The Arab Spring’s main message – that young people seek self-governance and dignity through peaceful means – continues to bestow surprising gifts in the region. One is that radical Islamists are being forced to radically rethink their approach.
The dawn of democracy in Egypt, for example, has pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to moderate its hard-line ways to the point that Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Cairo, was able to meet with the group last month after years of Washington keeping an arm’s length.
And Hamas, the Islamic group that has ruled Palestinian territory in the Gaza Strip since 2006, agreed this week to reconcile with its rival on the West Bank, Fatah. The two firmed up plans to pursue a unified government leading to elections.
The context for these events is that these Islamists cannot ignore the fact that millions of young Muslims now clearly prefer democracy through nonviolent means rather than a violent path to a state ruled by unelected clerics. And the traditional allies of radical Islamists, Syria and Iran, have become severely isolated and unable to support such groups. Last year’s killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden also was a setback for Muslim groups that justify terrorism.
The moderate Islamists see an opening, too, as democracy takes roots in liberated Arab countries. Hopes are rising that the election of such groups to power will force them to deal with job creation and other secular needs, as Turkey’s ruling Islamic party has discovered.
The Taliban and Hamas, of course, must still renounce the use of violence. But if groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are now their model – achieving power through the ballot box – then it is worth watching to see if the more radical groups follow suit.
President Obama was smart not to follow the example of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned against the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal. If the United States is willing to talk to the Taliban – even to the point of dropping its preconditions – then Israel should leave a door open to the possibility that Hamas is slowly accepting Israel’s right to exist under a two-state solution. Hamas has already worked to curb attacks on Israel from Gaza.
Setbacks may still develop in these latest gifts of the Arab Spring. But it’s difficult to keep good ideas down too long. Muslims have spoken loudly and the Middle East will never be the same.