The Mirage of Political Islam


“You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”

President Obama delivered these words in his Cairo speech, five years ago today, when he reached out to rehabilitate Islam and Islamic civilization in the eyes of the world — and redeem America in the eyes of the global Muslim community after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Cairo speech was part of the road map based on the advice of the 2008 report “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations With the Muslim World,” drafted by the leadership group on United States-Muslim engagement, composed of former senior government officials, both Democrat and Republican, as well as scholars (myself included), political analysts and international relations experts. All of us were concerned about the divide between America and the Muslim world, and we recommended that the new president deliver a major speech in a significant Islamic capital — Cairo, Istanbul, Jakarta or Rabat — directly addressing the Muslim world. That’s what Mr. Obama did at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

Since then, Egypt has experienced the “Arab Spring,” followed first by the Muslim Brotherhood’s election to power, and then its downfall. If Mr. Obama’s message of 2009 had been conveyed again more forcefully to Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, before he was ousted by the army last July, the hopes of Arabs and Muslims around the world after the Cairo speech might not have been as disappointed as they are today.

Sadly, every one of the “ingredients” for democracy listed by Mr. Obama was flouted by Mr. Morsi during his tumultuous year in office. He forced the passage of the Muslim Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution, issued edicts imposing himself over the judiciary, failed to provide protections to Coptic Christians, started vendettas against journalists and activists and treated the secular opposition as enemies to be excluded from political life. In short, the Egyptian president furthered the political aims of the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of the nation, exactly as Mr. Obama had cautioned against.

The result is that the Obama administration has found itself in an uncomfortable position. As the president remarked to the United Nations General Assembly last September, “America has been attacked by all sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and engineering their removal of power.”

But if the administration had been more critical of the Brotherhood’s infringements of democratic rights, it might have avoided this situation. Instead, when asked about Mr. Morsi’s fiat of November 2012 that gave his regime extraordinary powers, a State Department spokesman responded, “this is an Egyptian political process.” Mr. Obama may have said that “elections alone do not equal democracy,” but America acted as though elections in Egypt were sufficient. In the words of America’s ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, “the fact is they ran in a legitimate election and won” — as if that settled the issue of the Brotherhood’s fitness for democratic rule.

In Tunisia, the Obama administration adopted a similarly misguided attitude toward Ennahda, the Islamist party then governing, despite allegations of ties to extremists suspected in the assassinations of prominent secular politicians, including Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and Mohamed Brahmi in July. After the American Embassy in Tunis was attacked by Ennahda’s Salafist associates, Ansar al-Shariah, in September 2012, the Tunisian media revealed that Ennahda’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, had previously met with Salafist activists and advised them on political strategy. Before his return to Tunisia from exile in 2011, Mr. Ghannouchi had been hailed in London and Washington as a Muslim democrat and a paragon of moderation.

Five years after the Cairo speech, the administration’s ill-advised support of these regimes is clearly a strategic error stemming from a failure to grasp the nature of political Islam. At root, this misjudgment lies in the belief that Islamists were ever the legitimate voice of Islam. This was not what our group meant by “Muslim engagement.”

During the decades of dictatorship in the Arab world, political Islamists marketed themselves in the West as “moderate” movements that sought to reconcile Islam with democracy. In reality, they were proponents of a messianic ideology in which the fundamental tenet is to implement God’s will on earth. While they succeeded in disguising their true intentions in talks at Chatham House or the Council on Foreign Relations, they could not possibly provide the partner America needed.

As the Obama team prepared to end the wars of the Bush administration, it felt a need for friends in the Arab world. So the administration bought into the fallacy of “moderate” political Islam.

Had they not fallen for the Islamists’ lip service to democracy, they might have paid more attention to the new political force that sparked the Arab Spring: democratic secularism. Regrettably, the United States failed to recognize the need to strengthen the Muslim world’s secular democratic parties and empower their supporters, who want to build a society based on tolerance, moderation, the rule of law, women’s rights and constitutional freedoms. Just as America worked to stop the spread of Communism after World War II, the Obama administration could have invested in civil society groups and secular democratic parties in the Muslim world.

Few will dispute that Islamism in its “moderate” form is now in retreat. It took just a year for the incompetence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to reveal itself (the fall of Ennahda in Tunisia took longer). Washington must acknowledge the new reality, and engage with the Sisi government in Egypt and with Tunisia’s secular political parties ahead of national elections later this year.

How to channel the aspirations of that segment of the Egyptian and Tunisian societies that is rural, pious, illiterate and conservative remains a real challenge. Typically, such people are poor and lack economic opportunity. From the period of the dictatorships to the elections made possible by the Arab Spring, these populations were courted by the Islamists and developed into a strong constituency. In Egypt and Tunisia especially, but throughout the Muslim world, political systems must find ways to integrate these communities into the political and economic life of the nation.

This is not only for the sake of social justice, but also to shut the door on Islamism, both “moderate” and jihadist. In this difficult task, America should help, not hinder, the secular democrats of the Muslim world. It is in America’s national interest.

Mustapha Tlili, a novelist and a research scholar at New York University, is the founder and director of the N.Y.U. Center for Dialogues: Islamic World – U.S. – the West.

June 6, 2014 | 1 Comment »

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