The Islamist Response to the U.S. Democracy Reform Initiative

The Bush Administration’s new policy initiative to advance democratic reform in the Arab world, formally announced by the President in a November 6, 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, and subsequently elaborated in the “Greater Middle East Initiative”, a plan drafted by American policy-makers for discussion at the G-8 summit scheduled for the following June in Savannah, Georgia, has triggered a firestorm of criticism from leaders of the region’s mainstream, non-violent Islamist opposition groups. Yet the Islamist reaction to the U.S. democracy initiative is more complex than it might first appear. Islamist leaders do not reject the principle of democratic reform per se; on the contrary, in their official programs and public statements, they claim to be among its staunchest advocates. What such leaders object to is not so much the content of the U.S. reform initiative as the ulterior motives alleged to lie behind it. In particular, Islamist leaders view the American democratic reform initiative as an effort to consolidate U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the region, both by engineering the rise of pliant, pro-U.S. regimes and by spreading Western secular and liberal values at the expense of Arab-Islamic identity and culture.

In a rare display of solidarity, Islamist and secular nationalist opposition leaders have joined forces with governments officials to denounce the U.S. democracy initiative as a blatant case of foreign intervention into the affairs of sovereign Arab states. Hence, for example, referring to the U.S. initiative at a press conference this spring, Muhmmad Mahdi ‘Akef, the Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood declared: “The Muslim Brotherhood rejects all shapes of foreign hegemony , and denounces foreign interference into the affairs of Egypt or any other Arab or Islamic country”. [1] And in nearly identical language, Islamist leaders in many Arab countries echo the official government position that any process of comprehensive reform must come from within and reflect the particular interests, objectives and circumstances unique to each Arab state.

Yet Islamists oppose the reform initiative not only because it is “foreign” but also and more specifically because of its sponsorship by the United States. Together with secular Arab nationalist groups, as well as many “establishment” journalists and intellectuals, Islamist opposition leaders forcefully challenge the competence of the United States to promote democracy in the region. [2] Islamists point to the long 1Al Husseini, Hamdy, “Muslim Brotherhood Submits Own Initiative for Reform”, Islam On-Line, March 4, 2004. Akef made this remark at a Brotherhood press conference in Cairo on March 4, 2004, in which he outlined the Brotherhood’s own reform agenda.

history of U.S. support for pro-Western dictatorships, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and (particularly during the Iran-Iraq war) the regime of Saddam Hussein itself, as well as its complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory (whether defined as lands outside the Green Line or including land incorporated into the state of Israel) and the Israeli government’s repeated violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Recent developments, including U.S. backing of the Sharon Administration’s military suppression of Palestinian resistance since the onset of the al-Aqsa intifada; the American “war on terror” (viewed as an effort to contain Islamist groups more generally and as a rationale for wholesale restrictions on the rights of Muslim citizens of, and visitors to, the United States); the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq; and the revelation of human rights abuses by American military personnel at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, have reinforced the view that the United States is almost uniquely ill-qualified to launch a region-wide process of democratic reform. [3]

Moreover, Islamists argue that despite all the hype surrounding it, the democracy initiative is more a form of propaganda than evidence of a genuine shift in U.S. policy. Islamist leaders point to continued U.S. support for authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, justified by U.S. officials as necessary for the prosecution of the “war on terror”, as evidence that U.S. policy has not really changed, and highlight the negligible resources allocated to democratization relative to those spent on U.S. military initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq as further proof that the reform initiative is more of a public relations ploy than a commitment to real political change. The comments of Raheil Gharaybeh, one of two deputies to the Secretary General of the Islamic Action Front, are worth citing at length by way of example:

We see that America is continuing in its policy of supporting authoritarian regimes. Musharraf in Pakistan is one of America’s greatest allies, and he is a military dictator. All the dictatorial regimes in the Arab world could not survive without American support. America gave chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein which he used in Halabja; Saddam did this [launched a campaign of genocide against the Kurds] when he was America’s friend… How can we be convinced of the democratic reform promoted by Bush. At the same time he is asking dictatorial regimes to tighten their controls of Islamists, shut down their charitable organizations… We don’t have any confidence in this reform discourse. The U.S. devoted 80 billion dollars for the war in Iraq, and has allocated 17 million dollars for the democratic initiative. What is the ratio there. It is just propaganda, to improve the image of America, reduce the enmity people feel toward America. The truth is that America seeks total hegemonic control of the region – this is proven by the facts on the ground. There are 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq; the Arab seas are occupied by American warships; American military forces are present in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and now in Morocco and possibly even Libya… America doesn’t extend its hand in friendship; it asserts itself through guns, weapons, and killing. What is the real goal of the U.S. plan for political reform. First, to help America gain control of our oil; second, to re-draw the political map in a way that serves the Zionist entity; and third, to contain movements of change and resistance, at the head of which are the Islamists. [4]

To the extent that Islamist leaders see the U.S. democracy initiative as a real shift in policy (and not just window-dressing), they claim that it is dictated by U.S. strategic interests rather than by a genuine desire to empower Arab citizens to choose their own leaders in line with their own values and priorities. In particular, Islamists claim that the U.S. government’s promotion of economic development and democratization in the Arab world after September 11 is an effort to “drain the swamp”, that is, to address the underlying conditions of poverty and dictatorship which have made the region a fertile breeding ground for Islamic extremism. But the U.S. would never permit the holding of truly free and fair elections because they know that leaders chosen by the majority would be much more likely to challenge U.S. and Zionist interests than the region’s incumbent regimes. As ‘Azzam Huneidi, head of the IAF’s bloc in parliament put it:

America is calling for reform. But would America be happy with the results of free and clean elections. No, they would not be happy. They want the results they want. A recent public opinion survey in Jordan indicated that 99% of the people hate America. If there were truly free elections, the result would be a parliament that hated America. What the U.S. wants is democracy according to American standards (bil-maqayis al-amrikiya). [5]

Or, as Raheil Gharaybeh stated, “This is what the Arab people think. Real democracy will hurt American interests. Any real reforms will work against Israel and America.” [6] Hence, Islamists claim, while U.S. officials are anxious to strengthen the political influence of pro-Western liberals, businessmen and NGOs, they would be unwilling to accept the outcome of competitive elections which brought an Islamist group to power. This is first because U.S. officials doubt the Islamists’ commitment to democracy, and second, because they know that Islamist groups are at the forefront of resistance to “Zionist aggression” and to the consolidation of U.S. military and political hegemony in the region. The general point is that Islamists fear that U.S.-led reforms will augment the role of pro-Western voices in Arab societies and marginalize the position of Islamist opposition groups. As Hisham Gaafar, an independent Islamist who manages the Arabic-language web-site of Islam On-Line put it, “Will America permit freedom for everyone, or only support certain groups which agree with her policy. That is the key question.” [7]

Another basis for Islamist opposition to the U.S. democracy initiative is the fear that it is an attempt to spread Western values at odds with the thawabet (enduring principles) of Islam and the conservative social norms of most people in the Arab world. When leaders of the main Islamist opposition groups in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait endorse democracy, they define it strictly as a set of procedural mechanisms for selecting leaders and making laws. The crucial implication here is that the procedures of democracy can be separated from the philosophies of secularism, materialism and individualism with which they are associated in the West. As ‘Esam al-‘Aryan, a leader in the Egyptian Brotherhood put it,

Democracy is a way of managing political affairs. It doesn’t deal with the culture of society or its moral judgements (ahkamu). We are for a different form of democracy. We believe in democratic institutions like a written constitution, political parties, the separation of powers, and popular sovereignty. The main difference [with the democratic systems of the West] is the frame of reference (marja’iyya). The West advocates liberalism with no limits. We have our own values, and the Shari’a sets the upper ceiling which one cannot exceed. This is the culture of most of the people. [8]

A look at the programs, statements and voting records of Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait reveals that their commitment to democracy stops short of tolerating personal and civic freedoms which might threaten the core values of Islam. While such values are typically cited in the abstract, they refer above all to the religious character of Arab-Islamic society and the position of the family, rather than the individual, as its basic social unit. This emphasis on collective values is pitched as a defense of religion and local (“national”) culture, both of which are seen as threatened by the global spread of Western secularism, consumerism and hyper-individualism and the social pathologies (homelessness, drug use, divorce, teen pregnancy) they sow in their wake. On questions of personal freedom, leaders of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood voice particularly strong objections to homosexuality, abortion, sexual relations outside marriage, and immodest dress, arguing both that such behaviors are prohibited by Islam and that they represent an affront to the values of most citizens.

