Meet the Islamist vanguard

In November and December, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood emerged the dynamic winner of Egypt’s bitter and violent parliamentary elections. The group’s candidates, campaigning as independents, succeeded in authenticating the Islamist movement as the sole meaningful opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s ailing National Democratic Party, first by disav! owing ill intent against the presidency and the country’s Christians, and second, by limiting the number of districts in which they ran. The further integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into a legitimate electoral process marks a defining moment in the group’s relations with the regime, after a history of brutal suppression and mutual violence.

More significantly, Egypt’s experience is being mirrored throughout the region, as movements guided by orthodox interpretations of Islamic law gain ascendancy in state governments. Palestinian officials, fretting over the Islamist bogeyman in their own backyard, keep saying they might cancel parliamentary elections scheduled for January. Iraqi elections appear to have solidified the Shi’ite majority in the government (it is still too early to say what that means). And in June, Iranians voted in conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, silencing White House claims of imminent pro-western reform. Like a wellspring from below, the combined grievances of poverty, insecurity and political disenfranchisement are driving anti-western, anti-regime sentiments (because the two are hand-in-glove) and placing conservative Islam, with its underdog image and demonstrable arguments, in the mainstream.

Recent US policy appears to have fueled this tendency. Out of one side of its mouth, the Bush White House decreed democracy. Out of the other, it tightened its alliances with autocratic Arab regimes and, in the case of Iran, alienated reformers by condemning the country to the "axis of evil". These mixed messages only confirmed the claims of Islamists: the US, they said, bore gifts of political control and cultural subjugation, not self-determination and parity. After all, they could argue, Bush’s vow to ensure a Palestinian state was proven empty. The plundering of Iraq and its resources continues. Nor has any other economic solution managed to rival Islamic charities in helping the large regional underclass.

Take the Palestinian case, where an inordinate amount of American policy capital is spent on a bizarre set of demands (to rewrite brand new school books, to rename institutions called after Palestinian political symbols, to cleanse largely unwatched public television), all while the conditions driving Palestinian radicalism–occupation, poverty, official ineptness–gain ground. Palestinians have been gifted large sums of US aid, but because organizations that receive that aid must disavow links to all but a handful of Palestinian political streams, USAID must lobby to distribute its funds. When the White House finally woke up to the fact that the Palestinian public was turning to Hamas and Islamic Jihad to resolve a 60 percent poverty rate, it had to override congressional restrictions in order to disburse money to the Palestinian government. The restrictions were put in place to punish Yasser Arafat for his political positions, but had the effect of weakening the centrist n! ationalist faction, Fatah, that had signed peace agreements with Israel. Now that this faction has become so weak that it is rivaled by the rejectionist faction Hamas, Congress is threatening to ban funding to any Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Fatah members tried to use this argument to swing voters in recent municipal elections. "We told them that if Hamas wins then there won’t be any foreign funding for roads and other services," a Fatah campaigner said. Still Hamas swept municipal elections in four major West Bank towns. Apparently, Palestinian discontent with the peace process and out-of-touch elites–a discontent cleverly articulated by Hamas–has more cache than US grants based on political diktats.

Hamas has repeatedly stated that it does not strive to be the Palestinian leadership; instead it seeks transformation. In Egypt, there is good reason to believe the Muslim Brotherhood when its leaders say it does not seek to overthrow the Egyptian regime. It was precisely the Brotherhood’s ability to foster an image of political legitimacy and integration that made it the standard bearer for the complaints of the average Egyptian. Both political strains (Hamas is born of the Brotherhood) have worked to publicly distance themselves from the likes of al-Qaeda, preferring rather to focus on their respective missions against occupation and poor governance.

Knowing this, for the West not to engage these trends is to invite disaster. The pedestrian saying goes that Islam provides solutions to all of life’s problems, but reality is rather more complex. Islamic law (keeping in mind significant Sunni and Shi’ite differences) is articulate on family and personal status issues, but has much less to say about diplomacy and civic institutions. Shariah-informed systems of government have struggled, then, to produce compromises adapted to public needs and contemporary norms.

While the latest Islamist trend has swept in on the coattails of inequity, occupation, and anti-western sentiment, it comes bearing orthodox views on the role of government. These views are certain to increase sectarian tensions. Perhaps, too, they will awaken a currently ineffective secular opposition. But beyond the labor pains, the Islamist groups seeking electoral legitimacy today form the vanguard of efforts to interpret Islam’s contemporary civic configurations. Whether those configurations are adaptable–or inflexible and reactionary–may well be determined by how well the outside world comes to understand and engage these movements early on.