“La Ikhwan, La Salafia. A Sha’ab Bidu Huriyya.”
“No Muslim Brotherhood. No Salafists. The Youth want Freedom.”
The language above on the sign held up by a Syrian protester this week encapsulates all the promise, and anxiety, of this moment for Western policy makers watching the Arab revolutions unfold. What kind of freedom? Who will step into the vacuum? What will be their world view?
Stepping into this dangerous information void is a familiar narrative for those of us who have been watching the region for some time, finding its voice once again in the global media echo chamber. In the 80′s and 90′s it was a barely reported whisper in the secure, secular anterooms of power, yet it resonated with the right audience. Strongmen in immaculate Armani suits in Cairo and Damascus and Sana’a pulled aside envoys from Rome to Paris to Washington for a measured, and entirely calculated pronouncement: We have a problem. The mullahs have toppled the Shah. The fundamentalist wave is now sweeping thru our own countries. Look the other way while we deal with it…
And we did. The secular, benevolent dictator was much preferable to the bearded fundamentalist. Benevolent to our own interests, of course, not so much those of their own people. In Iraq, Saddam invaded Iran and brutally crushed Kurdish and Shi’ite dissent, all with Western weapons and financing. In Syria, the late Hafez Al-Assad reduced the city of Hama- the center of the Syrian Islamist movement- to rubble. In Egypt, pitched battles took place between Mubarak’s security forces and Islamic groups. And perhaps most damning, in hindsight, a moderate Islamic party won a free and fair election in Algeria, only to be brutally removed by a cabal of generals who tipped the country towards civil war, without so much as a peep from Western leaders.
All of this, years before Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden were even a coherent operational entity. All of this, and our leaders still scratch their heads and wonder out loud why political Islam has turned dangerously radical.
What has changed today? In Libya, the Qaddafi family mafia screams of Al Qaeda rebels and Islamist conspiracies. In Syria, the younger Assad talks of armed gangs with sinister Islamic credentials. In Egypt, military rulers continue to play the heart-strings of Western Islamophobia, hinting of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in upcoming elections. Yemen’s President Saleh long ago mastered the art of the American shake down: extracting millions in U.S. aid by playing up the threat of exploding underwear bombers and then using those resources to crush any dissent to his rule. Let’s not limit ourselves to the Arab world. The corrupt autocrats of Pakistan and Afghanistan have extracted billions in American treasure while doing little to combat (and much to proliferate) the fundamentalist forces in their own countries. Why would they when extremist Islam is a source of so much badly needed foreign exchange? The Islamophobia con game has not been limited even to sitting rulers. In the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion, Iraqi exile groups were persistent in their arguments that Saddam was conspiring with Al Qaeda, and their persistence paid off by pushing America to war, despite a shred of real evidence to substantiate their claims.
Do we really plan to accept this broken record of lies once again as popular youth revolutions sweep the Arab world? Do we really believe that these decadent strongmen are part of the solution? On the contrary, you could argue persuasively that they are the true genesis of the problem. Without the secular autocracies of the Arab world and their stifling political and economic policies over the last half century, radical Islam would not likely be the force that it is today. These are the regimes that outlawed all political expression except that which took place within the sanctity of the mosque. These are the regimes which tortured men like Ayman Zawahiri and contributed to their monstrous turn away from all compromise and moderation. These are the regimes that disenfranchised a whole generation with their corruption and rent-seeking, causing the urban malaise and bitterness that swelled the ranks of Al Qaeda. Should we continue to support these men, all in the name of an ephemeral stability?
Do the Arab popular revolutions contain extremist elements bent on implementing Shar’ia and changing the nature of the secular regimes we have propped up in the Arab world for so long? No doubt. There are also Christian groups within America who want to convert the entire globe. Many of them are the beneficiaries of U.S. government contracts. But Christianity is part of the political system in America. It must play by certain rules. Islam should also be welcomed into the political sphere as the legitimate player that it already is. This means it must follow certain rules. Better a moderate and regulated political Islam that is part of the system than a fringe, radical Islam that secular dictatorships usually produce.
Besides, what are we afraid of? Instability? We have that already. The Iranian model of governance? No one in the region, Islamist or secular, wants that train wreck.