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The Future of Political Islam

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IT'S NOT OVER 'TIL IT'S OVER

Were the attacks of September 11, 2001, the final gasp of Islamic radicalism or the opening salvo of a more violent confrontation between Muslim extremists and the West? And what does the current crisis imply for the future of the Islamic world itself? Will Muslims recoil from the violence and sweeping anti-Westernism unleashed in their name, or will they allow Osama bin Laden and his cohort to shape the character of future relations between Muslims and the West?

The answers to these questions lie partly in the hands of the Bush administration. The war on terrorism has already dealt a major blow to the personnel, infrastructure, and operations of bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Just as important, it has burst the bubble of euphoria and sense of invincibility among radical Islamists that arose from the successful jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But it is not yet clear whether the war will ultimately alleviate or merely exacerbate the current tensions in the Muslim world.

Depending on one's perspective, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be seen either as a success, evidence that a few activists can deal a grievous blow to a superpower in the name of their cause, or as a failure, since the attackers brought on the demise of their state sponsor and most likely of their own organization while galvanizing nearly global opposition. To help the latter lesson triumph, the United States will have to move beyond the war's first phase, which has punished those directly responsible for the attacks, and address the deeper sources of political violence and terror in the Muslim world today.

THE MANY FACES OF ISLAMISM

President Bush has repeatedly stressed that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam. But by seeking to separate Islam from politics, the West ignores the reality that the two are intricately intertwined across a broad swath of the globe from northern Africa to Southeast Asia. Transforming the Muslim environment is not merely a matter of rewriting school textbooks or demanding a less anti-Western press. The simple fact is that political Islam, or Islamism -- defined broadly as the belief that the Koran and the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet's life) have something important to say about the way society and governance should be ordered -- remains the most powerful ideological force in that part of the world.

The Islamist phenomenon is hardly uniform, however; multiple forms of it are spreading, evolving, and diversifying. Today one encounters Islamists who may be either radical or moderate, political or apolitical, violent or quietist, traditional or modernist, democratic or authoritarian. The oppressive Taliban of Afghanistan and the murderous Algerian Armed Islamic Group (known by its French acronym, GIA) lie at one fanatic point of a compass that also includes Pakistan's peaceful and apolitical preaching-to-the-people movement, the Tablighi Jamaat; Egypt's mainstream conservative parliamentary party, the Muslim Brotherhood; and Turkey's democratic and modernist Fazilet/Ak Party.

Turkey's apolitical Nur movement embraces all aspects of science as compatible with Islam because secular scientific knowledge reinforces the wonder of God's world. Indonesia's syncretic Nahdatul Ulama eschews any Islamic state at all in its quest to further appreciation of God's role in human life. Islamist feminist movements are studying the Koran and Islamic law (the shari`a) in order to interpret the teachings for themselves and distinguish between what their religion clearly stipulates and those traditions arbitrarily devised and enforced by patriarchal leaders (such as mandatory head-to-toe covering or the ban on female driving in Saudi Arabia). These are but a few among the vast array of movements that work in the media, manage Web sites, conduct massive welfare programs, run schools and hospitals, represent flourishing Muslim nongovernmental organizations, and exert a major impact on Muslim life.

Islamism has become, in fact, the primary vehicle and vocabulary of most political discourse throughout the Muslim world. When Westerners talk about political ideals, they naturally hark back to the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. Muslims go back to the Koran and the Hadith to derive general principles about good governance (including the ruler's obligation to consult the people) and concepts of social and economic justice. Neither Islam nor Islamism says much about concrete state institutions, and frankly nobody knows exactly what a modern Islamic state should look like -- since few have ever existed and none provides a good model. But Islamists today use general Islamic ideals as a touchstone for criticizing, attacking, or even trying to overthrow what are perceived as authoritarian, corrupt, incompetent, and illegitimate regimes.

No other ideology has remotely comparable sway in the Muslim world. The region's nationalist parties are weak and discredited, and nationalism itself has often been absorbed into Islamism; the left is marginalized and in disarray; liberal democrats cannot even muster enough supporters to stage a demonstration in any Muslim capital. Like it or not, therefore, various forms of Islamism will be the dominant intellectual current in the region for some time to come -- and the process is still in its infancy. In the end, modern liberal governance is more likely to take root through organically evolving liberal Islamist trends at the grassroots level than from imported Western modules of "instant democracy."

