Embracing Islamists


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.

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate