The hysteria of the West about the Arab awakening turning into an Arab Islamist nightmare is reaching full-blown proportions. The United States and Israel, self-appointed referees of democracy in the region despite their long-running support for the Middle East’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes, are crying foul.
The incitement? A series of victories by Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. Yet, given the history of Western support for governments that simultaneously quashed secular opposition movements and persecuted Islamists, the popularity of moderate Islamist parties should come as little surprise—nor should it be cause for concern.
Oil and Stability
For over 60 years, the West sold out Arab freedom and democracy for oil and stability. Fearing the growing strength of Arab communist parties in the 1950s, the West assisted in founding and supporting the anti-communist Baathists, who came to power in Iraq and Syria in the 1960s and decimated the communist parties there, along with the rest of their domestic opposition—secular and religious alike.
The secular Baathists, along with other U.S.-backed regimes in the region (especially in Egypt), were not receptive to the growing power of Islamists, often repressing them brutally. Yet while the regimes dismantled secular and left-wing opposition groups—and discredited the secular system itself with their own excesses—the ranks of Islamists managed to grow. Just as in the United States, where the civil rights movement and various right-wing evangelical causes found sanctuary in houses of worship, Islamists in the Middle East managed to grow their movement in the refuge of the mosque.
Even today, the United States seems more concerned about maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel—signed by Mubarak’s authoritarian predecessor Anwar Sadat—than with the welfare of Egyptians themselves. It was not even a year ago that the United States first advocated for a transitional Mubarak-led government in Egypt and, when that became untenable, supported the butcher of Egypt—the head of the hated security services, Omar Suleiman—as the transitional leader. Even without Suleiman, Egypt’s rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) more and more resembles a mere “coup d’état light.” By all appearances, the military is trying to maintain their control by any means necessary as long as it looks democratic. SCAF has used the same tactics as the previous regime—arbitrary arrest, kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment—to stay in control. The Egyptian people have other ideas in mind.
Beyond even such political and historical explanations, it should come as little surprise that Islamist slogans find fertile ground in the majority-Muslim Middle East—especially if we look at the United States itself. A cursory review of the GOP presidential candidates’ emphasis on their Christianity shows that religious politics are alive in East and West alike.
Yet U.S. pundits and politicians seem continually baffled about the appeal of Islamist parties in the region. The same pundits, such as the conservative Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, decry the “failure of the Muslim world’s secular movements to provide better forms of politics.”
In the rubble of authoritarian and corrupt secular regimes, democratically elected Islamists, mindful of the necessity of power-sharing and moderation, may be paving the way for the region’s transition to democracy. In Tunisia, where the Islamist Ennahda party won a plurality of the vote, the Constituent Assembly offered the presidency to Moncef Marzouki of the secular, left-leaning Congress for the Republic Party. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, furthermore, has made several conciliatory statements toward other parties and tacked moderate on social issues, mindful that the people of Tunis in particular will not tolerate an oppressive cultural system dictated by the government. Newly elected Islamists from Morocco’s Justice and Development Party have made similar statements, while Libyan Islamist leaders have emphasized social justice and patriotism above religious issues.
In Egypt’s unusual multi-stage elections, the two large Islamist parties have won a clear majority. In the nine districts polled in the first round, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won nearly 37 percent of the vote, while the Salafist, Saudi-backed Nour Party took nearly 25 percent. Two rounds of voting remain. But rather than form a coalition with the Salafists, who favor a strict and conservative application of Islam in all aspects of life, the FJP is planning to join more moderate forces in any future government.
The Arab world is seeing a sea change. The Arab people are facing many crucial and important choices that will determine the future the Middle East. New Arab governments will face monumental challenges such as deep poverty, poor industrial infrastructure, broken health systems, and systemic corruption. And if the recent election results are any indication, the Islamists are here to stay.
The sooner the United States realizes this fact, the sooner it can enter into an honest and mutually beneficial dialogue with the region’s new leaders. There is no need for the hysteria and bellicose anti-Islamic rhetoric offered by many of the GOP’s presidential candidates. Instead, the United States can offer Arabs the educational and technical assistance they hunger for to promote their economic growth. The more America engages Arabs and Muslims abroad—while respecting their dignity and sovereignty—the better it can help them to become part of the world community.