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CFR Papers: Veiled Truths (4)

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The Rise of Political Islam in the West / Part 4 from 4

By Marc Lynch

Accepted And Discovered Truths

Still, Berman highlights a very real dilemma. Put bluntly, Islamists have shaped the world around them in ways that many liberals in the United States and Europe find distasteful. Even moderate Islamists prioritize religion over all other identities and promote its application in law, society, culture, and politics. Their prosyletizing, social work, party politics, and organization of parallel civil societies have all helped transform societies from below. This frightens and angers secularists, liberals, feminists, non-Muslims, and others who take no comfort in the argument that the political success of the Islamists simply reflects the changing views of the majority. The strongest argument against accepting nonviolent Islamists as part of the legitimate spectrum of debate is that they offer only a short-term solution while making the long-term problem worse. These Islamists may be democrats, but they are not liberals. Their success will increase the prevalence and impact of illiberal views and help shape a world that will be less amenable to U.S. policies and culture.

But this is precisely why Berman’s lumping together of different strands of Islamism is so harmful. Ramadan may not be a liberal, but he offers a realistic vision of full participation in public life that counters the rejectionist one posed by the ascendant corps of Salafi extremists. Pragmatists who hope to confront the disturbing trends within the Muslim world do not have the luxury of moral purity.

There are other reasons not to simply shun all Islamists. First, there is the question of democracy and political freedom. In many Arab and Muslim-majority countries, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist movements represent the largest and best-organized political opposition. When there are free and fair elections, they tend to win. Their opponents are generally not liberals but authoritarians. The arsenal of repression that these regimes deploy against their Islamist challengers strikes against the democratic and political freedoms that liberals proudly defend. The Muslim Brotherhood may be a force for illiberal values, but its members are found in the prisons of repressive regimes. Defenders of human rights and democratic freedoms cannot overlook those depredations if they wish to remain credible and effective.

Second, nonviolent Islamists are among the most effective rivals of al Qaeda and similar organizations. This is one of the lessons of Iraq, where the rejection by nationalist jihadist factions of the more extreme, globalist cadre of al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise helped turn the tide in favor of the United States. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has helped keep al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in the country. In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas protects its rule from radical Salafi opponents who do not consider the group religiously conservative enough. Disciplined and politically organized groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are well positioned to keep Salafi jihadists from moving into mosques. In this sense, moderate Islamic political movements can serve as a firewall against radicalization, capturing the pious with a disciplined and nonviolent organization and fighting off more extremist challengers.

Third, there is hope that these movements will become more progressive. Within groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood there are real struggles going on between reformists and traditionalists. The struggle within the Muslim Brotherhood burst into view a few years ago when, inspired by a political opening, a group of young Brotherhood bloggers pushed for more transparency, more sustained political engagement, increased cooperation with other protest movements across ideological lines, and a less austere approach to cultural issues. The mere fact that these movements can be influenced in positive directions offers a powerful reason to try and do so. To be sure, these currents move in both directions, which suggests the risks of disengagement: in places such as Egypt and Jordan, hard-liners have moved back into the leadership of Islamist movements after sustained campaigns of government repression against them. Political conditions clearly affect ideology: when such groups are allowed to participate, they generally become more moderate, and when they are excluded, they become more radical.

Fourth, there is the matter of the bruising battle within the Muslim world. Secular Muslims, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali — the Somali-born writer and former Dutch politician — are a sideshow to the real struggles taking place between reformers and traditionalists, Muslim Brothers and Salafists, rulers and oppositionists. The real challenge to the integration of Muslims in the West comes from Salafists who deny the legitimacy of democracy itself, who view the society around them as mired in jahiliyya, and who seek only to enforce a rigid, literalistic version of Islam inside whatever insulated enclaves they are able to carve out. The liberals to whom Berman is drawn represent a vanishingly small portion of Muslim-majority societies. They are generally drawn from well-off urban elites that have become ever more detached from their surrounding environments and would not fare well in the democratic elections that the United States claims to want. Meanwhile, granting such prominence to ex-Muslims who support Israel and denounce Islam discredits other reformists in the real terrain where figures such as Ramadan must operate. Supporting them may offer the warm glow of moral purity — and they may be more fun at parties — but this should not be confused with having an impact where it counts.

At the end, Berman offers an impassioned defense of Hirsi Ali, whom he portrays as a classic dissident who has been betrayed by the leading lights of the liberal West. He feigns bewilderment at why these liberal authors, to whom he devotes so many pages, might find her problematic. Berman appears unbothered by the frightening march toward a clash of civilizations promoted by al Qaeda and fueled by anti-Islamic culture warriors in the West. Nor is he concerned that expressing extreme anti-Islamic views and embracing only those Muslims who reject Islam might help al Qaeda by antagonizing those hewing to the Muslim mainstream and perhaps convincing them that bin Laden is right after all. Berman portrays himself, Hirsi Ali, and a select group of others as the defenders of moral courage in a world where too many have fallen short. But real moral courage does not come from penning angry polemics without regard for real-world consequences.

The most helpful strategic victory in the struggle against Islamist radicalism would be to undermine the narrative that the West is at war with Islam. There should be no tolerance for Islamist extremists who threaten writers, intimidate women, or support al Qaeda’s terrorism. But defending Hirsi Ali from death threats should not necessarily mean embracing her diagnosis of Islam. Berman’s culture war would marginalize the pragmatists and empower the extremists. Muslim communities are more likely to reject such extremists when they do not feel that their faith is being attacked as fascist or that they can only be accepted if they embrace Israel and the policy preferences of American conservatives.

The Muslims in the West are not going away. It is therefore imperative to find a way for these communities to become full partners in the security and prosperity offered by Western societies. If democracy has any meaning, it must be able to allow Muslims to peacefully pursue their interests and advance their ideas — even as the liberals who defend the right of Muslims to do so are also free to oppose them. Ramadan may not present the only path to such an end — but he does present one. And that is why his liberal proponents in the West, who so infuriate Berman for promoting Ramadan, emerge as more compelling guides to a productive future.



Written by Theophyle

August 17, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Posted in CFR Papers, Islamism

Tagged with ,

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  3. […] Read more: CFR Papers: Veiled Truths (4) « Politeía Digest […]

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