During his March 28-30 visit to Saudi Arabia – home to the sacred center of Islam -- President Obama might want to ask this of his hosts:
What is the best type of government for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims -- theocracy, secular dictatorship, monarchy, or democracy?
Three years after the Arab Spring began, the answer remains quite up in the air – from Iran (a theocracy) to Egypt (a secular dictatorship) to Saudi Arabia (a monarchy) to Turkey and Tunisia (democracies).
The reason is that the people of the Middle East have yet to form a consensus on the meaning of “political Islam,” or how much the religion and its clergy should influence civic life and governance. Solving that question would go a long way to ending many of the region’s big conflicts.
Mr. Obama visits the region as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have targeted the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, Turkey’s Islamic ruling party is drifting toward authoritarianism, Iran appears to be softening its Islamic Revolution, and political violence in both Syria and Iraq has attracted violent offshoots of Al Qaeda.
The American president has plenty of other issues to address, such as Syria’s humanitarian crisis and Iran’s nuclear program. But he can’t ignore this rising clash over political Islam. And right now, Saudi Arabia is at the center of the debate.
On March 7, the Saudi monarchy declared war on all groups, whether Sunni or Shiite, that advocate political Islam. It also ordered any Saudis fighting in Syria, where certain rebel groups are tied to Al Qaeda, to return home within two weeks. The kingdom also cut ties to one of its fellow Gulf countries, Qatar, for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood (which renounced terrorism in the past) and jihadist groups in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is in a “fight against everything aiming to destabilize the national cohesion and harm Islam’s moderation,” said Deputy Premier Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz.
The irony is that the Saudi rulers’ secular legitimacy rests on support from the clergy of Islam’s conservative Wahhabi branch, which is quite radical in enforcing strict social rules, especially on women. So the monarchy is open to charges of endorsing political Islam, even as it gives billions in aid to Egypt’s secular military rulers to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood.
A big reason for the Saudi crackdown is a fear that the United States, as it shifts its attention toward Asia, might weaken its support of,the monarchy and also strike a deal with archrival Iran. The royal family also decries US support for democratic movements that might challenge its rule.
Yet to really resolve the dispute over political Islam, the region needs to test its meaning in the court of public opinion.
In 2012, Egypt elected the Muslim Brotherhood only to see its leaders make grabs for absolute power, triggering mass protests and then a military takeover. A different outcome happened in Tunisia, however, when the elected Islamist party, Ennahda, voluntarily gave up power in the face of widespread public dissatisfaction. Turkey’s drift away from democracy offers yet another lesson, one on how much Muslims tolerate restraints on their freedom.
Modern versions of political Islam began in 1928 with the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Since about that same time, the Middle East has shaken off the Ottoman Empire, European colonialism, and most of the Pan-Arab nationalist dictators. Since 2011, the Arab Spring has put the question of political Islam front and center. Perhaps during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Obama can engage his hosts on what the Middle East might ultimately decide.