Idealism as realism in the Middle East: Re-thinking political Islam?



In the pre-Arab Spring era, the Muslim Brotherhood and the many movements it inspired reached a consensus for how to pursue their aims: bide their time, do their best to build social influence within regime constraints, make small but significant inroads in parliament, wait for a democratic opening, and then, when it came, fill the political vacuum, three leading analysts write for The Atlantic. There was no need to spend too much time pondering questions of governance, since the prospect of governing seemed so remote. The Arab uprisings challenged this model, then rendered it moot, according to Shadi Hamid, Peter Mandaville and William McCants:

The partification of Islamist movements has been one of the most important features of Islamist evolution since the 1990s. For decades, Western analysts and policymakers alike had encouraged mainstream Islamists to embrace the democratic process, de-emphasize their religious origins, and form “normal” political parties. This was a natural fit for these groups, which, having been established by doctors, engineers, and teachers, weren’t necessarily strong on theology but knew how to get out the vote, and get out the vote they did. This prioritizing of elections—some Islamists themselves came to see it as an “obsession”—offered an easy out from difficult and divisive debates around the nature and purpose of the nation-state, issues that became all the more relevant when Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen all had opportunities to govern during and after the Arab Spring.

Realism and Democracy, the new book by Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Elliott Abrams, explores American policy toward the Middle East following the Arab Spring, notes the Council on Foreign Relations. Drawing on forty years of experience in human rights and Middle East policy, Abrams explores why supporting democracy in the Middle East is a pragmatic, as well as an idealistic, course of action.

Setbacks to political liberalization in the Arab world have caused the United States to turn away from support for democrats there in favor of “pragmatic” deals with tyrants in order to defeat violent Islamist extremism, explains Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Our own interests are best served by Arab governments that are legitimate, decent, and stable and are able to combat extremism effectively,” he insists, adding several recommendations to U.S. policymakers:

  • Put promoting democracy and defending human rights back near the heart of U.S. foreign policy.
  • Ensure that the president and secretary of state, not career diplomats or lower-ranking officials, are seen as the primary sources of diplomatic statements and actions to make clear that support for human rights and democracy starts at the top.
  • Refrain from supporting and strengthening illegitimate regimes, and press for gradual but real political openings in Arab states that repress liberal, moderate, and democratic voices—forces that are a main bulwark against Islamist extremist ideas.
  • Recognize that assistance programs for nongovernmental organizations and “civil society” cannot substitute for top-level American political support and efforts to open political space for real competition.
  • Remember that a global belief in U.S. support for freedom remains an invaluable asset for the country. Read more »

NY Times

Having faced any number of setbacks, Islamist parties in each of the 12 countries we focus on in our new book have had to contend with basic questions of how change actually happens when elites and “deep states” oppose Islamists and when regional and international actors are suspicious of them, if not outright hostile, the Brookings analysts add:

How Islamists deal with these challenges, naturally, has a lot to do with how the various revolutions, stalled revolutions, or non-revolutions evolved in each particular case. For example, were rulers toppled, therefore inviting a leadership vacuum that well-organized Islamist groups could then fill? Did state structures collapse after revolution, thereby provoking outbreaks of violent conflict or civil war? Where rulers were not toppled, how did Islamist parties balance nominal loyalty to existing regimes with popular demands for political change?


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