Posts Tagged Islamism
A Muslim Brother, Muhammad Morsi, has entered Egypt’s presidential palace and taken his seat in the chair once occupied by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. This is a stunning development—a slow-motion Islamic revolution that few envisioned back in January 2011, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square.
The experts systematically underestimated the Muslim Brotherhood for a simple reason: they saw the revolution as they wanted it to be, not as it was. The distorted optic of the Tahrir stage seduced and misled them. But it was even more than that: the Muslim Brotherhood itself conducted a campaign of deliberate deception. They claimed they wouldn’t try to dominate the parliament, that they wouldn’t run candidates for every seat—and then they did. They said they wouldn’t run a presidential candidate of their own—and then they did. The credulous believed these reassurances—they seemed so rational and pragmatic. Marc Lynch, an estimable expert on these matters, actually chided the Brotherhood when it defied his analysis of its best interests and nominated a presidential candidate. It was, in his words, a “strategic blunder.”
In fact, it was a strategic master-stroke. From the beginning of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has understood that the fluid situation created by the fall of Mubarak won’t last forever, and that now is the time to seize every possible position they can, before alternatives take form. They want power, they crave power, and they won’t let it slip through their fingers by sitting out even a single contest. At the end of the day, all of the arguments for holding back have fallen by the wayside. They’re going for broke.
And have no doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood seeks to restore Egypt to the glory it once knew, by implementing Islamic social and legal norms. The translation of Islamic ideology into practice is the point of holding political power. The Brotherhood might not be able to effect an exact translation—that would be difficult—but a translation of ideology into practice it will be. This worries secular Egyptians, the international community, and Israel. At this early stage, many will say that such worries are overblown, that the Brotherhood will adapt and compromise. To consolidate power, it might. But at a later stage, many may regret having been so nonchalant.
No one can stop Brotherhood. You say: what about the military chiefs? The military, at times, has appeared to be winning. The revolution got rid of Gamal Mubarak, Husni Mubarak’s son and presumed successor, and that suited the military fine. The parliamentary elections, won by Islamists, demolished the liberals by revealing their weakness. That suited the military fine.
This left standing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Everyone assumed that they wouldn’t dare put forth a candidate for the presidency. The new president was to have been a consensus personality above party politics—an ElBaradei or Amr Musa. It was the Brotherhood’s decision to run a presidential candidate that threw the military off-balance, and they have been scrambling ever since. The first Brotherhood candidate, the formidable deputy-guide Khayrat ash-Shater, was disqualified—he would have won a sweeping victory. His replacement, Muhammad Morsi, basically a stand-in, had less appeal, and against him, the unlikely Ahmad Shafik stood a chance. But it gradually became evident that even the stand-in might defeat Shafik, hence the drastic measures by the military chiefs, stripping the presidency of most of its powers even before the first ballot was counted.
The military’s efforts to contain the Muslim Brotherhood, at this late date, can only buy limited time. The parliament has been dissolved, but it will have to be reconstituted, and then what? The rewriting of the constitution can be delayed, but the constitution will have to be written and approved by the legislature, and then what? And if the president isn’t to be the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces, then who will be? The simple truth is that Egypt isn’t going to revert to military rule—it’s too late, the polls show that a vast majority of Egyptians want a transition to civilian, constitutional rule. For the military, the question is, what are the terms of this transition? What will guarantee their economic enterprises? What will assure them that they won’t be prosecuted and purged? This is now the core of Egyptian domestic politics: the terms on which the military will exit. And with each passing day, the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood is strengthened in this negotiation, because it grows more legitimate and the generals grow less legitimate. There are those who think that the Muslim Brotherhood can still be outmaneuvered by gerrymandering the system. In the long term, it can’t. Egypt is headed toward populist Islamist rule, and it is just a matter of time before the Brotherhood checkmates its opponents.
So how will the Muslim Brotherhood rule? It is the misfortune of the Muslim Brotherhood that, having waited more than 80 years for power, they have come to it at perhaps the lowest point in the modern history of Egypt. The country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, the result of decades of bad decisions, corruption, and the absence of the rule of law. The Muslim Brotherhood is in a bind, because it has to deliver. For the masses of people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution wasn’t about democracy and freedom. It was about bread and social justice.