Anxiety about the spread of Western values as a threat to Arab-Islamic culture feeds in to Islamist opposition to the U.S.-led reforms. In Egypt and Jordan, Islamist members of parliament have protested recent programs to upgrade the quality of public education, including plans to reduce the traditional religious content of school curricula and introduce new materials promoting “human rights and tolerance”, on the grounds that such changes represent a concession to American pressure and are intended to erode traditional values and life-styles. In Egypt, for example, before the release of the new Greater Middle East Initiative, two USAID grants for health and education development respectively triggered a sharp debate in the Egyptian parliament before they were approved in June, 2003. According to ‘Adel ‘Eid, an independent MP with an Islamist orientation, the implicit goal of the education grant was “to restructure Egyptian and Islamic values and traditions in an American way”; indeed, the sending of Egyptian teachers to the U.S. for training, covered by the grant, was intended to achieve the “Americanization” of the Egyptian education system. Likewise, ‘Ali Laban, a Muslim Brotherhood MP, called the education grant one of many aimed at “poisoning the minds of the Egyptian people” and Mohamed El-Azabawi, another Brotherhood MP, said the grant was offered not because “American had suddenly fallen in love with us, but rather because they want to make sure that the coming generations are more loyal to them than to Islamic values.” [9]

Similarly, in January, 2004, representatives of the Islamic Action Front in the Jordanian parliament protested the Ministry of Education’s plans to modify school curricula, including the introduction of a human rights matrix, as a capitulation to American pressure, intended to weaken the Arab and Islamic identity of Jordanian citizens. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamza Mansour, Secretary General of the IAF, argued that “touching on school curricula in line with the directives of the U.S. administration will have negative results” and cautioned the government against deleting Quranic verses that call on Muslims to join in jihad and that “uncover the reality and schemes of the Jews and define the way they should be dealt with.” [10]

Similarly, Adnan Hassuneh, an IAF MP who heads parliament’s education committee, argued that the human rights matrix opens the door to religious freedoms not accepted by Islam (such as the right of a Muslim to convert to another religion, or of a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man) and promotes peace with Israel, which the IAF does not accept. As he put it, “we understand that the Zionist entity has seized the land of Palestine and this document calls for a mixing of cultures in the region. And we would say how could this be as they have occupied this land. We see this as definitely a contradiction to the teachings of Islam”. [11] Though education officials in Egypt and Jordan insist that the proposed reforms are consistent with national priorities and are not subject to American influence, Islamist leaders in both countries continue to portray them as part of a wider scheme to weaken Arab resistance to U.S. and Zionist aggression in the region.

In Kuwait too, Islamist leaders have condemned what they allege is an effort by the United States to spread liberal values at odds with the cultural norms of Kuwaiti society. In June, 2004, a number of Islamists in parliament verbally attacked the United States Embassy for sending staff members to diwaniyas (public meetings) to urge prominent Kuwaitis to support women’s political rights. Others criticized U.S. diplomats for discussing with Kuwaiti citizens issues of marriage to a non-Muslim male or female, court testimony by women, polygamy and inheritance statutes. As Jasim al-Kandari, an Islamist parliamentarian complained in a public statement issued on June 4, U.S. diplomats were “interfering in our values, the provisions of our religion, legislation related to civil status and in what is permissible and what is impermissible. He went on to ask “does Washington allow Muslim embassies in the United States to interfere in domestic American issues, such as same-gender marriages, discrimination against African-Americans and the growing activities of organized gangs.” Framing Islamist opposition to the activities of U.S. diplomats as the defense of Kuwait’s national sovereignty, the statement called for “a cessation of the pressures being exercised by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department on Kuwaiti domestic affairs”. [12]