A DYNAMIC PHENOMENON

Most Western observers tend to look at the phenomenon of political Islam as if it were a butterfly in a collection box, captured and skewered for eternity, or as a set of texts unbendingly prescribing a single path. This is why some scholars who examine its core writings proclaim Islam to be incompatible with democracy -- as if any religion in its origins was about democracy at all.

Such observers have the question wrong. The real issue is not what Islam is, but what Muslims want. People of all sorts of faiths can rapidly develop interpretations of their religion that justify practically any political quest. This process, moreover, is already underway among Muslims. Contemporary Islam is a dynamic phenomenon. It includes not only bin Laden and the Taliban, but also liberals who are clearly embarking on their own Reformation with potentially powerful long-term consequences. Deeply entrenched traditionalists find these latter stirrings a threat, but many more Muslims, including many Islamists, see such efforts to understand eternal values in contemporary terms as essential to a living faith.

Regrettably, until recently Islam had been living (with striking periodic exceptions) in a state of intellectual stagnation for many hundreds of years. Western colonizers further vitiated and marginalized Islamic thought and institutions, and postindependence leadership has done no better, tending to draw on quasi-fascist Western models of authoritarian control. Only now is Islam emerging into a period of renewed creativity, freedom, and independence. Much of this new activity, ironically, is occurring in the freedom of the West, where dozens of Islamic institutes are developing new ideas and employing modern communications to spur debate and disseminate information.

The process of diversification and evolution within modern Islamism is driven by multiple internal forces, but these developments are always ultimately contingent on the tolerance of local regimes, the nature of local politics, and the reigning pattern of global power. Most regimes see almost any form of political Islam as a threat, since it embodies a major challenge to their unpopular, failing, and illegitimate presidents-for-life or isolated monarchs. How the regime responds to the phenomenon often plays a major role in determining how the local Islamist movement develops.

Does the regime permit elections and free political discussion? How repressive is it, and how violent is the political culture in which it operates? How do existing economic and social conditions affect the political process? The answers to these questions go a long way toward describing how Islamists -- like all other political actors -- will behave in any particular country. That said, these days nearly all Islamists push hard for democracy, believing that they will benefit from it and flourish within it. They also have discovered the importance of human rights -- at least in the political field -- precisely because they are usually the primary victims of the absence of rights, filling regional jails in disproportionate numbers.

Some skepticism is due, of course, about the ability of Islamists to run effective and moderate governments, especially when the three Islamic state models to date -- Iran, Sudan, and the Taliban's Afghanistan -- have all failed dramatically in this area. Only Iran has lately shown signs of exciting evolution within an Islamic framework. But it is worth recalling that all of those regimes came to power by social revolution, military coup, or civil war, virtually guaranteeing continuing despotism regardless of which party was in charge.

The true test of any Islamist party comes when it gains office by the ballot box and must then adhere while in power to the democratic norms it touted in opposition. History unfortunately gives few precedents here. Turkey's brief experience under an elected Islamist-led coalition comes closest, but the government was removed by the military after a year of mixed performance, leaving the experiment unfinished. Secular Turks continue to elect Islamist mayors in major cities across the country, however, including Istanbul and Ankara, because they deliver what constituents want.

Americans brought up to venerate the separation of church and state may wonder whether a movement with an explicit religious vision can ever create a democratic, tolerant, and pluralistic polity. But if Christian Democrats can do it, there is no reason in principle why Islamists cannot. This is what the cleric President Mohammed Khatami is trying to achieve in Iran, in fact, although his efforts are being blocked by a hard-line clerical faction. Non-Muslims should understand that democratic values are latent in Islamic thought if one wants to look for them, and that it would be more natural and organic for the Muslim world to derive contemporary liberal practices from its own sources than to import them wholesale from foreign cultures. The key question is whether it will actually do so.

WHO'S BESIEGING WHOM?

The liberal evolution of political Islam faces some formidable obstacles. The first, as noted, comes from the local political scene, where Islamists are routinely suppressed, jailed, tortured, and executed. Such circumstances encourage the emergence of secret, conspiratorial, and often armed groups rather than liberal ones.