The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.
If you think this is pie in the sky, then it isn’t difficult to imagine the “Plan B” of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is to find ways to raise the rent Egypt collects from the West and rich Arabs for its geopolitical position. Call it a shakedown, call it a bailout, it doesn’t matter. The message Egypt is sending is that it’s too big to fail, and that the world, and especially the United States, owes it. The deputy guide, Khayrat ash-Shater, put it directly: “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.” Egypt, which is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, is thus owed compensation.
A key part of this narrative is that Mubarak sold peace with Israel on the cheap. In Egypt it is believed that the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives a year in military aid, and hundreds of millions more in economic aid, are just a portion of what Egypt’s adherence to peace is worth. To get more, the plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to persuade Washington that it can’t take Egypt for granted. The strategy will be to stimulate crises that will be amenable to resolution by the transfer of resources. No one can predict what those crises will look like. It’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t involve Israel.
So the question the United States faces will be this: is Egypt indeed too big to fail? Is the United States now not only going to talk the Muslim Brotherhood—which it is already doing—but actively work to help it succeed? The question comes at a time when the United States has become frugal. And there is no superpower rivalry that Egypt can exploit. When John Foster Dulles informed Nasser in 1956 that the United States wouldn’t finance his great dam at Aswan, Nasser went to Moscow. Today there aren’t any alternatives to the United States.
That being the case, the only way for Egypt to get the attention of Washington is to threaten to spin out of American orbit and into the opposing sphere of radical Islam. At no point will it be indisputable that the United States has “lost Egypt.” But at every point, Egypt’s loss will seem imminent. In that respect, the Muslim Brotherhood has already made its mark on history: from this day forward, Egypt can’t ever be taken for granted again.
For future reference, Marc Lynch stands by his analysis:
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 24, 2012
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 29, 2012
If I consulted with quadrupeds
Think what fun we’d have asking over crocodiles for tea!
Or maybe lunch with two or three lions, walruses and sea lions
What a lovely place the world would be!
—Bobby Darin, lyrics from Talk to the Animals
You know things are headed downhill fast when Alastair Crooke warrants a profile in the New York Times, for his long-term project of “engaging” Hamas and Hezbollah. The profile flags his importance in these words: “Talking to Islamists is the new order of the day in Washington and London. The Obama administration wants a dialogue with Iran, and the British Foreign Office has decided to reopen diplomatic contacts with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group.” And so on.
In 2005, I debated Crooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. This seems like a perfect opportunity to point to my remarks: here. The CSIS summary of my remarks and his: here.
Martin Kramer delivered these remarks on September 24, on a panel entitled “Islam, Islamism, and U.S. Foreign Policy.” He shared the podium with the French Arabist Gilles Kepel, author of a new book, The War for Muslim Minds. The event took place at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
On September 11, the Washington Post published an article entitled “In Search of Friends Among the Foes.” The subject was the debate over whether the United States should begin a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and other so-called “moderate” Islamists. The very next day, the newspaper ran a lengthy opinion piece, arguing that the United States should do just that: “We need to listen to the bad guys too to understand where the fissures—and opportunities—might be.”
Reading the article, I had a pervasive sense of déjà vu. A similar debate took place in the early- and mid-1990s, among many of the same participants. The question of dialogue is a perennial one, arising whenever it looks like Islamists may be gaining ground. The debate a decade ago was prompted by the Islamist surge in Algeria and Egypt. That surge subsided, and so did the debate. The renewed debate is prompted by a forboding that Islamists may come out on top in Saudi Arabia or Iraq.
Today, there is an added incentive for pursuing such dialogue. Even if these so-called “moderate” Islamists are not about to take power, they might be useful as a counter to the jihadists. After all, for several decades, the United States looked to “moderate” Islamists to help counter the Soviet threat. Miles Copeland, CIA operative, wrote in his book The Game of Nations about how the United States, circa 1950s, tried to find an Iraqi “holy man” to carry the anti-Communist message. And there was the cooperation with Islamists that flourished after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the U.S. so effectively played this card against the Soviet Union, why not play it against Al Qaeda? There are rivalries there, so we are told; why not build on them? “You want in a Machiavellian way to have fundamentalists do [our] dirty work,” one veteran of the old battles tells the Washington Post.
