U.S. Should Help Establish Strong, Accountable Systems, Not Pick Winners In Middle East

Describing Islamism as “a relic of the 20th century, a discredited orthodoxy of limited appeal to the Arab masses,” Ray Takeyh warns that “History has shown“, however, that well-organized parties of circumscribed appeal can nevertheless assume greater influence by exploiting the disarray of transition periods and divisions within democratic camps”:

The problem is compounded by the temptation among many in the West to appeal to the “political” wing of militant organizations such as Hezbollah or to reach out to “moderate” elements of Islamist parties. The challenge for Washington today is not to cling to some kind of ecumenical spirit but to actively choose sides and fortify the political center against forces of intolerance.

Many in the West presume that once Islamist parties are integrated into the political order, the burdens of governance — compromise, coalition-building and constituency maintenance — will inevitably lead them to dispense with their ideological past. Such liberal conceits do a disservice to the Muslim Brotherhood and its many offspring, denigrating their commitment to their dogma.

Whether or not Islamism is a discredited relic of the 20th century, as Takeyh claims, he’s quite right that well-organized factions with limited appeal can exploit periods of transition to ensconce themselves in positions of influence (he should go down the hall and ask his CFR colleague Elliott Abrams about that). But the U.S. simply should not be in the business of picking winners in the new Middle East. Our focus should be on assisting in the creation of strong, accountable and transparent processes and institutions, not on selecting the people who should run them.

As for Takeyh’s claim that Islamists are not likely to “dispense with their ideological past,” we should note that, at least as regards their embrace of the democratic process, the Islamists of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have already dispensed with a significant part of that past. Their critics among hardcore Salafists like Al Qaeda, who’ve labeled the Brotherhood a bunch of Westernized sell-outs, certainly seem to think so.

I would also offer — and I’m continually struck by how curious it is that an Iraq war critic like me has to be the one to keep pointing this out — that the behavior of Islamist politicians and parties in Iraq offers evidence against Takeyh’s claim. Despite being “discredited relics of the 20th century,” and despite U.S. attempts to empower slick, Westernized hucksters like Ahmad Chalabi, Islamist parties have consistently done pretty well in Iraqi elections. Once in power these actors immediately began transforming Iraq into an Islamic state behaving like politicians, squabbling over power and resources, both on behalf of themselves and on behalf of the constituencies to which they are now accountable. Iraq is still bedeviled by enormous problems, and probably will be for some time, but its elected Islamist leaders plotting to transform Iraq into the seat of the new Caliphate does not appear to be among them.

As I wrote in the American Prospect shortly after the Egyptian demonstrations began, developing a coherent approach to the fact of political Islam is imperative to establishing a new U.S. relationship with the peoples of the Middle East, one not governed by the transactional imperatives of counter-terrorism or access to oil (though, of course, both of those things will continue to be important, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise). Obviously its important not to kid ourselves that Islamists are liberals in Islamic dress, or that they represent some sort of “authentic” voice that secular Arabs do not. But it’s unrealistic to think that we can marginalize religion in the politics of the Middle East, any more than we can in our own. And, frankly, given the religious nature of our own politics compared to those of other Western countries, Americans should know better than others that faith and politics can co-exist non-violently, if not always peacefully or comfortably, if contained within pluralistic systems that secure peoples’ basic rights.