George W. Bush is not a man for second thoughts, but even he might have had some recently. Ever since 9/11, Bush has made the promotion of democracy in the Middle East the center-piece of his foreign policy, and doggedly pushed the issue. Over the last few months, however, this approach has borne strange fruit, culminating in Hamas’s victory in Gaza and the West Bank. Before that, we have watched it strengthen Hizbullah in Lebanon, which (like Hamas) is often described in the West as a terrorist organization. In Iraq, the policy has brought into office conservative religious parties with their own private militias. In Egypt, it has bolstered the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the oldest fundamentalist organizations in the Arab world, from which Al Qaeda descends. “Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror,” Bush said last week in his State of the Union address. But is this true of the people coming to power in the Arab world today ?

This is an issue that deserves serious thought, well beyond pointing to the awkwardness of Bush’s position. Bush’s prescription is, after all, one accepted by many governments : it is also European policy to push for democratic reform in the Middle East. And in fact, little has happened over the last few months that makes the case for continued support of Muslim dictatorships. But recent events do powerfully suggest that if we don’t better understand the history, culture and politics of the countries that we are “reforming,” we will be in for an extremely rocky ride.

There is a tension in the Islamic world between the desire for democracy and a respect for liberty. (It is a tension that once raged in the West and still exists in pockets today.) This is most apparent in the ongoing fury over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a small Danish newspaper. The cartoons were offensive and needlessly provocative. Had the paper published racist caricatures of other peoples or religions, it would also have been roundly condemned and perhaps boycotted. But the cartoonist and editors would not have feared for their lives. It is the violence of the response in some parts of the Muslim world that suggests a rejection of the ideas of tolerance and freedom of expression that are at the heart of modern Western societies.

Why are all these strains rising now ? Islamic fundamentalism was supposed to be on the wane. Five years ago the best scholars of the phenomenon were writing books with titles like “The Failure of Political Islam.” Observers pointed to the exhaustion of the Iranian revolution, the ebbing of support for radical groups from Algeria to Egypt to Saudi Arabia. And yet one sees political Islam on the march across the Middle East today. Were we all wrong ? Has Islamic fundamentalism gotten a second wind ?

There are those who argue that the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the war on terror, and the bloodshed in Afghanistan and Iraq have all contributed to the idea that Islam is under siege—providing radicals with fresh ammunition. This is not, however, a wholly convincing case. For one thing, opposition to the Iraq war is not a radical phenomenon in the Middle East, but rather an utterly mainstream one. Almost every government opposed it. Moreover, the rise and fall of Islamic fundamentalism was a broad and deep phenomenon, born over decades. It could hardly reverse itself on the basis of a year’s news. Does anyone believe that if there had been no Iraq war, Hamas would have lost ? Or that the Danish cartoons would have been published with no response ?

The political Islamist movement has changed over the last 15 years. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Islamic fundamentalists had revolutionary aims. They sought the violent overthrow of Western-allied regimes to have them replaced with Islamic states. This desire for Islamic states and not Western-style democracies was at the core of their message. Often transnational in their objectives, they spoke in global terms. But it turned out that the appeal of this ideology was limited. People in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and countless other places rejected it ; in fact, they grudgingly accepted the dictatorships they lived under rather than support violent extremism. In this sense, political Islam did fail.

But over time, many of the Islamists recognized this reality and began changing their program. They came to realize that shorn of violent overthrow, revolution and social chaos, their ideas could actually gain considerable popular support. So they reinvented themselves, emphasizing not revolutionary overthrow but peaceful change, not transnational ideology but national reform. They were still protesting the dictators, but now they organized demonstrations in favor of democracy and honest politics.

There were extremist elements, of course, still holding true to the cause of the caliphate, and they broke off to create separate groups like Al Qaeda. (Some of this radicalism remains within the diaspora communities of Europe more strongly than in the Middle East itself.) But it is notable that well before 9/11, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood condemned terrorism directed against the Mubarak regime, and it recently distanced itself even from the tactics of the Iraqi insurgency. It has sought instead to build support for its own social and political program in Egypt. For its part, not only did Hamas decide to participate in the elections—for the first time—but it campaigned almost entirely on a platform of anticorruption, social services and assertive nationalism. Only Al Qaeda and its ilk have condemned any participation in elections, whether by Iraqi Islamist groups or by Hamas.

This coming to terms with democracy, however, should not be mistaken for a coming to terms with Western values such as liberalism, tolerance and freedom. The program that most of these groups espouse is deeply illiberal, involving the reversal of women’s rights, second-class citizenship for minorities and confrontation with the West and Israel. The most dramatic example of these trends is in southern Iraq, where Shiite religious parties rule without any checks. Reports abound that civil servants and professors are subjected to religious and political tests, women are placed under strictures never before enforced in Iraq, and all kinds of harmless entertainment are being silenced by vigilantes. When entering the office of Iraq’s prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, one now sees women swaddled in veils and gloves, a level of zeal rarely seen elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Some of these forces have gained strength because of a lack of other alternatives. For decades the Middle East has been a political desert. In Iraq, the reason that there are no countervailing liberal parties is that Saddam Hussein destroyed them. He could not completely crush mosque-based groups and, by the end of his reign, he actually used them to shore up his own legitimacy. In much of the Muslim world Islam became the language of political opposition because it was the only language that could not be censored. This pattern, of dictators using religious groups to destroy the secular opposition, played itself out in virtually every Arab country, and often beyond. It was the method by which Pakistan’s Gen. Zia ul-Haq maintained his own dictatorship in the 1980s, creating a far stronger fundamentalist movement than that country had ever known.