Add to this the sense that the U.S. paid a price for not having some Islamic leverage on its side during the Iranian revolution. About 20 years ago, a State Department veteran, Ambassador Hermann Eilts, made the case for dialogue before Congress:
We must develop new modes of diplomacy, potentially involving Islamic leaders, for possible use in crises situations. During the Carter Administration, efforts were made by President Carter to persuade estimable Islamic leaders, respected by Khomeini, to intercede with the Ayatollah for the release of the hostages. It did not work because no Islamic leader could be found with the stature to confront Khomeini on an Islamic level or a willingness to stick his neck out for the U.S. But this type of contingency, that is, soliciting intercession on an Islamic level, should be kept in mind and planned for well in advance. Hence, the desirability of sustaining close and constant dialogue with senior Islamic figures everywhere.
Whenever I hear the word “dialogue,” I ask myself the question: dialogue about what? What does the United States have to say to the Muslim Brotherhood in a “close and constant dialogue”? What does it hope to learn?
There is a facile argument that it is good to hear their ideas first-hand. But there is nothing that cannot be learned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions from readily available sources. A good analyst, relying on the mass of openly available texts, will have no trouble eliciting the worldview of, say, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s actual paramount guide. Tell me you want to meet with an Islamist to tempt him with a cash-stuffed envelope, that is one thing. But meet him to sound him out? If you have done your homework, he will tell you nothing you do not know already.
Quid pro quo. The point of dialogue is give-and-take. It is here that the problem arises, and it is this: Islamists would give us very little, and take from us a great deal.
What would the so-called “moderate” Islamists demand from such a dialogue? Here is the laundry list:
- Visas for activists seeking refuge or asylum or the chance to proselytize in the United States.
- The freedom to raise money in the United States, ostensibly for widows and orphans, for school lunches and prayer rugs (i.e., access to cash-stuffed envelopes).
- U.S. agreement to urge or compel Arab-Muslim regimes like Egypt’s to open space for Islamist political activism which is now suppressed.
- A U.S. repeal of its Middle East policy, including its support for Israel.
And what do the “moderate” Islamists offer in return?
- Condemnations of the jihadists for actions like the September 11 attacks, the March 11 attacks in Madrid, and the slaughters in Bali and Beslan.
- The implicit promise that once the United States throws open its doors to Islamist activism, it will be accorded immunity from further attacks. (The implication is that, to improve one’s immune system, one should allow freedom of operation to an even wider range of Islamists.)
Any dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood or its appendages must inevitably develop along these lines. This is the core deal, the very substance of any “close and constant dialogue.” And there is ample precedent: there are several European governments that have engaged in such dialogue and cut this deal, either in whole or in part.
Let me explain why, to my mind and from the point of view of the United States, this is a raw deal.
If the United States has one achievement to show for the war on terror, it is this: there has not been a repeat of a 9/11-style attack on any scale, even in miniature, on U.S. soil. There are those who claim that U.S. policy has escalated the terror war, and that it has been unsuccessful. But this ignores the fact that the continental United States remains the prime terrorist target. This country’s enemies have been unable to strike it, partly because of the stringent measures of homeland security put in place after 9/11. Why would the United States endanger this indisputable achievement by opening itself up to Islamist penetration? Why would it run the risk of becoming another Londonistan? In return for what?
For we know from experience that Islamist “condemnations” of other Islamists tend to be hedged and conditional. And we know from experience that the money raised for the widows and orphans often gets diverted to assassins and bombers. And we especially know that Islamists use the freedoms of the West to attack precisely those in the East who are willing to work with us closely, whether they be regimes or liberals. This offends Muslim anti-Islamists mightily, and it makes us appear like wavering allies.
And even if, for the sake of argument, we wanted to play this tune in a minor key, there is no certainty that we would know who the “moderate” Islamists are. If there is anything more simplistic than lumping Islamists together, it has been the attempt to divide them into the neat classifications of “moderate” and “extremist.” Gilles Kepel in his book has a crucial passage on the branches of salafism, the pietistic and the jihadist. He comments on
how porous the two branches of salafism really are: to pass from one to the other is quite easy. The intense indoctrination preached by the sheikhists [e.g., the Saudi-style imams] reduces their flock’s capacity for personal reasoning, which makes these followers easy prey for a clever jihadist preacher. The first stage of brainwashing occurs at the hands of a pietistic salafist imam. Later they encounter a jihadist recruiting sergeant, who offers to quench their thirst for absolutes through a bracing activism.
