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Friday, January 27, 2006
Is Political Islam a Threat to America?

If asked about a clash of civilizations, or about the religion of Islam, most policy makers would quickly note that Islam is a peaceful religion embraced by many moderate people seeking an expressive outlet for their faith. After that politically correct caveat, they would then indicate that the real threat to America, and the ideology that undergirds the transnational terrorist network, is something called "political Islam." It's too bad that "political Islam" is not an international menace.

The webiste, which focuses on "social" issues, describes political Islam as a political movement whose goal is the "Islamization of the political order, which is tantamount to toppling existing regimes, with the implication of de-Westernization." The methods and technologies of Islamization can vary between groups; "Some groups advocate violent overthrow as the means of establishing an Islamic order, while others have advocated more peaceful, evolutionary change." Political Islam is also referred to as Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism, jihadism, and militant Islam. Middle East specialist Daniel Pipes in 1995 specified the dangers of this movement from his point of view:
Though anchored in religious creed, fundamentalist Islam is a radical utopian movement closer in spirit to other such movements (communism, fascism) than to traditional religion. By nature anti-democratic and aggressive, anti-Semitic and anti-Western, it has great plans. Indeed, spokesmen for fundamentalist Islam see their movement standing in direct competition to Western civilization and challenging it for global supremacy. Let's look at each of these elements in more detail.

Radical utopian schema. Outside their own movement, fundamentalists see every existing political system in the Muslim world as deeply compromised, corrupt, and mendacious. As one of their spokesmen put it as long ago as 1951, "there is no [sic] one town in the whole world where Islam is observed as enjoined by Allah, whether in politics, economics or social matters." Implied here is that Muslims true to God's message must reject the status quo and build wholly new institutions.

To build a new Muslim society, fundamentalists proclaim their intent to do whatever they must; they openly flaunt an extremist sensibility. "There are no such terms as compromise and surrender in the Islamic cultural lexicon," a spokesman for Hamas declares. If that means destruction and death for the enemies of true Islam, so be it. Hizbullah's spiritual leader, Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, concurs: "As Islamists," he says, "we seek to revive the Islamic inclination by all means possible."

Seeing Islam as the basis of a political system touching every aspect of life, fundamentalists are totalitarian. Whatever the problem, "Islam is the solution." In their hands, Islam is transformed from a personal faith into a ruling system that knows no constraints. They scrutinize the Qur'an and other texts for hints about Islamic medicine, Islamic economics, and Islamic statecraft, all with an eye to creating a total system for adherents and corresponding total power for leaders. Fundamentalists are revolutionary in outlook, extremist in behavior, totalitarian in ambition.

Revealingly, they vaunt Islam as the best ideology, not the best religion-thereby exposing their focus on power. Whereas a traditional Muslim would say something like, "We are not Jewish, we are not Christian, we are Muslim," the Malaysian Islamist leader Anwar Ibrahim made a very different comparison: "We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Islamic." While fundamentalist Islam differs in its details from other utopian ideologies, it closely resembles them in scope and ambition. Like communism and fascism, it offers a vanguard ideology; a complete program to improve man and create a new society; complete control over that society; and cadres ready, even eager, to spill blood.

Anti-democratic. Like Hitler and Allende, who exploited the democratic process to reach power, the fundamentalists are actively taking part in elections; like the earlier figures, too, they have done dismayingly well. Fundamentalists swept municipal elections in Algeria in 1990 and won the mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara in 1994. They have had success in the Lebanese and Jordanian elections and should win a substantial vote in the West Bank and Gaza, should Palestinian elections be held....

Anti-moderate. Fundamentalist Islam is also aggressive. Like other revolutionaries, very soon after taking power fundamentalists try to expand at the expense of neighbors. The Khomeinists almost immediately sought to overthrow moderate (meaning here, non-fundamentalist) Muslim regimes in Bahrain and Egypt. For six years (1982-88) after Saddam Husayn wanted to quit, they kept the war going against Iraq; and they occupied three small but strategic islands in the Persian Gulf near the Straits of Hormuz. The Iranian terrorist campaign is now fifteen years old and reaches from the Philippines to Argentina. The mullahs are building an arsenal that includes missiles, submarines, and the infrastructure for unconventional weaponry. In like spirit, Afghan fundamentalists have invaded Tajikistan. Their Sudanese counterparts reignited the civil war against Christians and animists in the south and, for good measure, stirred up trouble at Halayib, a disputed territory on Sudan's border with Egypt....

Anti-semitic. Fundamentalists discuss Jews with the most violent and crude metaphors. Khalil Kuka, a founder of Hamas, says that "God brought the Jews together in Palestine not to benefit from a homeland but to dig their grave there and save the world from their pollution." Tehran's ambassador to Turkey says that "the Zionists are like the germs of cholera that will affect every person in contact with them." Such venom is common coin in fundamentalist discourse....

Anti-Western. Unnoticed by most Westerners, war has been unilaterally declared on Europe and the United States. Fundamentalists are responding to what they see as a centuries-long conspiracy by the West to destroy Islam. Inspired by a Crusader-style hatred of Islam and an imperialist greed for Muslim resources, the West has for centuries tried to neuter Islam. It has done so by luring Muslims away from Islam through both its vulgar culture (blue jeans, hamburgers, television shows, rock music) and its somewhat higher culture (fashion clothes, French cuisine, universities, classical music). In this spirit, a Pakistani fundamentalist group recently deemed Michael Jackson and Madonna "cultural terrorists" and called for the two Americans to be brought to trial in Pakistan. As Bernard Lewis notes, "It is the Tempter, not the Adversary, that Khomeini feared in America, the seduction and enticement of the American way of life rather than the hostility of American power." Or, in Khomeini's own words: "We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities."