The general point here is that Islamist leaders fear that American pressure, whether for educational reforms, women’s political participation, or life-style freedoms available to citizens in the West, will erode the religious character of Arab society and weaken the core institution of the family. In this regard, several Islamist leaders I interviewed complained that the leaders of American civic institutes and foundations demand the toleration of behaviors that are not even widely accepted in the West. As Salah ‘Abd al-Karim, an ex-Brotherhood activist who helped found a new Islamist party (the Wasat, or Center Party) put it:

We accept 99% of the framework of democracy and you keep pushing us to accept the bad 1%! Americans are promoting homosexuality, free sex, things which go to the very roots of human society and are not even accepted by everyone in America. And they want us to start with it. For God’s sake, what are you trying to do to us. [13]

The broader problem, ‘Abd al-Karim explained, is that

You want me to be exactly like you. If I try to do this, I will end up a disfigured human being. I won’t know how to be like you and remain myself. You are Western, you have your own culture, your own history. I am Middle Eastern. I don’t ask you to become Egyptian. This is the richness of human society, and we should respect each other.

Islamist reservations concerning the U.S. democracy initiative highlight a basic tension in the U.S. agenda which has yet to be fully acknowledged, let alone resolved. On the one hand, democratization entails a commitment to popular sovereignty, which, in modern times, translates into support for leaders chosen by a majority of the electorate. On the other hand, democratization entails the promotion of civil and political rights associated with democratic systems in the West. How then will the U.S. cope with the fact that the largest and most popular opposition groups in the Middle East do not share its liberal ideology but are rather committed to the Islamic reform of society and state. Should the U.S. encourage the holding of free and fair elections, knowing that they may allow groups with an illiberal agenda to gain power. If not, what sort of institutional or political constraints on free political competition should it endorse, and how can it strengthen secular liberal opposition groups (and encourage the liberalization of Islamist groups) without triggering accusations that it is trying to impose its values on others. These are some of the profoundly complex issues that U.S. officials have only begun to think about,
let alone translate into a coherent set of policies.

While an overwhelming majority of Islamists oppose the U.S. democracy initiative, several Islamist leaders concede that they might benefit from it. As ‘Esam Sultan of the Egyptian Wasat party explained, “U.S. efforts to impose democratic reform are not good, but they can have positive effects”. In particular, external calls for democratic reform are likely to increase the pressure on local Arab governments to open up their political systems, opening the door to a greater role for Islamist opposition groups. [14] Nevertheless, Sultan observed, there is also the danger that the idea of reform will be rejected so long as it comes from the outside.

This leads to a final point. When asked what they wanted from the United States, Islamist leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait gave the same answer: leave us alone and let us chart a path of reform consistent with our own priorities. As Sultan put it, “we don’t want America’s help. We want relations based on interests. America should promote its interests, and allow us to promote ours.” Or, as a senior leader in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood put it, “Respect our religion and our culture and don’t interfere in our domestic affairs. Leave us alone and we can solve our own problems. We can build our own democracy by our own efforts, we don’t need your help. This is our task, not yours.” [15] Likewise, Sheikh Hamza Mansour of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front recalled:

I met with some representatives from the American Embassy a few years ago. I said, I am going to be very candid with you. We aren’t afraid of you, and we don’t ask anything of you. I asked them, why do you intervene in our domestic affairs. [16]

Or, as ‘Esam al-Aryan of the Egyptian Brotherhood replied,

Leave, or be just. The United States is now the only superpower, it will rule the world. But in that case, it should act according to its own principles – i.e. of freedom, pluralism and human rights. The U.S. should not apply those standards to Arab governments, while at the same time it protects the Sharon Administration in Israel. [17]

