Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Bad Consequence

The worst thing to happen from the latest round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel in the Middle East is the continued entrenchment of Islamism throughout the Muslim community or ummah. Today's NYTs Week in Review leads with Michael Slackman's article, "And Now, Islamism Trumps Arabism."

This is bad for all sorts of reasons. First Islamism is totalitarian and oppressive. It's about as far away from liberalism as the twin killers of the 20th century, fascism and Stalinism. Worse, its ideology may be harder to defeat because it is bolstered by a fundamentalist Islamic belief that only God is supreme and therefore religion and politics cannot and should not be separated. The worst sub-group of Islamism is the jihadists like al-Qaeda that believe they must fight and die if Islam is ever to regain worldwide hegemony.

But one of the more interesting aspects of Islamism is that for many Muslim inhabitants of the Middle East, the Islamists are disciplined model citizens fighting the oppressiveness of their secular regimes and providing the social services these despots won't. Slackman writes:
The terms Islamic nationalism and pan-Islamism have a negative connotation in the West, where they are associated with fundamentalism and terrorism. But that is increasingly not the case in Egypt. Under the dual pressures of foreign military attacks in the region and a government widely viewed as corrupt and illegitimate, Islamic groups are seen by many people as incorruptible, disciplined, efficient and caring. A victory for Hezbollah in Lebanon is by extension a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Combine this with many Muslims belief that the Islamists are the only people fighting Israeli, and by extension American, imperialism then you may have a religio-political juggernaut reemerging. Of course it is too soon to say but the recent victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Hezbollah's popularity across the Sunni-Shia divide are evidence that the West will have to start talking to Islamists if we want normalized politics.

Many analysts, primarily conservative, will say there can be no negotiations with Islamists. I understand their point while being luke-warmly sympathetic, but continuing to support the status quo in places such as Egypt, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories is unacceptable and will only cause Islamism to metastasize quicker and more potently. The only course is to stuff the Islamists into the political box of governing as they increasingly win elections. Only the day-to-day monotony and mundaneness of providing services and maintaining popular legitimacy will blunt their radicalism. Surprisingly, Islamism may lead to a kind of Islamic liberalism if we are courageous enough to let things go a bit awry at times. We can't control everything and it's foolish to try.

All in all, the West must give Islamists the space to moderate. But we should always make it known that this space isn't us admitting weakness but simply allowing the forces of liberalization to do their thing like water flowing over a rockface. Eventually liberalization will wear Islamism down and the whole world will be better for it.