How Muslim countries must deal with radicals
Don't oppress them. Out-compete them on services – and save democracy.
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is gaining undeniable popularity. It's doing so by exploiting democratic methods. That poses an existential problem for the future of democracy in the Arab world.Skip to next paragraph
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To legitimize the movement – the main representative of political Islam – runs the risk of succumbing to fanatics opposed to democracy. To outlaw it may lead to its further radicalization. But there's a way Muslim governments can avoid this Catch-22: They can contain the Islamist threat without harming budding democracies by undermining the Brotherhood with educational, social, and economic reforms.
The Brotherhood now holds 88 of 444 seats in the Egyptian parliament. In 2006, the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Brotherhood, won 23 out of 80 seats in the Jordanian parliament. Islamists are making similar gains in Morocco, Bahrain, and Kuwait. With additional gains, the Brotherhood could seize majority power – and that could mean the end of free elections in these countries.
Believing that Islamists are actually committed to democracy based on their participation in elections is like judging Adolf Hitler in 1933 based on his acceptance of the ballot box, not on what he wrote in "Mein Kampf."
The writings of the Muslim Brotherhood's founder, Hasan al Banna, were clear on the movement's main objective of implementing God's rule on earth. His view leaves no room for democratic decisions based on majority vote.
The use of violence was justified in unequivocal terms by Banna when he addressed the movement's fifth congress in 1939. And Islamist use of violence throughout the past three decades proves that Banna's teachings did not fall on deaf ears.
Yet, despite this violent pedigree, some observers insist that the movement is the exception and not the rule. Leading Arab democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for example, claims only in three cases (Taliban, Sudan, radicals in Iran) did Islamists come to power through violent coups, not peaceful democratic means.
The exceptions Dr. Ibrahim cites don't suggest that the Brotherhood is generally committed to democracy. Instead they show that the movement will adopt whatever means are necessary to advance its fundamentalist idelogy. Why stage a violent coup if a ballot box achieves the same result? Indeed, the violent seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2006 by Hamas – the Gaza branch of the Brotherhood that had just been democratically elected – shows that the movement's commitment to democracy is shallow.
The Arab Islamist movements' main obsession nowadays seems to be to oppose democratic values. The Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, recently posted on the Internet, was clear in this respect when it stated that both the president and the elected legislative council should be advised by a "supreme council of clerics" whose decisions "will be final." And to add insult to injury, non-Muslims and women are barred from the presidency.