America and the New Islamists


This blog speaks to concerns that I raise in my book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, which is coming soon to and a bookstore near you. “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not mainly about politics, nor religion, nor even geo-politics. It is about pathology. The traumas of the 20th century have driven millions of intelligent, capable people into active psychological pathologies, which they experience as ideological realities.”  The neo-cons and the US Israel Lobby will apply powerful pressure to keep the US from paying attention to the people who won the elections in Tunisia and Eygpt. But that would be disastrous for American interests–and in the long run, destructive to Israel as well.

Lawrence Swaim — 23 May 2012 

     The US gave nominal support to the Arab Spring, because it was part of a worldwide movement that the US wanted to influence. But who exactly would the new voters in the Arabic-speaking countries vote for? Not for Islamists, pundits in the US repeatedly insisted. According to them, the Arab Spring was a revolution of media geeks, twitter-fixated Facebook users using the latest social media—and to give credit where credit is due, there’s no doubt that the twitterati, as some have rather patronizingly called them, were indeed the vanguard of the democratic revolution. It was these brave and disaffected young women and men using non-violent but highly original tactics from Gene Sharp’s seminal book “From Dictatorship to Revolution” that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and then proceeded to take down Mubarak in Egypt.

But when Tunisians and Egyptians actually marked their secret ballots in the voting booths, the winners were those very same Islamists that weren’t supposed to have a chance. Thus we are at an interesting moment in American foreign policy, since in the US “Islamist” has been a synonym for everything diabolical and nightmarish in the American imagination—after all, it was not so long ago that American diplomats won’t supposed to even meet with them. Islamists were only acceptable to the extent that they could be covertly funded to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or perhaps used to agitate against secular nationalists—Islamists were, in other words, to be used in an imperial game of divide and conquer, but weren’t people you would actually treat as equals.

Americans typically associate Islamism with Iran, where religion is ensconced in the state. But the new Islamists of Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt are in a completely different league, because they operate in democracies driven by a separation of political powers.  They have created a dynamic new form of political Islam expressing itself through electoral parties in multi-party democracies, ensuring the peaceful transfer of power through recurring elections. They are Islamist, but adapted to the social needs of Muslim-majority countries at this particular historical moment. What this means, pragmatically, is that when people elect an Islamic party to office, they can turn that same party out of office at the next election if they feel it hasn’t performed well.

Interestingly, these popular parties are not only in a position to initiate domestic reforms, but have also offered dynamic leadership of issues deeply felt by Muslims around the world. Nobody personifies this better than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the 25th Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey. The former semi-pro footballer leads the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic party that holds a strong majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly. The AKP, while conservative on social issues, has supported broadly-defined social justice issues. Erdoğan’s party brought inflation under control and reduced interest rates, raised per capita incomes, gave supremacy of the European Court of Human Rights over Turkish courts, brought more women into the Assembly than before, and struck down many restrictions on freedom of the press. He also negotiated an end to the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

But it was Erdoğan’s leadership on the world stage that has inspired Muslims most, such as when he confronted Israel’s Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in 2009. The session was moderated by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius—who, like most housebroken US journalists, well understood that part of his job is to defer to the Israelis. He allowed Peres to loudly and provocatively defend Israel’s role in the Gaza conflict for 25 minutes, but didn’t even allow Erdoğan the nominal 12-15 minutes he was supposed to have to defend the Palestinians. Furthermore, some of the Europeans present applauded Peres’ defense of the massacre in which 1300 people in Gaza died.

“I find it very sad that people applaud what you have said because you know how to kill people,” Erdoğan maintained. As the moderator tried to silence him, Erdoğan rose to full height. “I do not think I will be coming back to Davos after this because you do not let me speak!” Erdoğan shouted before marching off the stage. Erdoğan’s gutsy rejection of European hypocrisy resonated with Muslims around the world. The way Erdoğan was treated seemed to many—and not only Muslims—to be simply one more instance in which defenders of Israel are given respect and preference in the West, while advocacy for Palestinians is silenced.

There was even more Muslim support for Erdoğan’s next bold move, which was sponsorship of a “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” of Turkish ships with humanitarian supplies for the people of Gaza. Since they were in international waters when the Israelis proposed to board the ships, 40 activists on the Mavi Marmara resisted. Nine passengers were killed, and a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation found that six were victims of “summary execution” by the Israeli commandos. Erdoğan broke off relations with the Israelis and ended all diplomatic and military agreements with them.

Thus when Erdoğan made his first diplomatic visit to Egypt on 12 September 2011, Egyptians were ecstatic. Even though he arrived at midnight, thousands of Egyptians turned out waving Egyptian flags. He was publicly honored by many organizations, including by the Egyptian Revolutionary Youth Union, which was pivotal in calling out the first big demonstration on January 25, 2011. At least one of the newly licensed Islamic parties (the Islamist Wasat Party) cites Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan as what they would like to see in Egypt.

Of course, the largest Islamist group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which quickly moved to set up its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Interestingly, its Vice-President, Rafik Habib, is a Christian. (The Party is based on Islamic law, but set up to appeal to a much wider constituency than would normally support the Brothers.) The Party has pointedly made it clear that it will be open to all Egyptians who accept its political program, including Christians—which could mean that it may be more likely to accept electoral and legislative coalition with non-Salifi parties than Salifi ones.

The An-Nahdah party in Tunisia, another Islamist party with a modern democratic orientation, is similar. In the run-up to the Tunisian election it promised to support women’s rights and respect Tunisia’s strong tradition of secularism. An-Nahdah, like many of the Islamist parties in Egypt, also compared itself to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, committed to democracy and social justice but essentially pragmatic. “It will be a broad national government,” promised Said Ferjani, from An-Nahdah’s political bureau.

These dynamic Islamists have battled their way through mainly non-violent revolutions to stand for election, and have won the day. Once in power, they have often shown more willingness than some secular parties to protect the values of electoral democracy. Their parties seamlessly combine democratic values at their best, with Islam at its most pragmatic. But have not Muslim thinkers been telling the West that this is possible for decades? The real question is not about Islam, but about the West. Will America recognize the legitimacy of democracy in Muslim-majority countries by respecting the Islamists elected by the voters? There will be strong pressure from the neo-cons and the Israel Lobby not to talk to the new post-Arab Spring Islamists. But the old imperial game of talking democracy while imposing tyrants is over in the Middle East. If America really supports democracy, it must respect the concerns of the Arab majority by listening to the people they elected.

    Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.  The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. Most of its advocacy has been for Sikhs and Muslims. It operates solely on grants and donations from supporters. The Foundation can be contacted at P. O. Box 6862, Napa CA 94581.  Email address is

    Watch for Lawrence Swaim’s book The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World.



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