Perhaps Hamid refers to pre-2003 Iraq, but that Iraq was ruled by a secularist: Saddam Hussein who too, gave Islamists no chance to grab power.
On the other hand, Islamists have taken over in three countries / regions: Palestine (Hamas), Afghanistan (Taliban), and Iran. The Taliban were removed from power because they supported Al Qaeda and were, as such, co-responsible for 9/11. Iran, meanwhile, is causing crisis after crisis and is cracking down on any and every dissent. Palestine – well, Hamas violently took over Gaza recently: not exactly a perfect example of moderation either.
Hamid also – quite constantly – refers to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although he is right to note that the Muslim Brotherhood has officially changed its stance on terrorism, fact of the matter is that many Muslim Brotherhood members do not seem to have big problems with terrorism at all (for evidence, watch some videos at MEMRI I’d say, or google “Muslim Brotherhood”). In so far that the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated its tone, it is not because it is / was in power, but because the government was cracking down on the organization and oppressing Islamist movements which it considered and considers to pose a threat (to itself).
On the other hand, the author does have a good point, when referring to Iraq and Turkey, that they are – mostly – ruled by Islamists now but that they are “close American allies” nonetheless. We should also – as Hamid points out – not read too much into anti-American propaganda: “every other political group in today’s Middle East,” writes Hamid, “use fevered anti-American rhetoric” as well.
Hamid is also correct in pointing out that the “oft-repeated claim that free elections will lead to a scenario where Islamists would come to power and then end democracy as we know it,” is “purely a speculative claim.” As the author points out, “such a scenario has never actually happened.” Of course, some would argue, “it could happen in the future,” to which Hamid replies: Islamists “recognize that if they did come to power through democratic means and then refused to let go of power, it would cast a permanent shadow on the integrity of Islamic movements throughout the world.” In other words: “Islamist parties would no longer be trusted in the eyes of their own people.” Here too, Hamid refers to the Muslim Brotherhood: an organization that seems to understand this (as does, for instance, the AK Party).
Another good point, is that from a policy perspective it is quite silly to insist that Islamist movements should renounce terrorism and then, when they do, to say “but we don’t trust you.” As it is, “the vast majority of mass-based Islamist groups in the Middle East have already renounced violence.” Examples Hamid gives are “Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF), Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the Egyptian Brotherhood.” The groups “are not armed, nor do they have military wings.”
Lastly, in this regard, Hamid points out that, although “their views on women’s rights, social policy, and the implementation of sharia law leave much to be desired, while their understanding of international affairs and globalization tends to be simplistic and prone to demagogic flourishes,” Islamist organizations “have made impressive strides over the years, focusing less on empty religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform.” Besides, “one does not need to like Islamist parties or what they stand for to support their right to stand in free elections.”
Bush’s policies: first saying that it has now become America’s policy to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, only to backpeddle when it seemed that Islamists would take over, have made America look extremely hypocritical. This is – obviously – very bad for America’s image and only encourages extremism: they try to play the game according to the rules, but then get oppressed (in Egypt especially) simply because America doesn’t like what they stand for.
Because this post is quite a long read, I have decided to publish the first half of it here, and to link to my own blog if you all want to read the rest. Obviously, I greatly encourage you all to do so – I think it’s quite an interesting read if I may say so.