The second obstacle comes from international politics, which often pushes Islamist movements and parties in an unfortunate direction. A familiar phenomenon is the Muslim national liberation movement. In more than a dozen countries, large, oppressed Muslim minorities, who are also ethnically different from their rulers, have sought autonomy or independence -- witness the Palestinians, Chechens, Chinese Uighurs, Filipino Moros, and Kashmiris, among others. In these cases, Islam serves to powerfully bolster national liberation struggles by adding a "holy" religious element to an emerging ethnic struggle. These causes have attracted a kind of Muslim "foreign legion" of radicalized, volunteer mujahideen, some of whom have joined al Qaeda.

A third obstacle comes from the Islamists' own long list of grievances against the forces and policies perceived to be holding Muslims back in the contemporary world, many of them associated with liberalism's supposed avatar, the United States. The litany includes U.S. support for authoritarianism in the Muslim world in the name of stability or material interests such as ensuring the flow of oil, routine U.S. backing of Israeli policies, and Washington's failure to press for democratic political processes out of fear that they might bring Islamist groups to power.

Islamists, too, deserve criticism for playing frequently opportunistic political games -- like so many other fledgling parties. Where they exist legally, they often adopt radical postures on Islamic issues to embarrass the government. The major Islamist pas movement in Malaysia, for example -- which now governs two of the country's ten states -- has called for full implementation of the shari`a and application of traditional Muslim punishments (including amputations and stoning), in part to show up the poor Islamic credentials of the central government. In Egypt and Kuwait, meanwhile, Islamist groups regularly call for more conservative social measures, partly to score political points, and have often inhibited the intellectual freedom on Islamic issues which these societies desperately require. Such posturing tends to bid up the level of Islamic strictness within the country in question in a closed atmosphere of Islamic political correctness. Still, most Islamists have quite concrete domestic agendas related to local politics and social issues that are far removed from the transnational, apocalyptic visions of a bin Laden.

Ironically, even as Westerners feel threatened by Islam, most in the Muslim world feel themselves besieged by the West, a reality only dimly grasped in the United States. They see the international order as dramatically skewed against them and their interests, in a world where force and the potential for force dominate the agenda. They are overwhelmed by feelings of political impotence. Muslim rulers fear offending their protectors in Washington, Muslim publics have little or no influence over policy within their own states, bad leaders cannot be changed, and public expression of dissent is punished, often brutally. This is the "stability" in the Middle East to which the United States seems wedded.

Under such conditions, it should not be surprising that these frustrated populations perceive the current war against terrorism as functionally a war against Islam. Muslim countries are the chief target, they contend, Muslims everywhere are singled out for censure and police attention, and U.S. power works its will across the region with little regard for deeper Muslim concerns. A vicious circle exists: dissatisfaction leads to anti-regime action, which leads to repression, which in turn leads to terrorism, U.S. military intervention, and finally further dissatisfaction. Samuel Huntington's theory of a "clash of civilizations" is seemingly vindicated before the Muslim world's eyes.

THEIR MUSLIM PROBLEM -- AND OURS

Several regimes have decided to play the dangerous game of trying to "out-Islam the Islamists," embracing harsh social and intellectual interpretations of Islam themselves so as to bolster their credentials against Islamist opposition. Thus in Egypt, the government-controlled University of al-Azhar, a prestigious voice in interpreting Islam, issues its own brand of intolerant fundamentalist rulings; Pakistan does something similar. The issue here is not the actual Islamist agenda but whose Islamist writ will dominate. Islam is simply the vehicle and coinage of the struggle between the state and its challengers.

In a comparable fashion, Islam and Islamist movements today provide a key source of identity to peoples intent on strengthening their social cohesion against Western cultural assault. Religious observance is visibly growing across the region, often accompanied by the "Arabization" of customs in clothing, food, mosque architecture, and ritual -- even in areas such as Africa and East Asia, where no such customs had previously existed and where claims to cultural authenticity or tradition are weak to say the least. Association with the broader umma, the international Muslim community, is attractive because it creates new bonds of solidarity that can be transformed into increased international clout.

Islam and Islamist concepts, finally, are often recruited into existing geopolitical struggles. In the 1980s, for example, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, often cloaked as a simple Sunni versus Shi`a competition, was as much political as it was religious. The Saudis hoped that their puritanical and intolerant Wahhabi vision of Islam would prevail over the Iranian revolutionary vision. For better or worse it did, partly because the Saudis could bankroll movements and schools far outside Saudi borders, and partly because many Sunnis considered Iran's Shi`ism anathema. The radical Islamic groups one sees today in the Philippines, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other places, are partly the fruits of this export of Wahhabism, nourished by local conditions, ideological and material needs, and grievances.

