The Current Crisis of Political Islam.

“Our minarets are our bayonets, our domes are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks.”[1]

In the wake of 9/11 the George W. Bush administration made a correct judgment about the origins of the terrorist attacks.  The Middle East is deeply messed-up for reasons that have little-to-nothing to do with Western imperialism or oil companies or American engagement with authoritarian regimes.  The Bush administration then made a spectacularly wrong decision about how to address the problem.  In 2003, the United States led a “coalition of the willing” in an invasion of Iraq.  The ripples from that attack have not yet subsided.  The Americans over-turned the long-standing domination of the Shi’ite majority by the Sunni minority; the Shi’ites hungered for revenge while the Sunnis launched a bloody insurrection; al-Qaeda poured gasoline on the fire when it had not before existed in Iraq, then–when defeated in Iraq—retreated into Syria, where it evolved into ISIS; and the Iraqi Kurds began to pull away to create a proto-state that would exert a magnetic pull on Kurds in Syria and Turkey, so an important American ally faced an existential crisis.

One additional effect appeared in the question whether an Islamist government could–or should–come to power by democratic means.  The implications of the question reach very far.

First, there is Islam in general and then there is Islam in the Middle East.[2]  Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, made a transition to democracy in 1999.  Islamists have made no head-way in gaining power there.  Although far from a democracy, in Pakistan Islamist parties have made little progress trying to displace the military-dominated government.  Both examples might encourage Americans seeking to understand the international security environment.

In contrast, for decades, Middle Eastern autocratic secularist governments built a dike of policemen and prisons to hold back a rising tide of popular support for Islamists.  As their numbers grew and as violence failed to open the road to power, Islamist political movements endorsed “democracy.”  Some observers believe that, for Islamists, democracy means “one man, one vote, one time.”[3]  Since its’ founding in 1979, Iran’s Islamic Republic has put meat on the bare bones of this suspicion.  The clergy always have the last say in political decisions and candidates for office often find themselves disqualified on the say-so of clerics.

The great problem is that Islamists believe that there is only one right road, not many roads, to Salvation.  They believe that they are in the left lane with an EZ-Pass and everyone else is on the off-ramp to Hell.  This is an idea that has not held sway in the West for hundreds of years.  The anti-unbeliever face of this belief troubles Westerners struggling to define a policy toward Muslims that does not violate their own core values.  At the same time, Westerners seem inattentive to the anti-wrong-believers face of this belief.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war is tearing apart the whole region.  Saudi Arabia has spent decades propagating a puritanical (Wahhabi) version of Sunni Islam that is congruent with radical Islamism.  The Shi’ite majority in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq immediately began to grind the faces of the suddenly displaced Sunni majority.  Relatively secularized Muslims recoil from even peaceful Islamists into the arms of the traditional authoritarians.

Tritely, values differ across cultures.  Politics follow.  Often, so does tragedy.

[1] Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

[2] Vladimir Trofimov, “The Crisis of Political Islam,” WSJ, 23-24 July 2016.

[3] Thus, Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said that he saw democracy as “a vehicle.” His course as prime minister and president of Turkey makes it clear that he doesn’t see it as an end in itself.

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