Monday, April 09, 2007

US should engage Islam


US fails to engage political Islam
Source: The Australian 04/09/2007

The West's idea of democracy does not fit with the emerging Arabic reality, writes Shlomo Ben-Ami
FOUR years into the disastrous US-led military adventure in Iraq and with the global war on terror against ill-defined forces of darkness still inconclusive, the collapse of Washington's grand strategy has exposed how ill-conceived was its simplistic recipe for change and democracy in the Arab world.

The paradox is that the US might be winning the war for Arab democracy, even by default, but it cannot reap the benefits, because the emerging pattern of Islamic pluralistic politics does not coincide with the West's brand of secular liberal democracy.

The shift of the Arab world's mainstream fundamentalist movements to democratic politics is tantamount to a repudiation of the jihadist project and of al-Qa'ida's apocalyptic strategies.
The failure of jihadism is paving the way for a potentially promising restructuring of Islamic politics, but the West either does not recognise the changes or is hostile to them.

The rise of Islamists throughout the Middle East as the sole power capable of exploiting the opportunities of free elections -- Hamas's victory in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood's spectacular gains in the 2005 Egyptian elections are the most noteworthy -- the ascendancy to regional hegemony of Shia Iran, and the sense among Arab rulers that the embattled Bush administration is running out of steam have combined to stall the promising drive to political reform in the region.

The US retreated from its democratic designs once it realised Arab democracy was not being identified with the liberal secular opposition, a political force that practically does not exist in the Arab world, but with Islamic radicals who seek to repudiate US policies and the cause of reconciliation with Israel.

That this should be so has, of course, much to do with the US's longstanding policy of sustaining the Arab world's pro-Western dictators. But the notion that the genie of democratisation can now be squeezed back into the bottle is a self-serving fantasy.

The move of mainstream Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Hamas in Palestine, the Renaissance Party in Tunisia and the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco, away from jihadism to political participation started well before the US promotion campaign, and is not an attempt to please the West. It is a genuine response to the needs and demands of their own supporters.

Extinguishing Arab democracy, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is now trying to do through his recent ban on political parties that are based on religion, will bring neither stability nor peace to the Middle East. It will only exacerbate the rage of the masses at the West's hypocrisy, now expressed in a form of democratic charlatanism.

The stability of the Arab regimes that are not sustained by a democratic consensus is bound to be fragile and misleading. Just as Islamic democracy is the natural reaction to Arab secular autocracy and to the West's collaboration with it, so will the destruction of political Islam usher in even more extreme options, with movements such as Hamas going back to social work and terror, and with al-Qa'ida making inroads into Islamic societies.

Both the West and the Arab rulers need to realise that the tense equation between the incumbent regimes and political Islam is not necessarily a zero-sum game.

This has been learned the hard way by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who, through his Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation of February last year, brought an end to a long and bloody civil war, the origins of which lay in the violent cancellation by the military of the Islamic Front's electoral victory in 1991.

Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy Copyright: Project Syndicate"

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