What We can Learn from a Quarter Century of Islamist Politics

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A two-page screaming headline in Newsweek Magazine last week asked whether Islamic terror threatened much of the western world. During a month-long working trip throughout the United States and Canada, I have kept my eye on the general tone of North American mass media coverage of the Arab and Islamic world, and what I notice is rather troubling. The few press stories I have encountered on Muslim and/or Arab societies tend to reflect two widespread themes: first is this widespread, single-issue focus on Islamic militants such as Osama bin Ladin and others who attempt to bomb (mostly) American targets, and second is anti-American and anti-Israeli actions by Arab groups.

[A sidelight worth further exploration: a parallel and relatively new dimension of mass media coverage in North America is a focus on the harsh plight of the Palestinian and Iraqi people, due to the subjugation and blockades they suffer at the hands respectively of Israel and the Anglo-American combine. I wonder: If we can pick up such variety in Western cultures, why does the Western media broadly miss the variety in our cultures, including our Islamist politics? Just a sidelight…]

The theme of “the Islamic threat” seems to be a most prominent feature of Western media coverage of the Middle East. It is significant because in its persistent negative and distorted portrayal of Islam and/or Arabs it threatens to promote profound cultural fears and barriers between Islamic and Western societies that will only lead to further antagonisms and perhaps more violence by both sides.

This has prompted me to think back over the past several decades and ask myself: what would I tell my colleagues in the Western press about what they should tell their audiences about the Arab and Islamic world? In particular, given the strong Western focus on Islamist political groups, what would be a more accurate portrayal of Middle Eastern and other Islamists?

The latest wave of Islamist politics first emerged in the Middle East in the late 1970s, about 25 years ago. Assessing the performance of the Islamists during the past quarter century suggests to me that Islamist politics is defined by a strong degree of pluralism, with a very wide range of Islamist groups showing an equally wide range of success and failure. The following relevant points might be of interest to Western and other audiences:

1. The violent militants who bomb American and other Western or Israeli targets represent a tiny fraction of Islamists, but they receive the disproportionate share of media coverage. The use of terror against civilians is morally and politically unacceptable and must be fought with all available means. Yet for the Western media to give the few bombers such disproportionate attention is a distortion that needs to be redressed.

2. Islamist groups who have been given the chance to participate in pluralistic political systems, through elections, political parties, and an open press, have behaved responsibly and like any other credible political group. They have tended to make impressive gains in some national and local elections in some countries, yet they have largely failed in changing the main policy lines of their governments. On big issues such as economic adjustment, war and peace with Israel, or relations with the USA and other Western countries, no Islamist group has been able to bring about significant changes in its government’s policies. Conclusion: Islamists tend to represent a credible, indigenous, and dynamic means for people to express their opposition to government views and a desire for change; but Islamism as a political force has been unable to realign any major state policies in the Middle East (other than in Iran, where Islamists took power through a revolution).

3. When governments ban the Islamists and prevent them from working through the political system, some Islamists resort to violence, as we have witnessed in Algeria, Syria, Egypt and other places. This is also a dead-end approach that does not achieve its goals, because the modern Middle Eastern states tend to have the ability and will to use greater force in crushing opposition movements.

4. Some Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Hizbollah, have used military force to resist foreign (Israeli) occupation, with some success, to judge by the Israeli retreat from south Lebanon and parts of the West Bank and Gaza. I’m not surprised, given the universal nature of such a phenomenon (notice how the American hit film The Patriot also glorified the use of violence in the American struggle for independence…). It is unlikely, though, that Hamas or Hizbollah will be able to maintain their popularity in, say, parliamentary elections once the occupation is over. Faith-based militancy tends to excel in struggles for freedom and dignity, but is less effective as a political actor in a ‘normal’ national context where other ideological options are available to voters. That’s why Martin Luther King was more effective than Jesse Jackson.

5. Islamist political groups emerge to respond to real human needs in situations of economic stress, social need, cultural alienation, military occupation, or domestic political inequality and corruption. They play a much smaller political role in society when such distress disappears. Thus to a large extent they are a powerful barometer of the well-being of society as a whole. The fact that they have grow stronger and weaker in a rather cyclical manner over many centuries should make this even more clear.

These brief thoughts touch on just some aspects of the rich and varied Islamist political experience of the past quarter century. Western societies whose mass media focus disproportionately on a handful of Islamist bombers are being sorely denied the full picture of an Arab/Islamic world of great human dynamism and diversity, moral and cultural wealth, and political-economic relevance.

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