Thursday, August 31, 2006

In Response To The "Inevitable" Failure Of The Islamists

It has been suggested by many that Islamist political movements are doomed to fail in the end, just as the communist world eventually failed. Some suggest this means that they should be allowed to win power at the ballot box in the Arab world and that they'll end up shooting themselves in the foot anyhow. Others say they are inherently dangerous and since they'll fail anyways should not be allowed to come to power. I penned a few lines on the topic recently in an email and have copied below.

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That said, I think this now stereotypical line of “let the Islamists win because they are doomed to fail anyways” is not necessarily true. A first gut reaction would be to say that is just an old time Arab secularist or westernized elite expressing wishful thinking. But I have to admit that while that may or may not be true, such a comment reflects my own prejudices and focuses on the messenger when in reality they do have a fair argument that deserves to be addressed.

To that end, I would encourage everyone to read Baheyya’s excellent postings on the topic (http://baheyya.blogspot.com/2006/07/power-politics.html and http://baheyya.blogspot.com/2006/08/domestic-wages-of-war.html most recently). The Ikhwan in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, Hizbullah in Lebanon, etc. are each locally unique organizations, but that in and of itself is very telling since it shows they are not monolithic ideologues (as the utterly ignorant US leadership believes and constantly blathers on about as if they were little Stalin’s or Mao’s in the making) but an organic part of these nations who respond to local needs. These are Islamist organizations that have built genuine grassroots support by providing, not by terrorizing, *and* very crucially have come to recognize that they are not the only game in town and need to work within a broader national framework of compromise. I suspect Ibrahim recognizes this which is why he is not scared at the thought of them taking power. Where I would differ is in the notion that they will automatically fail. They certainly could. But their reputation for being far less corrupt, their track-record of providing services on the ground, and their views of foreign policy which come much closer to what most people consider a genuine reflection of the national (wa6ani and qawmi) interest all to me suggest they could do quite well in power and be very effective in genuinely meeting people’s needs.

Right now we see Israel and Fatah in Palestine, Israel in Lebanon (with the connivance of Hariri Inc. as As’ad Abu Khalil denigrates them), and Mubarak in Egypt are trying to create the old secular liberal self-fulfilling prophecy of inevitable failure: all these entrenched regimes are trying to tolerate granting them enough power to make people think the Islamists are responsible for their well-being but also trying in the process to bloody them and cut off enough real power such that they will be able to blame them for the ills of society which the secularists and outside powers are actually far more to blame for. I don’t see most people falling for it (though in Palestine a hard-nosed assessment by the public that Israeli/American disrespect for democracy makes it impossible for Hamas to rule effectively at the time being seems a growing feeling). They know the games these regimes play.

The sad thing is that the deadly decade of the 90s and the violent periods of secular-Islamist violence might have been greatly moderated if the secularists and the westerners (France and America in particular) had allowed the democratic process to work in Algeria in 1991. The FIS embodied many of these same trends – grassroots organization, effective provision of services, actual experience governing at the local level, and a willingness to abide by the big picture rules of democracy. The Algerian ruling clique and the French would absolutely deny this was true of the FIS, I disagree. I am convinced if they had been allowed to govern after winning in a fair election that we would have seen the first genuine and effective Islamist democratic government in the Arab world. It would have had warts as well, but it would have stood out as an example of how secularists and Islamists do not have to cut each others throats (literally). Instead the military intervened with French and American backing and over 100,000 deaths later Algeria is only barely limping out of its second great national trauma with no great gains to show (at least the first time they got independence).

I’m not so foolish as to think that Islamists will govern perfectly, but given the corruption and betrayal of national interests which the current regimes have produced (the fruit of never taking their slogans to improve lives seriously and instead focusing on preserving their own privilege and seeking help from abroad rather than their own people to do it), given the track record for effective governance and less corruption the populist Islamist movements have establish, and given the genuine desire among Arab publics to not simply flip to another dictatorship, Egypt, Palestine, and to a lesser extent Lebanon (where sectarian divisions make the picture much more complicated) all could serve as examples to the broader world of Islamist democrats. I am far more wary however of Iraq where the lack of political maturity (due to the rapid and bloody emergence from Saddam caused by the American occupation rather than an evolutionary path) and now the civil war mean that even Islamist parties with grassroots support are simply too sectarian-minded to act in a broad-minded way. In Syria as well, were the regime to topple, the lack of an experienced opposition (secular or Islamist) would more likely mean bloodletting between religious, secular, and sectarian forces than a model of Islamist democracy. All the more proof that top-down change imposed by tyrants (whether domestic dictators popular or not such as Nasser or Asad, or brutal foreign occupations such as the British, French, Americans, or Israelis) rarely produces a positive trend for the long term. Evolution and the long hard slogging work of building the foundations of a successful modern economy and political system are what are needed. The empty slogans of freedom fries or souls and blood redeeming the latest great leader don’t get anyone anywhere.

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