Middle East: America’s democracy advance puts secularism into retreat

Not so long ago, President Bush announced his much coveted Greater Middle East Initiative. The aim of the plan was to preserve the existing secular order across the region through the promotion of freedom and democracy. But in today’s Middle Eastern societies, Bush’s initiative is having just the opposite effect. Islamists throughout the region have shown unprecedented gains in recent elections and now pose a direct challenge to the dictatorships and monarchies that thrive under American patronage.

During Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood secured 20% of the seats. Had not Mubarak’s regime resorted to intimidation in the second and third rounds of the balloting, the figure would have been much higher. But despite the regimes brutal tactics to suppress the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood employed the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ and outperformed secular rivals in garnering greater support amongst Egypt’s electorate.

In the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2005, the religious parties took the bulk of the Iraqi votes. Of 275 seats in the Council of Representatives, the Shia dominated United Iraqi Alliance won 128 seats. The alliance includes the Dawa Party led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. The alliance fell 10 votes short of an absolute majority. The Sunni fundamentalists of the Iraqi Accord Front secured 44 seats, while Kurdish Islamists took 5 seats. Had not America and her surrogates interfered directly in the electoral process the strength of the Islamists’ vote would have completely marginalized the secularists. In any case, the Iraqi Council of Representatives will be dominated by representatives who have a strong religious disposition and are expected to throw out policies which they deem to be overtly secular.

The outcome of the Palestinian election scheduled for January 25 2006 will probably mimic the election results of Egypt and Iraq. Already pollsters are predicting a strong showing for Hamas which is avidly anti-Israeli and has vowed its destruction. Hamas fielding 62 candidates is projected to take more than a third of the 132 seats available in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Threats from Israel to preclude the organisation from contesting the election and America’s dislike of its hard-line stance have boosted the group’s popularity. Apart from Fatah, the other secular party’s cannot mount an effective challenge to growing influence of Hamas and other Islamists. Fatah reeling from internal schisms and widely viewed as being corrupt will be the main looser.

The pattern of Islamists outshining secularists in elections is being repeated elsewhere in the Arab world. For instance in the Saudi municipal elections last year, Islamists won 6 of the 7 seats in Riyadh and swept the elections in Jeddah and Makkah. Candidates backed by Sunni Islamists also won control of the municipal councils in a number of towns in the Eastern Province. In the 2003 parliamentary election in Yemen, the Yemeni Reform Group (Islah), a combination of Islamist and tribal elements, won 46 of the 301 seats and now forms the opposition. That year, Islamists combined to win 17 of the 50 seats in the Kuwaiti parliament, where they form the dominant ideological bloc. In Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco too, Islamists have made gains often at the expense of secularists

The ubiquitous presence of Islamists and the rapid decline of the secularists have altered the political landscape of the Arab world. Early indications suggest that this transformation is going to be permanent. According to the 2004 Zogby International-Sadat Chair poll, of those surveyed in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE said the clergy should play a greater role in their political systems. Fifty percent of Egyptians polled said the clerics should not dictate the political system, but as many as 47 percent supported a greater role for them. So the political trend is clear; more democratic the Arab world gets, the more likely it is that Islamists will come to power.

Not only has Bush’s democracy drive in the Middle East strengthened political Islam it has also failed to stymie the tide of militant Islam which grows more violent by the day. In April 2005, the US State Department decided to stop publishing an annual report on international terrorism after the government’s top terrorism centre concluded that there were more terrorist attacks in 2004 than in any year since 1985, the first year the publication covered. Another casualty of this initiative has been the battle of hearts and minds. According to the 2005 Zogby poll on Arab attitudes towards America, 63% of Jordanians, 85 % of Egyptians, 89% of Saudis, 66% of Lebanese, and 69% of the people in UAE had an unfavourable opinion of America.

The collapse of Bush’s plan to advance democracy in the Middle East has not escaped the attention of policy makers back home. A bitter dispute has broken out between supporters of Bush and the critics of his plan. The opponents of his plan argue that Bush is not doing enough to isolate the Islamists and promote the moderates as part of the democracy push in the Middle East. They also maintain that Islamists, especially those that are vociferously anti-American cannot be trusted and must be excluded from the democracy experiment. Their view is based on the idea that the refusal of the Muslim world to accept western values lies with the ideology of Islam. In their opinion the Islamic texts have to fundamentally change before the Arab world can be accepted by the West.

The supporters on the other hand advocate a more pragmatic approach. They believe that by co-opting Islamists in the democratic process, the Arab world can be moulded into a region that accepts western values, is substantially less anti-American and willingly accepts American hegemony. Their belief rests on the premise that by keeping Islamists out of the democratic process will only breed resentment and violence against the West. They cite Turkey as the ideal model for the Arab world to follow. A major proponent of this view is the neoconservative Marc Gerecht who recently argued in an article entitled ‘Devout Democracies’ that self rule in the Muslim world will have a religious component and the West should not be afraid of this phenomena.

Whichever of the two views succeeds in guiding America’s democracy experiment in the Middle East, it will have a negligible impact on curbing the rise of political Islam. This is because the people of the Middle East will never forget or forgive America’s unstinting support for Israel, her unflinching support for the brutal Arab dictatorships, her exploitation of their natural resources, her imposition of capitalist solutions and values, and her determined efforts to wage wars against the people of Iraq and other Muslims. These painful realities are permanently etched on the minds of the Arabs and continuously urge the Arab populace to seek solace in political Islam.

The Middle East is the heart of the Islamic world and right now it is pulsating with political Islam that will inevitably lead to the re-emergence of the Caliphate. Promoting democracy or eschewing its implementation, substituting Islamic texts with secular interpretations, isolating Islamists and encouraging moderates, destroying regimes and replacing them with compliant US surrogates is not going to change the outcome. America’s past relations with the Arabs has sealed her fate with the present Arabs. The time has come for US policy makers to think about the future –” what type of relations does the US want with the Caliphate?