It is time to banish wishful thinking about Islamism By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A year ago many western commentators were celebrating an Arab spring. The internet generation personified by Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive, would take over power from military dictators and absolute monarchs in democratic elections. Those of us who warned that political Islam would be the principal beneficiary of elections in north Africa and the Middle East were dismissed as scaremongers.
Ever since 9/11, opinions in the west have been sharply divided on the popularity and legitimacy of political Islam. A minority – and I am one of them – argued that Islamism as a political doctrine was held by the mainstream in most of the House of Islam and particularly among Arabs; that violence was inherent in Islamist theory; and that if Islamists won state power they would not deliver prosperity.
Go through the literature of the past decade on this and you will find that initially most thinkers agreed with the second and third observations but dismissed the first as an unfair stereotyping of Muslims in general and Arabs in particular. The majority of western policymakers clung to the hope that Islamism as a political doctrine was accepted only by a fringe.
The fringe thesis inspired a series of policies aimed at capturing and/or killing the ultraradical violent leaders and marginalising the remainder. In the United States, conservatives and liberals accepted the basic assumptions of the fringe thesis but differed only in their methods. What has become clear after the uprisings of the past year is that Islamism is in fact mainstream, not fringe. The elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt confirm that it is secular individuals and groups who are on the fringes of Arab politics.
You would think the wishful thinkers among commentators would by now have accepted this. Instead, they have moved all too easily to the fresh delusion that a fringe group among Islamists is “extreme” and “violent”, whereas mainstream Islamists are not. Indeed, we should learn to view them as we view the Christian democrats of western Europe – a view advanced recently by Germany’s foreign minister, or, perhaps more plausibly, like the Islamists who govern Turkey.
This is the same train of thought that has led some analysts to call for talks with the Taliban. It is based once again on the premise that there are some “good” (read non-violent) elements in the Taliban and some “bad” (violent) ones. But in this new perception, the good Talibs are the mainstream and the violent ones are marginal. And so the fringe thesis is adjusted, but not discarded.
To compare Islamists of today with the Christian democrats of postwar Europe is absurd. To take them at their word that they will govern like the Islamists of Turkey is not much better. Europe’s Christian democrats may claim to be inspired by the Bible but they would not dream of proposing legislation straight from the book of Leviticus. By contrast, the Islamists of north Africa and the Middle East have for decades promoted the agenda that legislation should come from the suras of the Koran and other Islamic scripture.
The leaders of the political parties of the Brotherhood movement in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have insisted they are no different from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). They say they will adopt the same economic policies as the AKP. Surveys by Pew and others show that, all over north Africa, the government in Ankara is seen as a role model.
Yet the circumstances of Turkey are radically different from these north African states. In the 1920s, under Kemal Ataturk, Turkey embarked on a sustained policy of westernisation. Ataturk’s reforms, more than anything the AKP has done, help explain why the Turkish economy is among the most dynamic in the Muslim world. The AKP’s Islamist zeal is checked by the military, judiciary and press – though for how much longer remains to be seen.
These checks and balances are largely absent in the Arab world, as are the basic institutions conducive to economic prosperity. What is the likelihood then that Islamist parties will discard the project to impose sharia law that they have been promoting for decades? I think it is very low. My expectation is that Islamist parties will sweet-talk their voters and the west until their power is well established and then govern like Iran’s regime or Hamas in Gaza.
The transition from closed to open societies will be slow and painful for the Arab-Muslim world. Given that, it would be better for the west to invest in the future by offering more support to the secular groups that brought about this revolution. Cairo is not Ankara post-Ataturk, much less Bonn post-Adenauer. It is time to abandon the overconfident assumption that there is a moderate mainstream in the Arab world.
The writer is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of ‘Infidel’ and ‘Nomad’