Embracing Islamists

| Tue Jun. 7, 2005 7:39 PM EDT

In the Lebanon Daily Star today, Michael Rubin warns the United States against embracing Islamist reformers in its quest to spread democracy all about the Middle East. Indeed, he sees troubling signs to the contrary from the Bush administration:

The White House has also flip-flopped on Hamas. While Hamas candidates came in second to those of Fatah in Palestinian elections, it nonetheless won the largest municipalities in Gaza. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Hamas' successful candidates "business professionals." But election participation does not make candidates democratic. Hamas ran on a platform rejecting the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood. Its charter embraced imposition of Islamic rule, with the Koran as its constitution, and it has eschewed the rule of law. Well-known for its attacks on Israelis, it has also targeted liberal Palestinians.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, another recipient of recent State Department outreach, also has a long legacy of violence. Its armed wing has murdered thousands. Engaging any group that has been involved in terror only legitimizes the violence that propelled that group to prominence. Better that Washington support bold but peaceful politicians like Ayman Nour.

Well, the White House has flopped again, mistakenly, on Hamas, but I get Rubin's point. The problem with this argument, though, is that liberal "peaceful politicians" like Ayman Nour in Egypt simply don't have large, well-organized constituencies. That's the legacy of Arab authoritarianism in the Middle East: in the absence of robust political parties or other civic centers, the only groups with any sort of strong organization are Islamists. This was painfully obvious in Iraq. Rubin doesn't like the Shiite militiamen and thugs now running the country—fine—but it was clear from the January 30th election that Iyad Allawi's semi-liberal slate was no match in the popular imagination for the religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. So it goes elsewhere; like it or not, Hamas and Hezbollah and, yes, the Muslim Brotherhood are genuinely popular. Moreover, it's unrealistic to expect some of these groups to disarm before entering politics. Ideally the White House can get Islamist groups to agree to abide by certain principles—the rule of law, independent judiciaries, universal suffrage, etc.—but if we're demanding perfect behavior we'll be waiting a long, long time. That makes engagement both tricky and unpredictable, but that's the whole point of democracy—it's impossible for anyone but the voters themselves to control the outcome.

Rubin's main fear seems to be that by engaging Islamist groups that have used violence in the past, the United States will only lend legitimacy to that violence. That's noble, but the more important question is whether it's practical. It seems not. Again, look to Iraq. It was only a year ago that Muqtada al-Sadr was leading his fighters against Marines in Najaf and Sadr City. Now he's taking part in government, and by all accounts, he's moderated his hostility towards the establishment clergy and kept the peace in his home neighborhood. Is Muqtada trustworthy? No. Is he the sort of person I would want running my country? Of course not. But he's not threatening mass uprisings anymore, either. The mundane business of governing sometimes has a way of moderating radicals, whether you want to call it "appeasement" or something else, sometimes it works.