The Islamist Moment

Friday, October 26, 2012

For many on the American left and right, the Arab spring has become a winter of triumphant fundamentalists. In Egypt, where Arab liberalism was once strong, religious parties overwhelmed secularists in parliamentary elections and an Islamist was elected president. A referendum to tear up the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty probably lies ahead.

But Westerners should resist nostalgia and depression. Given the awfulness of post–World War II Arab lands, where even the most benign regimes had sophisticated, torture-happy security services, Islamists who braved the wrath of rulers and critiqued the moral breakdown of their societies were always going to do well in a postsecular age. Few in the West understand how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. Counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.

The case for a separation of mosque and state has been hard to make in the Middle East because most Muslims have not been burned by internecine strife. The West, on the other hand, has become an unrivaled liberal paragon in part because its past savagery was so intense. Westerners now instinctively compartmentalize their faith and temper its expression because their Christian forebears killed each other zealously over religious differences. That sustained barbarism continued into post-Christian societies, communist and fascist alike. Reform-minded Muslims have usually not emphasized the lows of occidental history along with the highs.

A hundred years ago, the most consequential Muslim intellectuals were mostly progressive men who tried to work out a synthesis between the West and Islam. The Middle East’s post–World War II rulers, however, merely dictated that the Muslim clergy and the faithful change their ways. Against the seductive power of nationalism, socialism, and communism, which in the hands of military men ran roughshod over much of the Middle East, Islam stood as a barrier to “progress.” Among Shiite Muslims, the mullahs became poles of resistance. Among Sunni Muslims, whose clerics have been closely allied to the state, devout laymen took the lead in opposition.

As the imported Western ideologies ended in tyranny, Islam became a haven, a repository of virtue and memories, both real and imagined, of better times, when rulers and the ruled abided by the same religious law. The all-purpose fundamentalist cry “Islam is the answer” is as much a critique of what had been tried and failed as it is a tendentious reading of history.

It ought to be obvious now that Muslims cannot be dragged dictatorially into an embrace of secularism and all the liberal values that spring from it. They have to arrive at this understanding voluntarily and organically.

Some of those values are crossing over. Slavery, for instance, is de facto no longer permitted in Islam—even though it’s authorized by the Quran—because Muslims successfully grafted European ethics onto Islamic mores. (British warships also helped stop the trade.) Individualism, too, has penetrated deeply into Muslim societies. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, recognizes a woman’s equality inside the voting booth.

Islamists are cultural hybrids, trying to absorb the best of the West without betraying their faith and pride.

We can easily find disturbing commentary and actions by members of the Egyptian Brotherhood, or by the Tunisian Rachid Ghannouchi, the intellectual guru behind the ruling Nahda party. But we can just as easily find words and deeds that ought to make us consider the possibility that these men are neither Ernst Röhm and his fascist brownshirts nor even religious versions of secular autocrats. Rather, they are cultural hybrids trying to figure out how to absorb the best of the West (material progress and the absence of brutality in daily life) without betraying their faith and pride.

We know that in Iran, under theocracy, fundamentalists became fundamentalist critics. Some former die-hard members of the revolutionary elite have become proponents of ever-more-liberal democracy. The Islamic Republic’s controlled elections created a powerful appetite for real ones.

Muslims can’t be dragged into an embrace of secularism and all the liberal values that spring from it.

Just so in Arab lands: militant Muslims who once espoused violent revolution now back representative government. They do so in part because they know the power of the appeal to democracy among the faithful. They also do so, as Iraq’s Shiite clerics have made clear, because they are convinced that free Muslims voting can do no worse than the Westernized dictators before them. This view is potentially very strong among Sunnis who don’t recognize the possibility that a majority of Muslims can err in their collective judgment. Democracy is thus a means to keep Muslims more religious, whereas theocracy actually secularizes society.

It is certainly possible that Arab Islamists will try to abort democracy once they gain power, fearful of how free men and women might act. But there will be enormous resistance from the faithful.

Arab Muslims have little idea yet where the red lines are—where parliamentary power, holy law, and tradition collide. In Iraq, where this collision is the most advanced, both the clergy and secular laymen have given ground on sensitive issues.

As is already happening in Egypt, we will see debates revolving around issues that will turn Western stomachs—such as the exclusion of Christians and women from official positions, and the permissibility of clitoridectomy and childhood brides. Though the outcomes may be distressing, this is not surprising. If even a secular, semidemocratic Turkey, guided by Europeanized generals, constantly mistreated its religious and ethnic minorities, we can be certain that Arab lands far less influenced by the West are unlikely to be more tolerant.

But democracy, even if vastly more limited than in the West, always introduces a jousting ethic into politics. Representative government puts into play the sacred and the profane. It empowers women, the Achilles’ heel of Islamist fundamentalism. In Egypt, it pits Muslim Brothers against more hard-core Salafists. Secular Muslim liberals may one day form a government. But for now, they are too culturally close to the West, and to the Westernized dictators, to carry their societies with them. Fundamentalists are nearer the mainstream.

Washington should be under no illusions: Islamists will be neither friends to us nor allies. But their debates with each other and with the region’s still-active nationalists, socialists, communists, and liberals will get evolution rolling. Down that tortuous path lies the possibility of calmer relations between Islam and the West. Dictatorship nostalgia, on the other hand, will take us right back to the cul-de-sac where Osama bin Laden was born.