Is political Islam on the march?
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks nearly five years ago, Americans have come increasingly to believe that political Islam is a mortal threat to the West, an aggressive and totalitarian ideology dedicated to random destruction and global subjugation. Fueling Western fears is the migration of political Islam into tiny, but important, communities of Muslims living in Europe. The victory by Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reinforced perceptions that political Islam is inexorably on the march.Skip to next paragraph
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Some American commentators have called for an all-out war against all manifestations of political Islam. Disentangling myth from reality about this movement, whose goal is to establish governments based on sharia, Koranic law, is an intellectual challenge fraught with difficulties. Here are five facts to consider:
Fact 1: The political Islamist movement is highly complex and diverse. It encompasses a broad spectrum of mainstream and militant forces. Mainstream Islamists - that is, Muslim Brothers and other independent activists - represent an overwhelming majority of religiously oriented groups (in the upper 90th percentile, whereas militants or jihadists are a tiny but critical minority); they accept the rules of the political game, embrace democratic principles, and oppose violence.
In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s the Muslim Brotherhood - the most powerfully organized of all Islamists, with local branches in the Arab Middle East and Central and South and Southeast Asia - flirted with violence. But since the early 1970s Muslim Brothers have increasingly moved to the political mainstream, and aim to Islamize state and society through peaceful means. Although Muslim Brothers are often targeted and excluded from politics by ruling autocrats, they no longer use force or the threat of force to attain their goals.
Fact 2: Mainstream and enlightened Islamists are playing an active role in expanding political debate in Muslim societies. They have forced existing secular dictatorships - such as those in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia - to respond to their challenge to open up the closed political system and reform government institutions. Without such pressure, these authoritarian Arab rulers would have no incentive to respond to demands for inclusion and transparency.
Historic opponents of Western-style democracy, Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation. They formed alliances with their former sworn political opponents, including secularists and Marxists, in calling upon governments to respect human rights and the rule of law.
Mainstream or traditional Islamists are not born-again democrats and never will be. They are deeply patriarchal, seeing themselves as the guardians of faith, tradition, and authenticity. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Islamists have vehemently opposed efforts to give women the right to vote or to drive cars. In Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, they denounce any legislation that would enable women to divorce abusive husbands, travel without male permission, or achieve full representation in government.