Islam has thus become a vehicle and vocabulary for the expression of many different agendas in the Muslim world. The West is not at war with the religion itself, but it is indeed challenged by the radicalism that some groups have embraced. Muslims may too readily blame the West for their own problems, but their frustrations and current grievances are real. Indeed, the objective indicators of living conditions in the Islamic world -- whether political, economic, or social -- are generally turning down. Cultures and communities under siege naturally tend to opt for essentialism, seeking comfort and commonality in a back-to-basics view of religion, a narrowing and harshening of cultural and nationalist impulses, and a return to traditional community values. Muslims under pressure today are doing just this, retreating back to the solid certainties of essentialist Islam while their societies are in chaos. When Grozny was flattened by Russian troops, the Chechens declared Islamic law -- clinging to an unquestioned traditional moral framework for comfort, familiarity, and reassuring moral discipline.

As a result, even as liberalization is occurring within some Islamist movements, much of the Islamic community is heading in the other direction, growing more austere and less tolerant and modernist. The same harsh conditions produce a quest for heroes, strongmen, and potential saviors. One of the saddest commentaries today, in fact, is the Muslim thirst for heroes who will stand up and defy the dominant U.S.-led order -- a quest that has led them to cheer on the Saddam Husseins and bin Ladens of the world.

The Muslim world is therefore in a parlous condition. Some in the West may think that Islam's problem is not their problem, that Muslims just need to face reality and get on with it. But the September 11 attacks showed that in a globalized world, their problems can become our problems. The U.S. tendency to disregard popular Muslim concerns as Washington cooperates with oppressive and insecure regimes fosters an environment in which acts of terrorism become thinkable and, worse, even gratifying in the eyes of the majority. The vast bulk of Muslims, of course, will go no further than to cheer on those who lash out. But such an environment is perhaps the most dangerous of all, because it legitimizes and encourages not the tolerant and liberalizing Islamists and peacemakers, but the negativistic hard-liners and rejectionists.

THE SILENT MUSLIM MAJORITY

Few Muslims around the world want to inflict endless punishment on the United States or go to war with it. Most of them recognize what happened on September 11 as a monstrous crime. But they still hope that the attacks will serve as a "lesson" to the United States to wake up and change its policies toward the Middle East. Most would emphatically reject, however, a key contention of President George W. Bush, that those who sympathize with the attacks are people who "hate freedom." Nearly all Muslims worldwide admire and aspire to the same political freedoms that Americans take for granted. A central complaint of theirs, in fact, is that U.S. policies have helped block the freedoms necessary to develop their personal and national capacities in comparable ways.

Muslim societies may have multiple problems, but hating American political values is not among them. U.S. policymakers would be wise to drop this simplistic, inaccurate, and self-serving description of the problem. They should instead consider what steps the United States can take to spread those political values to areas where they have been noticeable chiefly by their absence.

For Muslims who live in the West, the attacks of September 11 posed a moment of self-definition. However acutely attuned they might have been to the grievances of the broader Muslim world, the vast majority recognized that it was Western values and practices with which they identifed most. This reaction suggests there may be a large silent majority in the Islamic world, caught between the powerful forces of harsh and entrenched regimes on the one hand and the inexorable will of an angry superpower on the other. Right now they have few channels of expression between acceptance of a miserable status quo and siding with the world-wreckers' vision of apocalyptic confrontation. How can the United States help mobilize this camp? What can make the members of this silent majority think they are anything but ringside spectators at a patently false clash of civilizations unfolding before their eyes?

Today most moderate Islamists, as well as the few Muslim liberals around, maintain a discouragingly low profile. Although they have condemned the September 11 attacks, they have been reluctant to scrutinize the conditions of their own societies that contribute to these problems. This myopia stems partly from an anxiety about signing on to the sweeping, unpredictable, and open-ended U.S. agenda for its war on terrorism. That said, however, it also stems from a failure of will to preach hard truths when society is under siege.

Given the authoritarian realities of life in the region, what acceptable outlets of expression are available? Islamists and other social leaders should find some way of setting forth a critique of Muslim society that will galvanize a call for change. Even if presidents-for-life cannot be removed, other demands can be made -- for better services, more rights, freer economies. It is inexcusable that a Muslim civilization that led the entire world for a thousand years in the arts and sciences today ranks near the bottom of world literacy rates. Although conditions for women vary widely in the Muslim world, overall their levels of education and social engagement are depressingly low -- not just a human scandal but also a prime indicator of underdevelopment. When highly traditional or fanatic groups attempt to define Islam in terms of a social order from a distant past, voices should be raised to deny them that monopoly.