On Dan's reading, political Islam is a very dangerous thing. With thousands of years of traditions and symbols to draw upon, the mobolizing power of this ideology is large and should be feared. Moreover, in three major recent elections in the Middle East--Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine--political Islamists have come to power. Palestine and Iraq were the most crushing blows because the Iranian-backed Shiia alliance, and Hamas, an organization classified as terrorist by the United States, won those respective elections. The New York Times succinly captures Bush's dilemma: "The sweeping victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections threw President Bush and his aides on the defensive on Thursday, complicating the administration's policy of trying to promote democracy as an antidote to the spread of terrorism."

After the results from the Iraqi election appeared, sour analysts quickly scoffed:
Democracy, however, is not the cure-all for everything. The country remains a security nightmare, with no end in sight to the insurgency.

And democracy, by its nature, does not always deliver the ideal results, as with the victory of the Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), in the official results announced last Friday.

The people have brought in a religiously driven Muslim coalition that wants to carve up Iraq further and is backed by the mullahs of Tehran. The UIA has a near-majority in Iraq's first permanent parliament since 2003. This means democracy in Iraq was a victory for Shi'ite regionalism and religiousness. "

"The ascent of Hakim's men and the UIA is a blow to the Americans, the Sunnis, the secular Shi'ites, and to a lesser extent to the Kurds. The rise of religious clerics, again, kills whatever hopes the Americans had for a secular post-Saddam Iraq.

The Bush administration is facing a disgruntled US public, which argues that its children did not go to war to replace a military dictatorship with a religious one. A theocracy was not what President George W Bush promised the Americans he would create in Iraq, but that looks exactly what will happen.

Another sensitive issue resulting from Hakim's victory is his relations with Iran, which is heading for a confrontation with much of the international community over its nuclear program.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's calculated rhetoric (wipe Israel off the map, etc) has made worldly Shi'ites nervous. The UIA leaders, after all, are all creations of Iran. Jaafari is very close to Tehran, Hakim was nurtured by the Iranians, along with the Badr Organization, to fight Saddam in 1980-88, and Sistani is an Iranian national who does not even have Iraqi citizenship.

EDIT (next paragraph added recently): Law professor Stephen Bainbridge added his voice to the naysayers suggesting: "The GOP's foreign policy traditionally was dominated by realists and national interest types, who were deeply suspicious of nation building and the like. Bush ran on that platform but after 9/11 veered off into a Wilsonian program of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Now we see what an apparently fair election in Palestine leads to: a decisive victory by a terrorist organization hostile to both the US and Israel. And this is a good thing?"

The issue of the results of the votes, however, should be disaggregated from the unproven danger that Islamism poses to America. The results of the elections suggest that even if the ideology of political Islam is not deeply internalized, Middle Eastern voters do not associate the Islamist parties with the corruption of the ruling regimes, and, are willing to vote them into power to target corruption. Voters signaling that they are unhappy with corruption should never trouble the democracy-enthusiasts in the White House. What most policy analyst fear is not that the Islamist will stem corruption, or, at the very least use the corruption to benefit someone else, but that Islamist-dominated regimes will have foreign policy preferences different from those of the United States.

The grand strategy of the Bush administration rests on the twin ideas that (1) democracies generally pursue compatible sets of goods, and, (2) their foreign policy objectives will dovetail with the United States. Islamist parties threaten this naive view of how democracies interact in an international state system. Domestically, Islamic parties may impose or incentivize conformity to laws and codes that arise from an "Islamic" tradition. No more threatening to America's national security than if the Anglicans were to sieze power in the United Kingdom, the American voting public need fear nothing from the values of ruling elite insinuating connections to public character and religious belief systems while translating those beliefs into laws and policy. Internationally, Islamist states will face the same pressures as other states. If they act aggressively toward their neighbors, other states will balance against their threat. If they continue to participate in the international economy, investors will send capital their way if their domestic institutions are capital and market friendly. Most succintly, there is nothing particular to Islamist ideologies within states that poses a unique national security threat to the United States greater than that of any other ruling domestic coalition within a procedural democracy.

Political Islam as a transnational movement does not present the United States with an existential national security threat either. Commentary after September 2001 understates the degree to which Islamist movements present domestic challenges to corrupt, decaying regimes within the Islamic world. The United States' security is implicated to the extent to which the present governing coalitions remain in power due to American support. The clash of civilizations would be better termed the clash within civilizations, and, is truly no different than the radical race-based movements that challenged legally and socially sanctioned racial hierarchy in American democracy during the 1960s and 1970s. Islamists movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, primary aim has always been to achieve political power inside their countries and do away clientilistic regimes.

Transformational diplomacy, toward the end of encouraging democratic forms of legitimation and domestic institutional structures designed to channel the will of the people, is the correct national security strategy. The slow transitions to voting in the Middle East that do not threaten the political power of the current regimes should fool no one. Rulers in the regions have been faking piety to the divine since Muhammed, just as the elite in Europe and America have faked devotion since the fall of Rome, and could probably similar fake affecting for voting without discovering democracy. Until the economies of the region begin to perform in perform in productive ways for a majority of their population, political Islam will always have a need to struggle against domestic domination.

We should encourage this struggle. Political Islam is not a threat to American security; it's an opportunity for democratic values.