Questions About (Inclusion of) Islamism

Egypt is on everyone’s minds today in Washington, not least among them neoconservatives and pro-Israel hawks.

House Foreign Affairs chief Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) was wondering about the “nefarious ends” of some “elements” there, and Jeffrey Goldberg, who, with shifting views, expressed apprehension about the Muslim Brotherhood (giving space to FDD’s Reuel Marc Gerecht, who seems open to Islamism, apparently, and Eli Lake, who doesn’t think Egypt’s peace deal with Israel will collapse).

Goldberg, to his credit, is asking big questions. And one of the biggest right now is about Islamism, and it’s role in the future of the Middle East. It’s playing out most acutely today in Tunisia and Egypt, but has been simmering all over the region, from Gaza to Qom.

Opinion makers in the U.S. seem to be divided along the lines that define what M.J. Rosenberg has called the “status quo lobby” (SQL), those whose actions — or key inactions — have thwarted a robust role for the U.S. in Middle East peacemaking. Goldberg and Ros-Lehtinen fit the paradigm: Both unflinching SQLers, they wear their hesitance for the long-awaited Arab democratic uprising on their sleeves.

The tepid support for Egyptians is about fear of Islamists, and no totalitarian strain, but one that has transitioned to seeking democratic legitimacy and inclusion. Yet events unfold in Egypt that drown out that narrative of what Phil Weiss, in an eloquent, must-read essay, called the “false choice of secular dictator-or-crazy Islamists.”

A bearded, angry young Arab shouted into a camera that “whether you’re Muslim, whether you’re a Christian, whether you’re an atheist, you will demand your goddamn rights.” Police held their fire, and protesters their stones, to break for prayers. On Twitter, Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, wrote that a key day of demonstrations went forward even without the internet because people already knew where to meet up: “[O]n Friday everybody knew mosques would be focal points, didn’t need to coordinate.”

But the “false choice” clings to life among adherents of the SQL, where it is considered infallible wisdom.

The New York Times gave us a pretty even handed account a few weeks back about Tunisia’s relatively moderate Islamist party, then hauled out  WINEP‘s Martin Kramer to unthinkingly denounce Islamism. (The Times also carried a pro-inclusion analyst.) Kramer, you see, hasn’t honestly answered or asked this question for decades.

Even Ben Birnbaum, a young reporter with the right-wing Washington Times, where he works with Lake, was asking himself some serious questions, too, on Twitter:

Do my mixed feelings about democracy in #Egypt make me a bad person? #Jan25

You get the feeling that Steve Coll had just the SQL in mind when he wrote, in the New Yorker, that the Tunisian Islamist party — the one that’s cool with “tourists sipping French wine in their bikinis”  — is “raising anxieties in some quarters.”

In other quarters, however, questions are being asked. Take Coll himself:

[T]he corrosive effects of political and economic exclusion in the region cannot be sustained—among them the legions of pent-up, angry young men, Islamist and otherwise.

Yes, he calls for Obama to “thwart” Islamists in Tunisia. But the New Yorker‘s Comment is a column that important people read, and they’re reading about important questions.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Please name an Islamist party that is IN POWER or has held power in the past in the Arab world that practices democracy and inclusion.

  2. Jon,

    It was the polytheists who invented democracy. Monotheists tend toward top down rule and the two only co-exist where religion and the state are separate. The problem for Islam is that it was politically successful for the first seven hundred years and hasn’t got beyond that. Both Judaism and Christianity have had their political setbacks and incorporated the cycles into the theology.
    The fact remains though, that the universal state of the absolute is basis, not apex, so a spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. The proper metaphor would be the child, not the adult. Age only tempers this primary awareness.
    Occasionally this raw sense of being does rise up and shed its old form, usually to be replaced by something similar, but occasionally with a few mutations which make it more resilient. In the next few centuries, we will shed the monotheistic paradigm for something more sublime.

  3. Jon, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq all feature religious tolerance coupled with democracy. Meanwhile, religious tolerance isn’t exactly on the ascent here or in Europe, and we know the Israeli version may be the most pernicious example of elitism, though American exceptionalism seems to be giving it a run for it’s money.

    Further, the construction of your question is loaded. I would suggest that an “Islamist” party exists not on their own, any more than we are or ever were a “Christian” nation, but in relation to what? US, they are defined by US for our own ends. Further, there is nothing in Islam that necessarily is antithetical to Western style democracy, unless you want to say hypocrisy and double dealing are essential aspects of Western Democracy. Neither party in practice live up to their ideals, so if we are to hold the standard, lets not lean back on American exceptionalism to win by definition.

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