Lessons from Europe can shed light on the challenge of Islamism in power. The experience of two world wars seemed to prove that Germans could never accept democracy. Yet Germany became an exemplary liberal democracy and the anchor for European stability. This transformation points to prospects in the Arab world: can Islamism evolve from the cultural radicalism of its extremist wings into a moderate force for modernization? What can the US do to promote this evolution?
There are plenty of reasons for skepticism. Islamism led to 9/11. Islamist sympathizers sheltered Bin Laden in Abbotobad and fought American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Islamist agitators still preach radical messages across Europe and recruit new foot soldiers for jihad. Vigilant security strategies measures remain necessary.
Yet the field of Islamist politics is not monolithic. Extremist Imams in the mosques of London are not the same as mujahideen in the border regions of Pakistan, and they in turn are far away from legislators in Ankara and Cairo. We need sophistication to recognize these differences (which means developing more effective intelligence networks). We need to understand how operate in this complex landscape. And we need to distinguish between incorrigible enemies and potential friends.
A blanket refusal to engage with any Islamist political force would prevent the US from working with the new political powers emerging from the Arab spring. At the same, a willful blindness toward the real threat of extremism would undermine American security interests. Exploring possibilities for cooperation is not automatically an abandonment of western values, but neither is counter-terrorism a matter of so-called “Islamophobia,” as the apologists would have it. We need policies flexible enough for both.
The US can hardly appeal to democratic purity as grounds to refuse to work with the emerging Islamist parties, given our track record. We have a long (if uneasy) history of cooperation with Pakistan, whose military and security forces have well known Islamist leanings. The US collaborates with Islamist Turkey, an important NATO ally. And the extensive ties to the Saudi regime have never been seriously jeopardized by Riyadh’s promotion of Wahabism abroad: in comparison to the Saudis, an Islamist Cairo may turn out to be the moderate alternative.
One should however pose the question in reverse: will Islamists in power want to talk with the US? No doubt the US has enormous resources that new leaders in the Arab world will be reluctant to ignore. In addition, the fact that both the Bush and the Obama administrations have largely supported democratic change, even at the cost of losing allies, such as Mubarak, ought to provide a viable starting point for discussions with newly elected regimes. This is particularly the case in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; in contrast, the US is much less likely to have similar credibility in Syria, given the history of Washington’s illusions about Assad as a reformer—Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry have a lot to answer for. Making matters worse, US policy still hides behind the United Nations in order to accommodate Russian interests in Syria. Islamists in power in Damascus will have a very different perspective on the American democracy than do Islamists in power in Cairo.
The US must recognize the heterogeneous political positions within Islamism in order to cultivate moderate, pro-western and pro-democratic forces. We should, for example, identify mid-career and younger party members with western leanings, e.g. perhaps those whose activism involved social reform agenda more than religious orthodoxy, and the State Department should bring them to the US on visits to build bridges to our institutions. Cultural exchanges could contribute to the development of a moderate leadership in the next generation.
As the US engages with the new regimes, policies should include a continued assertion of democratic values coupled with an encouragement of moderate voices. Washington should help Islamism in power evolve into a stable center-right force for modernization, not unlike Europe’s Christian Democratic parties, which once displayed much more stridently religious programs but developed into (more or less) conservative parties, fully within the democratic mainstream. The US can facilitate that transformation through constructive engagement with the Islamists. Engagement means a willingness to talk and even collaborate, but only if we also have the will to make our values clear. The strategic importance of pulling Islamist regimes toward democratic moderation is not compatible with rhetorical apologies intended to curry favor with extremists. Appeasement does not succeed: that too is a lesson from the European past.
Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.