Paul Pillar

Alarmism on Islamism

Results of the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections—in which the Muslim Brotherhood came in first, followed by a Salafist party—have stimulated still more of what has been a common response to the Arab Spring ever since it began: the fear that Islamists might derail or hijack democratization in Arab countries. The response has often taken the form of a simple “Islamists dangerous, non-Islamists okay” attitude. There are three basic problems with this outlook, besides its crudeness. One is lack of clarity about exactly what is the danger that Islamists supposedly pose. A second is lack of explanation as to why Islamists in particular would pose it. The third is lack of analysis of whether Islamists could carry out feared acts even if they wanted to.

If discontinuation of democracy itself is the supposed danger, bear in mind that the targets of any alarmism about this are political parties that are gaining shares of political power through democratic methods. To be sure, there is the possibility of democratically elected elements subsequently trying to retain power through undemocratic means, but why should Islamists be any more likely to try that than anyone else? It is not hard to find examples of such attempts, and they are not Islamists. One recent example is Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Ivory Coast who, after losing a reelection bid, refused to give up his office until forced out with the help of a foreign military intervention. (Gbagbo, by the way, drew most of his support from the Christian southern part of the country; his opponent who won the election gets more of his from the Muslim north.) Then there is the democratically elected Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who has been unashamedly entrenching himself into what he seems to want to turn into a presidency for life. The idea of one man, one vote, one time is a fear that has come to be associated with Middle Eastern Islamists, but only as a fear—as with the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992—and not as part of a historical record.

The notion of Islamists hijacking democracy sometimes seems to have less to do with democracy itself than with liberalism—the idea that Islamists will use political power to impose restrictions on daily life that many of us, if subjected to them, would find uncomfortable or even abhorrent. It is indeed likely that at least some Islamist parties and movements, if given the necessary political power, would effect such restrictions. But we in the West should bear in mind three things. First, this does not entail any compromise with democracy, if whatever laws are imposed are imposed by those who have been elected democratically. What we would be seeing in action is the tension between democracy and individual liberty which sometimes crops up in our own political systems (which is why we have something like the U.S. Bill of Rights). Second, any judgments we make about this involve an application of our own social values to somebody else's society. If something we see is repugnant to our values, it is quite right for us to speak up about it. But we need to remember that the line between what is repugnant and what is merely different is neither clear nor universally accepted. Third and most important, this is again nothing specific to Islamists. One doesn't even have to go far from the Arab Middle East to find non-Islamist examples. We hear today, for instance, of the rights and freedoms of Israeli women being endangered by the growing influence of government-coddled ultra-Orthodox Jewish elements. How is this any different from women's rights being endangered by Islamists who gain shares of political power in Arab countries? The use of political power to restrict freedoms and impose the narrow values of elements that have gained a share of power is also seen in the United States, under the heading of “social issues”; the work of anti-abortion forces is perhaps the most evident example.

As for the lack of analysis of what Islamists actually could do if they were bent on doing something nasty like overturning democracy, how do you suppose, say, the Egyptian military would react to that? They would be unlikely to stay in their barracks.

The strongest real reasons for the alarms about Islamists gaining political power are not the explicitly stated ones. There is, first of all, the fact that Islamist parties just happen to be, as a function of history, discipline, organization and popular appeal, currently in the best position to succeed in the new democratic politics of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Democratization in the Arab world certainly is fragile and can stumble badly in the months and years ahead. Islamist parties will be in the thick of any such bad news—not because they are Islamist, but because their political success has put them in that position. A related reason is that whatever anyone does not like about the changes associated with the Arab Spring—such as a downturn in the tone of Egyptian-Israeli relations—gets associated with Islamists, again not because of any particular religiously based ideology but because of political success based on popular appeal. Egyptians are sounding unfriendlier toward Israel because with Israel's pal Hosni Mubarak gone, they are expressing more freely their feelings about Israeli policy. They would be expressing those sentiments regardless of whether the Muslim Brotherhood or secular liberals were winning elections.

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