Even if, as Kepel writes, such a migration to jihadism is not inevitable, we cannot know in advance or even in real-time when it is occurring. So why would we take a chance?
Engaging Islamists in a common cause against the Soviets was one thing: the Soviets were unbelievers. Even so, the anti-Soviet partnership was fraught with risks, culminating in the blowback of 9/11. Here we would be engaging Islamists in the hope that they would counter their own radical offspring. The risks here, in trying to turn Islamist against Islamist, would be greater by magnitudes.
Europe’s bind. So the advantages of dialogue are not at all clear, while the disadvantages are obvious. If one needs more evidence, one might look to Europe. Kepel’s last chapter is called “The Battle for Europe,” and he opens with these words: “With events in Madrid in spring 2004, Europe emerged as the primary battlefield on which the future of global Islam will be decided.” This is the same Europe that cut a deal with Islamists years ago, offering visas and asylum on the understanding that Europe was neutral ground. If it is now the “primary battlefield,” as Kepel describes it, it is because the United States has successfully pushed back the front line since 9/11, and because of decades of complacency of European elites.
What Europeans are discovering is that deals with Islamists, once cut, don’t always last. The U.S.-Islamist deal over Afghanistan did not last, and the European-Islamist deal is coming apart now. Europe’s unique dilemma is that Islamism is so thoroughly implanted in vast emigre communities (17 million), that it may be necessary for Europe to cut still another deal, even less favorable than the previous one. Kepel has an interesting section on how some Muslims have come to consider Europe part of dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam. The trade-off these Islamists now offer is a forgoing of violence in return for implementation of Islamic law for Muslims on European soil—nothing less. And when Europe balks at this, as France did when it banned headcarves from schools, it finds itself held hostage.
In fact, dialogue with Islamists has never provided the iron-clad immunity Europeans thought it would. For example, it was from a Paris suburb that Khomeini conducted his campaign against the Shah. When he returned to Iran, an Air France jet carried him home. The French, by their hospitality and solicitude, were quite certain they would enjoy an inside track with the revolutionary regime.
Did they? Over the next few years, their troops were blown up in Beirut by Iran’s clients, their nationals were abducted in Lebanon at Iran’s behest, and Iranian assassins wantonly killed dissidents on their territory. Agents of Iran even subjected Paris to a bombing campaign, which prompted the so-called war of the embassies, during which both countries laid siege to one another’s embassies. In short, the French got the same treatment as the Americans, if not worse, despite a policy that had effectively coddled Iran’s Islamists on their march to power. This has been replicated today: despite France’s opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, Iraqi Muslim extremists have seized French hostages, and have resisted all appeals for their release.
The wrong Muslims. If some of the Islamists today were on a march to power, the case for dialogue might be more compelling. But where are these Islamists? Where is the Khomeini of Saudi Arabia or Iraq? Skeptical as we may be about the prospects for the Saudi monarchy or the Iraqi government, it is difficult to see Islamists who could replace them. And what would we talk about in a dialogue with the kinds of Islamists who seek to seize power in Saudi Arabia or Iraq? Would not such a dialogue merely antagonize and alienate those forces for stability that still have a chance to see the crisis through? And do we really think that were we to facilitate the ascent of any of these groups, they would be grateful for it? Any more so than the Afghan mujahideen?
In sum, dialogue with “moderate” Islamists, far from undercutting the jihadists, would undercut their opponents. It would muddle the message of the war on terror—the message that there can be no middle ground, and that Muslims must choose. Islamists not only wish to create a middle ground in the Middle East, but they seek to extend it to American soil. Few things could undermine the war on terror more thoroughly than dialogue with them, because it would facilitate just that.
The United States has no use for equivocating Islamists. The United States does have use for dialogue with believing Muslims—those who share its vision of a Middle East that is free, and free of terror.