On the Overblown Islamist Threat


The Jordanian regime has long been hostile to Islamists so yesterday’s opinion piece in the New York Times by Jordan’s former foreign minister and deputy president Marwan Muasher called “The Overblown Islamist Threat” merits careful consideration.  Coming in reaction to Ennahda’s victory in the recent Tunisian elections — which I have argued previously is a result even secularists could cheer — Muasher makes three points, so I’ll take them in turn:

First, Islamists are not stupid. Arab countries face daunting challenges and whoever governs them will need to tackle tremendous political and economic problems. Islamists don’t want to be blamed for the mess. In Tunisia, Ennahda has made it clear that it’s uninterested in ruling the country alone.

Islamists are not stupid, in fact, but I would frame this differently: the responsibility of governance forces compromise and practicality, so they will either govern effectively or they will be voted out.  The only way that discipline would break down is if the Islamists are able to cancel all future elections but there are reasons to doubt this will happen.  For one, the revolutions were fought in the name of democracy and the right to political participation so public acquiescence to an Islamist coup d’état of that sort is unlikely.  Also, Muasher writes that in Tunisia Ennahda has said it’s uninterested in governing alone but, in fact, as I wrote previously it would be unable to do so even if it wanted to: with 90 seats in a 207-seat parliament it is obliged to find coalition partners.

Second, Islamists are not as popular as Western pundits and policy makers think. Political Islam benefited from closed authoritarian systems throughout the Arab world because there was no alternative; they were the only viable political opposition.

This, too, is an argument that I have made previously.  In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood had an artificial monopoly on opposition, making it as much a creature of the Mubarak regime as the regime itself — or as the governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is today, which is perhaps one reason why since the revolution the SCAF and the Brothers have entered into an ideologically improbable but institutionally logical partnership.

Third, the vast majority of protesters are not seeking to replace autocratic regimes with religious theocracies. Arabs — especially the young people and secular liberals who poured into the streets earlier this year — are not going to be satisfied with hard-line ideological regimes. Islam as a solution is not enough for them; people want jobs and better lives and will demand results.

This is true, but insufficient in itself because revolutions can be hijacked.  It is also outdated: Islamists themselves have long since developed a more sophisticated policy program than the simple ‘Islam is the Solution’ slogan of two decades ago.  But there is no question that if the millions of Arabs who took to the streets earlier this year had been able to convert their professed political values into an organized political party able to compete in the gritty mechanics of winning elections then theocracy could be ruled out.  In Tunisia, where there have been real, fair, and free elections, the results have been encouraging.  But in Egypt, it is important to note that Mubarak’s parting gift to his nation was to leave it under the control of the military — and since it was a military regime to begin with, the best that could be said thus far is that the police state has been pushed back.  In a sense, Egypt has returned to the sort of political condition it was in fifty years ago; as was true then, liberals and civil society activists are at a distinct disadvantage because they compete in the public space while the Islamists can work within the network of mosques.  Extremists of all stripes thrive in the shadows of opposition.  Better, then, to bring them into the democratic process and force them to compete.

One last point that Muasher failed to note: while many Westerner commentators fear the Arab Spring will turn out to be ‘another Iran’ the hash that the Iranians have made of religious rule has succeeded in discrediting the idea that clerics are necessarily more beneficent or less corrupt.  If even the Iranians don’t want their theocracy, what are the odds Arabs will head down that path?


Click here to read the article I wrote for the New York Times magazine ‘T‘ about Tunisia in the Ben Ali years.  Or here for my article about contemporary art in Cairo for Travel + Leisure.


2 Responses to “On the Overblown Islamist Threat”

  1. Achase1 says:

    Spot on.

  2. Lynoreb says:

    We all need more of the clarity of your thinking combined with your knowledge and experience in the region. Your conclusions are thoughtful and broaden the possibilities for Islamic direction for us to consider rather than just being fearful.

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