The United States, meanwhile, should contribute to this effort by beginning to engage overseas Muslims vigorously, including those Islamic clerics who enjoy great respect and authority as men of uncompromised integrity. Both sides will benefit from a dialogue that initially will reveal deep fissures in thought and approach, but that over time may begin to bridge numerous gaps. Many of these clerics represent undeniably moderate forces within political Islam, but their own understanding of the West, though far from uniformly hostile, is flawed and often initially unsympathetic. They could learn from visits to the United States and dialogue with Americans -- if ever they were granted visas.

It is worth noting, however, that this process will be fought hard by elements on both sides. The first group of opponents will be the friendly Muslim tyrants themselves, those regimes that stifle critiques from respected independent clerics and restrict their movements. The second group of opponents will come from the United States and will try to discredit the Muslim travelers by pointing to rash statements about Israel they may have made at one point or another. Given the passions aroused in the Middle East by the Arab-Israeli conflict, very few if any prominent Muslim figures will have the kind of liberal record of interfaith dialogue and tolerance that Americans find natural and appropriate. That should not disqualify them as potential interlocutors, however. Given the importance of the issues involved and the realities of the situation, the initial litmus test for being included in the conversation should be limited to a prohibition on incitement to terrorism and advocacy of war.

TURKISH DELIGHT?

Americans need to be mindful of the extent to which Islam is entwined with politics throughout the Muslim world. This connection may pose problems, but it is a reality that cannot be changed by mere appeals for secularism. The United States should avoid the Manichean formulation adopted by Bush that nations are either "with us or with the terrorists"; that is not what is going on, any more than Islamism is what bin Laden calls "a struggle between Islam and unbelief." The real story is the potential rise of forces in the Muslim world that will change not Islam itself, but rather the human understanding of Islam, laying the groundwork for a Muslim Reformation and the eventual emergence of a politics at once authentically Islamist yet also authentically liberal and democratic. The encouragement of such trends should be an important objective of U.S. policy.

One successful model that merits emulation is Turkey. This is not because Turkey is "secular"; in fact, Turkish "secularism" is actually based on total state control and even repression of religion. Turkey is becoming a model precisely because Turkish democracy is beating back rigid state ideology and slowly and reluctantly permitting the emergence of Islamist movements and parties that reflect tradition, a large segment of public opinion, and the country's developing democratic spirit. Political Islam in Turkey has evolved rapidly out of an initially narrow and nondemocratic understanding of Islam into a relatively responsible force, whether it overlaps entirely with American ideals or not.

Other promising cases to explore include Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Malaysia, and Indonesia -- all of which are at differing stages of political and social liberalization and evolution. All are working to avoid the social explosion that comes with repression of Islamic politics as a vehicle of change. Opening the political process enables people to sort out the effective moderates from the rhetorical radicals and reactionaries. Significantly, citizens of these states have not been prominent among the major terrorist groups of the world, unlike citizens of the U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Most great religions have elements of both tolerance and intolerance built into them: intolerance because they believe they carry the truth, perhaps the sole truth, and tolerance because they also speak of humanity, the common origins of mankind, concepts of divine justice, and a humane order for all. Violence does not flow from religion alone -- even bigoted religion. After all, the greatest horrors and killing machines in history stemmed from the Western, secular ideologies of fascism and communism. Religion is not about to vanish from the face of the earth, even in the most advanced Western nations, and certainly not in the Islamic world. The West will have to deal with this reality and help open up these embittered societies. In the process, the multiple varieties of Islam -- the key political realities of today -- will either evolve in positive directions with popular support, or else be discredited when they deliver little but venom. Muslim publics will quickly know the difference when offered a choice.

Terrorists must be punished. But will Washington limit itself to a merely punitive agenda to treat only the symptoms of crisis in the Muslim world? A just settlement for the Palestinians and support of regional democratization remain among the key weapons that can fight the growth of terrorism. It will be a disaster for the United States, and another cruel chapter in the history of the Muslim world, if the war on terrorism fails to liberalize these battered societies and, instead, exacerbates those very conditions that contribute to the virulent anti-Americanism of today. If a society and its politics are violent and unhappy, its mode of religious expression is likely to be just the same.

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