To sum up, mainstream Islamist opposition leaders in the Arab world are almost uniformly negative in their assessment of the U.S. democracy initiative. This is not because Islamists oppose the principle of democratic reform, but rather because they see the U.S. democracy initiative as part of a wider U.S. policy agenda for the region which is systematically biased against Arab and Muslim interests. U.S. support for Israel in the conflict over Palestine, together with its prosecution of the “war on terror” and its occupation of Iraq, cause Islamist leaders to question the motives behind the U.S. democracy initiative. To the extent that they view it as more than propaganda, they fear that it is designed to strengthen pro-American sectors of Arab society and weaken the more genuinely popular opposition groups that oppose U.S. policy in the region. In addition, Islamist leaders view American attempts to enlarge the scope of individual freedoms as an effort to impose Western values which 1) contradict the core principles of Islam, and 2) will generate massive social harm. The Islamist position thus entails an explicit rejection of the universality of the Western democratic model and invokes the principle of cultural pluralism to defend local beliefs and practices which run contrary to liberal democratic norms.

The challenge for U.S. policy-makers at this juncture is to define the terms for a constructive engagement with mainstream, non-violent Islamist opposition groups, without damaging its relationships with incumbent regimes. As the largest opposition groups in most Arab states, the Islamists cannot be excluded from the democratic reform process without casting the whole enterprise in doubt. Yet far more thought must be given to the question of how such groups might be integrated within a democratic framework without jeopardizing the democratic character of the framework itself. Unless and until this issue is addressed, the tensions between civil liberties and majority rule in the U.S. reform agenda will remain unresolved.

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Emory University,

Source: Muslim World Journal of Human Rights Volume 1,Issue 1 2004, Article 6,produced by The Berkeley Electronic Press(bepress).

[1] Al Husseini, Hamdy, “Muslim Brotherhood Submits Own Initiative for Reform”, Islam On-Line, March 4, 2004. Akef made this remark at a Brotherhood press conference in Cairo on March 4, 2004, in which he outlined the Brotherhood’s own reform agenda.

[2] See Ottoway, Marina, “Promoting Democracy in the Middle East: The Problem of U.S.
Credibility”, Middle East Series, Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, no. 35, March 2003.

[3] As Mubarak al-Duwaileh, who served as an MP of the Islamic Constitutional Movement from 1985-2003, put it, “America claims to want democracy, but she has Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The source of this pressure has no credibility at all.

[4] Interview with the author, July 8, 2004.

[5] Interview with the author, June 29, 2004, Amman.

[6] Interview with the author, June 30, 2004, Amman.

[7] Interview with the author, March 14, 2004.

[8] Interview with the author, March 16, 2004, Cairo.

[9] El-Din, Gamal Essam,”A Question of Motives”, Al-Ahram Weekly, June 19-25, 2003.

[10] “Islamists Shun Religious Program Altering”, UPI, January 5, 2004, Amman; “Jordan’s Islamic Front Says Planned Human Rights Lessons ‘Contradict Islam’”; Al-Ra’i, January 3, 2004.

[11] Gavlak, Dale, “Hard-Line Islamists Resist Human Rights Reforms in Jordan”, Religion News Service, January 22, 2004.

[12] “Kuwaiti deputy Criticizes US Embassy ‘Interference’ in Domestic Affairs”, Quds Press News Agency, London, June 5, 2004.

[13] Interview with the author, March 18, 2004. Similar arguments were made by two senior Brotherhood leaders, ‘Esam al-‘Aryan and ‘Abd al-Mun’em Abu-l-Futuh, following their participation in a March, 2004 seminar in Amman on Islam and Elections co-sponsored by Majles al-Hassan, Dialogues and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. As ‘Abd al-Mun’em Abu-l-Futuh explained, “the Carnegie delegation wanted us to accept all the provisions of global human rights documents. We agree with most points, but disagree on a few issues. Why do American analysts always focus on the few points of disagreement rather than on the 90% on which we agree.” Interview with the author, March 14, 2004.

[14] Interview with the author, March 8, 2004, Cairo. Mubarak al-Duwailah, a leader in the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait, made a similar argument.

[15] Comments from a group interview with Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akef, ‘Abd al-Mun’em Abu-l-Futuh and ‘Esam al-‘Aryan at the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, March 16, Cairo.

[16] Interview with the author, July 1, 2004, Amman.

[17] Interview with the author, March 14, 2004, Cairo.