When Egyptian youths battled draconian police tactics in recent demonstrations, they made a point of showing journalists the inscription on the tear-gas canisters that had been hurled at them: Made in the USA. It symbolized an important point: US support of autocratic governments for the sake of stable, pro-Western regimes in the oil-rich and strategically vital Middle East has long been an inconvenient truth.
Yet uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are demonstrating the shortsightedness of that doctrine, as the West's support of autocracy that violently suppressed other channels of dissent may now be ushering in the very democratic and Islamic-oriented governments it has long feared.
The bottom line is that political Islam, in some form, will be a significant factor in much of the Arab world and beyond. US foreign policy must come to grips with this emerging reality. Its approach must reflect an understanding of how contemporary political Islam came about and how democratic governments rooted in its principles will behave. These four points are essential:
Cold-war side effect
1. Contemporary political Islam was largely a side effect of cold-war regional politics. Though political Islamic organizations have old roots within the wider Islamic world, their rise was a direct result of US- or Soviet-backed dictatorship in the region. When the "red threat" passed, Washington reframed this narrative as support for "moderate" regimes over "extremist" ones.
Strong US support for client states translated into violent repression of independent political parties, labor unions, and other aspects of civil society. Religion became the credible avenue of opposition, because only Islamic groups had the collective constituency, financial means, and organizational ability to counter the state. This pattern has emerged in similarly repressive climates, whether in Roman Catholic opposition to communism in Eastern Europe or Buddhist monk activism in Burma (Myanmar).
Muslims like American values
2. Political Islam is not hostile to the West, but to its policies. Many Westerners assume that Muslims "hate our freedoms," but reliable surveys paint a different picture. Drawing sweeping inferences from sound bites or selective "alarming" data isn't valid, because political Islam is less a monolithic ideology than an outgrowth of each nation's society. Years of regular polling in the Islamic world suggest that the majority of Muslims hold in high regard core American values such as religious tolerance, meritocracy, individual liberty, freedom of the press, and economic vitality.
For instance, the 2008 World Public Opinion poll showed that majority-Islamic societies not only were willing to engage in globalization and trade, but also viewed the "increasing connections of our economy with others around the world" as positive forces for their own lives. Moreover, the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll shows that, when asked which country they would prefer a family member to study in, the overwhelming majority cited Western states. At the same time, surveys show deep antipathy for Western policies in their region. Particularly grievous are Western support for dictatorship in their host countries (in spite of US promotion of democracy), regional wars of aggression, and unbridled support for Israel against Palestinian self-determination.
No need to fear sharia law
3. Political Islam does not mean sharia law or global caliphate. When Westerners hear the word sharia, they think of Taliban-style repression. For most Muslims, however, sharia is simply a vague notion of social justice and order rooted in Islam. Such context is crucial when interpreting data about Muslim sentiment.
For instance, a 2010 Pew survey showed that while 90 percent of Egyptians favor freedom of religion, 84 percent favor the death penalty for apostates. This apparent contradiction reveals less about political Islam than it does about the conflicting attitudes of a population that's long lived under dictatorial rule. In Turkey, where political Islam (in concrete terms) plays a larger role than it does in Egypt, only 5 percent support the death penalty for those who leave Islam.
In any case, these viewpoints aren't central to the platforms of Islamic political parties competing for votes. Any elected political party that takes the helm of power in an Islamic country will be forced to meet the basic needs of a diverse electorate that's eager for decent living standards. In a democratic enterprise, even Islamic parties cannot impose a social or economic policy that is outside the wishes of the population. The demands of democratic governance have usually wrought a powerful moderating influence, as seen in the Islamic political parties in Iraq.
Many Westerners fear the rise of Islamic regimes, thinking they'll resemble Iran. But Turkey is the rule; Iran is the exception. In the aftermath of Iran's upheaval in the late 1970s, it was invaded by a Western and Soviet client state (Iraq), cut off from the international community, and endured an eight-year war that left up to a million casualties. This imposed crisis allowed the far right in Iran to consolidate power, marginalizing other voices. When the crisis passed, pragmatists and reformists came into power in the 1990s, mainstreaming Iran into the international community. But after 9/11, when the United States invaded two countries adjacent to Iran and often threatened regime change in Tehran, hard-liners regained power.
Turkey's democratically elected government has strong Islamic components, yet it engages in the global political economy, obeys international norms, and carries out a responsible foreign policy, primarily because it did not face the same international onslaught that Iran's government has experienced. The contrast shows the good that comes when Washington doesn't interfere – and the harm when it does.
Acceptance will aid stability
4. Acceptance and integration of Islamic political groups will aid long-term stability. Some Western policymakers might be tempted to shun Islamic parties that win power. This would be a huge mistake. Accepting and allowing governments with political Islamic components to govern freely would not only help normalize those regimes, but would also gradually promote regional stability. It is telling that the Turkish government is seen as a model for the region, from religious reformers in Iran to Pakistani political groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. A major reason for Turkey's success was the West's acceptance of its election results. Turkey today enjoys impressive and evenly dispersed economic growth, a noncorrupt ruling class, and growing diplomatic clout.
Ultimately, the majority of Muslims are far more moderate than Western stereotypes suggest. Muslims desire the same benefits of globalization, integration, and economic prosperity that Westerners do. The revolts in recent weeks are desperate bids to reclaim the freedoms that a Western-sponsored elite has denied them.
American policy must reconcile with the fact that the old order in the Middle East is collapsing and that a new order, based on popular sovereignty, is arriving. Fearing, shunning, or punishing it will backfire. Embracing it will foster a sound basis for long-term stability and security.