When Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 6-day war in 1967, Arab Nationalism was dead. This political philosophy, which had dominated Arab intellectual and political thinking since independence had completely failed to create progressive societies or defeat the Arabs’ arch-enemy. The ideological vacuum that was created allowed political Islam to begin making a comeback. It took years, but eventually we have the political playing field we have today, largely dominated by Islamic movements, either outlawed or marginalized, but still very popular.
A turning point in the recent standoff between the Pakistani state and Taliban militants in the northern Swat region came when the Pakistani authorities AGREED to the militant demands to institute Islamic law. Very quickly, it became apparent to the local population of Swat that Taliban enforced sharia law was not going to usher in an Islamic utopia that would wash away the corruption and ineptitude of local government institutions. The brutality of the Taliban brand of governance turned the common Pakistani against the movement and gave the military the local support it needed to wage an effective campaign to dislodge the movement.
Instances like this have peppered the Muslim world for decades now, since the singular failure of Arab Nationalism in ’67. A few recent examples are illustrative. In Nigeria, the northern states that have enacted Islamic law are only now slowly realizing that it is no better at improving governance. Local services are still poor and corruption is as bad as it ever was. The fact that women are told to wear more modest clothing and more bars are shut down is not leading to any new jobs or better schools. And of course there is Iran, a product of the first successful Islamic revolution and the quintessential paradox in the Muslim world. Here, “Islam” is the ruling system, and here it has failed to deliver basic freedoms and services for arguably the most pro-American, pro-Western population in the region.
We don’t seem to be drawing any valuable lessons from this, or perhaps our policy makers are ignoring them. Ever since the FIS in Algeria was poised to win a parliamentary election fair and square in 1990, our knee-jerk reaction has been to violently oppose the coming to power of any political group that has Islam in its platform. What happened in Algeria is telling. The secular military stepped in to annul the election and what followed was one of the most brutal civil wars in history. America and the West were conspicuously silent. Moderate Islamic groups that had warmed up to democracy around the region stepped back, went underground, or became radicalized against the entire Western system. One wonders what would have happened if we had urged our Algerian military allies to accept the election results and let FIS rule. My instincts tell me that very quickly, the people of Algeria would have seen that their “Islamist” platform was full of rhetoric and empty of real change. Sometimes, we need to let our adversaries fai. We need to de-mystify and de-claw them.
Today in the Middle East there are a smattering of Islamic political groups who sit in the opposition in a variety of countries: Egypt, Jordan, a number of Gulf countries. They sit comfortably, criticizing their secular governments for being “un-just” and corruptible behemoths that oppress people’s freedoms. It is always easier to criticize, using vague and flowery poetry from the Koran and Islam’s hollowed past. Much harder to rule and effect real change. I wonder how things would be different if more power was shared with these groups. Wouldn’t it be harder for them to be critical if they were part of the government? Over time, wouldn’t the people realize that the Koran and the past do not contain any specific prescriptions for how these countries are going to progress and compete in a globalized world?
In Gaza, Hamas is in control. But the Israelis and the Americans chose to blockade and embargo Hamas after it won Palestinian elections fair and square. As a result, Gaza is one huge concentration camp of misery and the people there will never experience the authentic dissolution with Hamas that they might have had Hamas been allowed to rule a normal state. You see, now Hamas can very easily blame Israel for all its problems, deflecting popular rage from any ineffectiveness at governing. When you level a society with missiles its unlikely that their government will be ousted. On the contrary, local leaders usually grow stronger.
The one exception to this rule in the broader Muslim world is Turkey. A moderate Islamist party has been ruling there for some time. But the Ak party didn’t use to be so moderate. Initially, they challenged the fiercely secular Turkish republic and wanted to steer the country further towards its Muslim political roots. But the establishment in Turkey LET Ak rule. They took a chance. The result was instructive. Far from radicalizing Turkey, Ak itself changed when it became part of a multi-party political system. It was forced to compromise. It became more moderate and steered Turkey towards greater interaction with its non-Muslim neighbors. It ushered in a period of unprecedented trade and growth. Turkey’s political system is more mature and effective because of this. Many of the religious radicals have been disarmed by a more inclusive playing field.
Bombs were not dropped and people did not die to effect this change. It came about peacefully thru political compromise. There are many ways to encourage political change. One way is to let movements run their course and die in their own failures.