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By John Feffer
It's easy to make fun of Michele Bachmann: her history gaffes, her Christian extremism, her ludicrous political positions. Journalists, though, would be sad to see her leave the Republican primary race, since she can be reliably counted on to make an outrageous statement to enliven a slow news day. Last week, for instance, she blamed the Arab Spring on the Obama administration. "You want to know why we have an Arab Spring?" she asked her audience at a Republican Party fundraiser in New Hampshire. "Barack Obama has laid the table for an Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America."
You're probably wondering why Bachmann thinks the Arab Spring is a bad thing. And why she believes the Obama administration caused something that it was so slow in supporting in the first place and remains ambivalent about even today.
The answer lies in a peculiar association that Bachmann – and an unfortunate array of politicians and analysts – makes between strong-arm leaders and the prevention of Islamic radicalism. In an updated version of the classic Cold War rationalization, these anti-jihadists argue that the United States must support dictators around the world in the fight against the larger, more existential enemy. The key moment of transition from the anti-communist to the anti-Islamist era came in 1992, when the Algerian army stepped in to prevent an electoral victory by the Islamic Salvation Front. The United States and its allies simply looked the other way at this detour from democracy. The resulting civil war was devastating and served only to radicalize the Islamist movement in Algeria.
A similar fear has animated much of the commentary on the Arab Spring. The arguments are commonplace. The Muslim Brotherhood is going to take advantage of chaos in Egypt to seize power. Al-Qaeda is the major ideological force at work among the Libyan rebels. Après Ali Abdullah Saleh (au Yemen), le deluge (Islamisme).
But it's not the Michele Bachmanns of the world that have done the most to advance this thesis. Rather, as in the Cold War days, liberals have led the attack. As The Economist characterizes the trend, "Many liberals still think the Islamists, however mild they sound today, are bent on taking over in the long run, would abandon democracy once they got into power and would use every sort of chicanery and violence to achieve their goal. Liberals who hate the dictatorship of Bashar Assad in Syria fear that Islamists will emerge as the chief opposition to him. And quite a few liberals still question the sincerity of the Turkish government, widely cited by Arab Islamists as a fine example of pious politicians who play by the rules of a modern democracy."
Like the perfidious communists before them, the Islamists have only pretended at moderation in order to fool gullible liberals. "The moderation that these groups have exhibited in the past few decades in places such as Egypt was pragmatism born out of compulsion, not some kind of intellectual evolution," writes Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Relieved of the constraints of Arab police states, they are free to advance their illiberal, anti-Western agendas."
The portrayal of the Libyan rebels as the equivalent of the mujahideen that fought in Afghanistan and morphed into al-Qaeda has been a common trope in media coverage, on the left, on the right, and even on The Daily Show. The fact that several former Afghan fighters and a former Guantanamo detainee were among the rebel fighters certainly bolstered this association. But as even The Wall Street Journal pointed out back in April, "Islamist leaders and their contingent of followers represent a relatively small minority within the rebel cause." The Transitional National Council has plenty of things to worry about: tracking down Muammar Gaddafi, dealing with remaining Gaddafi strongholds in Sirte and Bani Walid, getting ready for elections next year, dealing with an east-west divide in the country. Islamists are not their biggest concern. Even the Council's biggest Islamist critic, Ali Salabi, supports a pluralist democratic model. And Libyans themselves don't seem to be particularly concerned about the prospect of radical Islam hijacking their revolution.
This same scenario is being replayed in Syria. The Syrian government has long repressed Islamist movements, the most horrifying example being the Hama massacre in 1982. Today, Islamist groups are certainly among those protesting the Bashar al-Assad regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood is part of the broad-based Syrian National Council that just formed in Istanbul. But already sectarian splits within the opposition have begun to form along religious lines. The rival Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, which also formed this weekend, is playing up the threat of Islamism to bolster its own claims to legitimacy. At this point, of course, the more important question is whether the hitherto largely non-violent movement against Assad will shift into an armed uprising and what kind of UN action the Security Council can muster.
As with so much else, the Obama administration is of two minds on the issue. It has selectively championed democracy in the region after lending its support only belatedly to opposition movements in Tunisia and Egypt. In his annotation of the president's address at the UN, Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Stephen Zunes reminds us that "the Obama administration was a strong supporter of the autocratic regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali almost to the very end. As the popular, largely nonviolent civil insurrection commenced in December, Congress approved an administration request for $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid in the appropriations bill. As protests increased in January and the Tunisian regime gunned down pro-democracy protesters, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over the impact of the 'unrest and instability' on the 'very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia' and insisted that the United States was 'not taking sides.'" Ben Ali, after all, was a key ally in the war on terror.
The administration has been similarly ambivalent about Yemen, where it invested $70 million in military aid last year as part of counter-terrorism efforts (the administration requested over $100 million for this year and over $120 million for 2012). Washington has called on embattled leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who recently returned to Yemen after three months in Saudi Arabia recuperating from an assassination attempt, to step down. But it has also relied on the Yemeni government for information and assistance for drone attacks against al-Qaeda, including the latest killing of U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Indeed, the timing of Saleh's return and al-Awlaki's death may not have been coincidental. Saudi Arabia was eager to reinsert the Yemeni leader in the battle against al-Qaeda, and Saleh himself was desperate to demonstrate his indispensible role in the war on terror. Even without the threat of al-Qaeda, the West is concerned about reports of Islamists taking over the opposition movement in Yemen.
One method of debunking the myth of an Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring has been to downplay the numbers: to point out that Islamists represent a small portion of the opposition in Libya and in Syria, a less influential position in Egypt, or a minor faction in Yemen. In some cases, this might be true. But Islamism is a reality in the region. And Islamists, where they are not a political majority, can punch above their weight through superior organization and political savvy.
Another method is to point out, as during the Cold War, that movements routinely described as Islamist are really more nationalist in character. Just as the primary motivation behind the Cuban and Vietnamese and Nicaraguan revolutions was to throw off authoritarian rule and throw out the colonials, the chief push factor behind the Arab Spring was not Islam but anger and frustration: over corruption, inequality, unemployment, and political repression.
But the real question is, why are we so afraid of political Islam, regardless of its size or influence? Although some Islamists continue to reject democracy and secular governance, the main movement has embraced elections, collaboration with non-Muslim parties, and a state-religion divide a la Turkey. Considering how violently the regimes repressed Islamism in the Middle East, the flexibility of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Nahda in Tunisa, for instance, has been quite remarkable. If there is an Islamist threat in the region, it comes more from Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, than from within any of these democratizing countries.
I'm not a big fan of Christian Democratic parties in Europe or the ultra-orthodox Shas Party in Israel or the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party in India. When the putatively liberal Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky argues that "lack of faith is the prologue to corruption and bureaucracy, which produce terrorism" and "economic reforms in a nation that does not believe in God are totally impossible," I am truly appalled.
But you can't support democracy only when it produces results that you like. You have to support the whole deal, and that includes fusions of religion and politics, some more noxious than others. In his survey of the Arab world called The Arabs, updated in 1985, the journalist Peter Mansfield concluded in his final chapter that "no one can tell what political and social institutions the Arab people will have developed by the end of this momentous century. All that can be said with certainty is that, however much they derive from foreign movements and ideas, they will have a specifically Arab and Islamic character." It's truly amazing that, 25 years on, outside observers continue to ignore this rather obvious fact.
- Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus
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