Wisdom to Know the Difference

Razib Khan has a typically incisive post pointing out that what counts as a “moderate” Islamic political party varies considerably from country to country within the Muslim world. Which is true. But by the same token, it’s worth pointing out that Islamic parties, whether moderate or extreme, quite plainly occupy the center of gravity across the Muslim world. On the spectrum of relative liberalism, the center varies considerably from country to country – but in a burgeoning majority of cases, that center, however liberal or illiberal it is, is Islamic in orientation.

With the ouster of Saddam, the main political forces to emerge in Iraq were a moderate Shiite Islamic party and an extremist Shiite Islamic party. With the ouster of Qaddafi, Libya is also going to be governed by a coalition that is predominantly Islamic in orientation. In Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, popular protest eventually forced the ruling powers to allow popular elections, all of which were won by Islamic parties; the same was true of the elections in Gaza. I have no doubt that same thing will be true if and when Yemen and Syria follow suit. The same would be true of Saudi Arabia if elections were ever held. The same was true in Algeria in the early 1990s, before the military cancelled the elections. Turkey evolved slowly and relatively peacefully toward its current orientation, governed by a moderate Islamic-oriented party. Pakistan is not governed by explicitly Islamic parties – but it is formally an “Islamic Republic,” Islam has a formal role in the Constitution, and there is a religious test for the Presidency. Iran, of course, is an Islamic Republic of (formally) revolutionary character.

Who knows, of course, what tomorrow may bring; I don’t mean to suggest anything about the “inherent character” of Islam or majority-Muslim societies. But right now, at this historical moment, the advance of democratically accountable government and the advance of Islamic-oriented politics go hand in hand across the Muslim world.

[Short aside: I’m using the clunky phrase, “Islamic-oriented” rather than the almost-as-clunky but more-in-vogue “Islamist” because I think some people use “Islamist” to imply a specific ideological vision of how society should be organized, and I take Razib’s point that there is not a common ideological vision among the various Islamic-oriented parties and movements across the Muslim world.]

The folks who make this point in Western media tend to be arguing one of two things: either that the West should stop promoting democracy in the Muslim world, because doing so will only empower illiberal forces, or that the West needs to (somehow) empower liberals in the Muslim world to make sure that democracy isn’t “hijacked” by “Islamists” and that “real” democracy has a chance to take root. (Or, as Tom Lehrer put it: “They’ve got to be protected / All their rights respected / ‘Til someone we like can be elected.”)

I’m not making either argument; indeed, I would dispute both. The two fundamental claims for democracy are that it provides legitimacy to authority and that it provides some check on that authority via the “accountability moments” of elections. Both of those arguments remain true even if a popular majority is likely to be illiberal to Western eyes. Active opposition to democratic trends in the regions is, therefore, likely to be perceived within the region precisely as you would expect it to be perceived: as hostile to the people of the region. The negative consequences for the Western position and the position of our allies or clients should be obvious. By the same token, inserting ourselves into the emerging politics of the region’s various countries to tilt the scale in favor of parties with the “right” political orientation actually weakens the very orientation we’re trying to encourage. (The history of Russia during the Yeltsin years provides an instructive example of this dynamic.)

I’m just saying that we should be aware of this dynamic as we attempt to understand what is happening across the Muslim world. And we shouldn’t look at elections in this part of the world – or in any part of the world – as referenda on us. Looking at them that way is a relic of a Cold War mindset, a period when we were locked in ideological competition with another superpower actively engaged in trying to “turn” other countries into members of their “camp” (a process in which, I should note, the Soviet Union was not enormously successful – within a dozen years of its revolution, Communist China was pursuing an independent and even anti-Soviet line; Cuba, meanwhile, while annoying to the United States, was more a drain on the Soviet treasury than an asset in pursuing Soviet interests). To the extent that Islamist parties get “outside” support that helps them achieve political success, on the other hand, that support comes from “inside” the region – from Saudi Arabia and/or Iran – and is therefore by definition an expression of political developments within the region, and within Islamic civilization. That development proceeds in some part in reaction to us – but not primarily so, and even to the extent that it is a reaction to us, that doesn’t mean we can reliably shape that reaction by changing our behavior (whether to be more interventionist or more conciliatory or something else entirely).

The original neoconservative insight in foreign policy, gleaned from a study of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, is that the character of a regime has an impact on its foreign policy, and that therefore the realist dictum that states always pursue their interests is at best incomplete. The interests of a regime are not identical to the interests of the state, much less the interests of the people, and an ideological regime may pursue a foreign policy for ideological reasons contrary to national interests because the legitimacy of the regime depends on that ideology. The insight is real, and worth grappling with, but has been much over-applied in recent years (and under-applied to the neoconservative ideologists themselves). It is decidedly unclear how it is properly applied to the spread and maturation of Islamic-oriented politics within the Muslim world.

If the United States and other Western states assume that this political development within the Muslim world is inherently inimical to our interests, we are setting ourselves up for the clash of civilizations that Samuel Huntington was actually eager to avoid. If, on the other hand, our interests are finite and comprehensible, then we will need to learn how to pursue them within the context of this ongoing political development in the Muslim world, learning to speak that political language with increasing sophistication as it evolves, rather than demanding they speak our language or be silent.

There was nothing the United States could reasonably do to effect a liberal victory in Egypt’s elections. Nor was there anything the United States could reasonably do to achieve stable, long-term legitimate governance of Egypt by a political coalition unrepresentative of and unaccountable to the Egyptian people. What remains to be seen is not whether Egypt will remain on our “side” or not, but whether the United States and Egypt do have essential interests in common, and whether we can find the language that enables those points in common to predominate in our relationship over the points where we are at odds. I happen to be confident that Egypt has a powerful interest in maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, for example. I’m also confident that Israel has a similar interest. And, needless to say, the United States shares that interest. But I’m not as confident as I’d like to be that the United States will be successful in bringing both parties to a recognition of that shared interest, and how its importance overrides other issues on which they are in conflict. But that’s what diplomacy is about. We’ll see whether we know how to practice it.