July 30, 2014

Islamists in Power; What Could Go Wrong?


The New York Times has run an op-ed entitled, ‘The Overblown Islamist Threat.’ Big surprise: There’s no Islamist threat! They’re all moderates! Just like in 1979 Iran or in Turkey more recently. Do you think we might see an oped in The New York Times entitled, ‘The Islamist Threat is Very Real?’ Of course not.

But the real surprise is the author’s identity. It’s former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher. Huh? Jordan’s policy on Islamism has been based precisely on the idea that letting them take power would be the end of the regime and a disaster for the country.

How has Jordan handled the Islamists? By assuming they would win any fair elections, thus ensuring that elections were fixed, the Muslim Brotherhood constantly intimidated and never able to get any real power.

Otherwise, Muasher and his friends would be shot or on trial; Jordan would stumble into a disastrous war with Israel, and the country turned into a ferociously repressive dictatorship. But since Muasher is now in Washington DC, he wouldn’t have to flee into exile.

Like George Costanza in Seinfeld, everything Muasher says in the article is the opposite of reality.

The Islamist victory in Tunisia, he writes, has “reinforced the conventional wisdom that Islamists will be the biggest beneficiaries of the Arab Spring.” (Really? This is the conventional wisdom?) But not to worry, he continues, because the “Islamist parties will, however, become more moderate if they are included in government.”

This worked so well in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon, with Yasser Arafat in the 1990s and with Hamas in Gaza it’s a wonder Jordan’s King Abdullah never tried it.

In addition, Muasher claims “Islamists are unlikely to take over new governments in the Arab world.” In Tunisia, he writes, the Islamist party “has made it clear that it’s uninterested in ruling the country alone.”

Uninterested? Nonsense. The reason they aren’t going to rule alone is that they lack a majority. In Turkey, the Islamists have expressed no such reservations.

According to Muasher, they don’t want to take over at least partly because “whoever governs… will need to tackle tremendous political and economic problems. Islamists don’t want to be blamed for the mess.”

Of course we already know the Islamist answer to that problem: blame Western imperialism, Zionism and the lack of a proper Islamist society.

He next claims that “Western pundits” overestimate the popularity of Islamists, who only get “15 to 20 percent of the popular vote.” True, that’s what they got in Egypt and Jordan – when the regimes didn’t count all the votes. In a fair election – as Tunisia shows – they easily do twice as well.

Furthermore, this support for Islamism, Muasher asserts, is merely a “protest vote.” People in the region don’t really want to live in “religious theocracies,” he says.

Really? Has he ever seen Pew polls on public opinion in the region, including Jordan? In any case, what does it matter that the people don’t really want theocratic government if, once it’s established as a result of their “protest,” they can’t get rid of it? One cannot neglect the truth that has become so evident in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia: it is the secular-oriented opposition parties that are really weak and divided, while the Islamist’s willingness to use repression and violence gives them a huge advantage.

But here’s my favorite bit. Muasher supports his arguments by pointing out that Jordan had Islamists in its government in 1990. They became unpopular, he says, by for example, seeking “to introduce segregation between fathers and their daughters at school events.

This backfired and citizens simply refused to go along with it. Jordan’s Islamists quickly backed down and dropped the demand. Political inclusion, it turned out, had a moderating effect on Islamists.”

No doubt that’s why they advocate sharia law now.

As Muasher knows full well, it was government repression and election rigging, not the masses demanding that dads and daughters sit together to watch school plays, that kept the Islamists on the sidelines.

In short, everything he says is the opposite of what he and his former colleagues in Jordan have done. They would never give up their monopoly on power out of a naïve belief that the Islamists would become more moderate as a result.

Muasher himself reveals the ludicrousness of his own arguments.

“In order to ensure peaceful political competition between Islamists and other political parties, the new Arab democracies” must ensure “a peaceful political landscape that is free of armed groups like Hamas and Hezbollah,” he writes. Yet these very armed groups, neither of which has yet shown any signs of moderation, both came to power as the result of free elections.

“Excluding and marginalizing Islamists out of fear,” Muasher concludes, “will only strengthen their appeal.”

Maybe so. But not doing so will also strengthen their appeal and once all of the gates are opened wide, nobody can counter the Islamists. At that point, they cannot be marginalized.

Finally, the danger is not about a policy that “will only strengthen their appeal” but one that will ensure they rule the country. There’s not much transparency in the Muslim-majority world but one thing is definitely transparent: the inaccurate and illogical nature of what we’re told about those countries.

Proving this is going to require whole countries to be subjected to horrible dictatorships for years (Iran is at one-third of a century and counting), the crushing of women’s rights, the setting back of regional development by decades and bloody wars in which tens of thousands will die.

About Barry Rubin

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)