The broader reason for the rise of Islamic politics has been the failure of secular politics. Secularism exists in the Middle East. It is embodied by Saddam Hussein and Muammar Kaddafi and Hosni Mubarak and Yasir Arafat. Arabs believe that they have tried Western-style politics and it has brought them tyranny and stagnation. They feel that they got a bastardized version of the West and that perhaps the West was not the right model for them anyway. Islamic fundamentalism plays deeply to these feelings. It evokes authenticity, pride, cultural assertiveness and defiance. These ideas have been powerful sources of national identity throughout history and remain so, especially in an age of globalized economics and American power. In face of the powerlessness, alienation and confusion that the modern world breeds, these groups say simply, “Islam is the solution.”

Inevitably we have to ask ourselves what to do about these movements that are rising to power. The first task is surely to understand them—understand that they thrive on pride and a search for authenticity. These forces play themselves out in complex ways. It is obvious by now that the United States—and Europe as well—understand countries like Iraq and Iran very little. In Iraq, the United States overturned old social structures and governing patterns with little thought as to what would replace them. We believed that democracy and freedom would solve the problems of disorder, division and dysfunction.

Or consider Iran. Many Americans had become convinced that the vast majority of Iranians hated their regime and were trying desperately to overthrow it ; all we needed to do was help them foment a revolution. There’s little doubt that the regime is brutal and unpopular. But it also appears to have some basis of support, in mosques, patronage systems and poorer parts of the country. And those who do not support it are not automatically Western liberals. After all, there was an election in Iran and, despite low turnout, the eventual vote was free and secret. (Back when the winner of Iranian elections was a liberal, Mohammed Khatami, people often cited the vote as proof that the fundamentalists were failing.) Five candidates took part in the most recent race. The pro-Western liberal came in fifth ; the conservative West-basher came in first.

My own guess, and it is just a guess, is that some Iranians—not a majority, but not a tiny minority, either—accept their current regime. This is partly because of its ideology and patronage politics, and partly because of general inertia. (We have only to look at Iraq to see that Shiite religious figures do have some hold on their populations.) Add to this an apparatus of repression and $60-a-barrel oil and you have a regime that has many ways to stay in power. President Ahmadinejad understands these forces. He emphasizes in his daily television appearances not Islamic dogma but poverty alleviation, subsidies, anti-corruption projects and, above all, nationalism in the form of the nuclear program. Ahmadinejad may be a mystic, but most of his actions are those of a populist, using the forces that will work to keep him in power. This picture of Iran, gray and complex, is much less satisfying than the black-and-white caricature. But it might be closer to the truth.

Elections have not created political Islam in the Middle East. They have codified a reality that existed anyway. Hamas was already a major player to be reckoned with in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood is popular in Egypt, whether or not Hosni Mubarak holds real elections. In fact, the more they are suppressed, the greater their appeal. If politics is more open, these groups may or may not moderate themselves, but they will surely lose some of that mystical allure they now have. The martyrs will become mayors, which is quite a fall in status.

But to accept these forces is not to celebrate them. It is important that religious intolerance and antimodern attitudes not be treated as cultural variations that must be respected. Whether it is Hindu intolerance in India, anti-Semitism in Europe or Muslim bigotry in Saudi Arabia, the modern world rightly condemns them all as violating universal values. Recent months have only highlighted that promoting democracy and promoting liberty in the Middle East are separate projects. Both have their place. But the latter—promoting the forces of political, economic and social liberty—is the more difficult and more important task. And unless we succeed at it, we will achieve a series of nasty democratic outcomes, as we are beginning to in so many of these places.

This fight is not one the fundamentalists are destined to win. The forces of liberalism have been stymied in the Middle East for decades. They need help. Recall that in Europe for much of the last 100 years, when liberal democrats were not given assistance, nationalists and communists often triumphed through the democratic processes.

Above all, the forces of moderation thrive in an atmosphere of success. Two Muslim societies in which there is little extremism are Turkey and Malaysia. Both are open politically and thriving economically. Compare Pakistan today—growing at 8 percent a year—with General Zia’s country, and you can see why, for all the noise, fundamentalism there is waning. If you are comfortable with the modern world, you are less likely to want to blow it up.

There are better and worse ways to handle radical Islam. We should not feed the fury that helps them win adherents. The Bush administration’s arrogance has been a great boon to the nastiest groups in the Middle East, which are seen as the only ones who can stand up to the imperial bully. We should recognize how varied these groups are : some violent, others not, some truly anti-modern, others not—and work to divide rather than unite them. When, for example, Bush added Chechen brutalities to his list of crimes of “radical Islam,” he made a mistake. Russia has waged a horrific war against Chechnya for two decades, killing more than 100,000 civilians. To speak of that conflict in the same breath as the London bombings, as Bush did, is to suggest that any time a Muslim kills, whatever the provocation, it’s all the same to him.

Give Bush his due. He has correctly and powerfully argued that blind assistance to the dictatorships of the Middle East was a policy that was producing repression and instability. But he has not yet found a way to genuinely assist in the promotion of political, economic and social reforms in the region. A large part of the problem is that the United States—and the West in general—are not seen as genuine well-wishers and allies of the peoples of these countries in their aspirations for a better life. We have stopped partnering with repressive Middle Eastern regimes, but we have not yet managed to forge a real partnership with Middle Eastern societies.

Source : Newsweek |Feb. 13, 2006 issue.