Saturday, March 26, 2011

Are the Islamists the new "communists" of the Middle East?

As protest movements spread throughout the Middle East, the Western news media continues to focus on the possible takeover by radical Islamists of opposition movements in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya. According to Western journalists, radial Islamists are said to be more organized than other groups, have well-established nation-wide networks and therefore likely to win the forthcoming elections that we can expect to take place at least in Egypt and Tunisia. While this concern has its merits, are Western policy-makers making yet another mistake in their understanding if the Middle East?

Between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, but especially during the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were obsessed with a communist takeover of the world. The fear of communism led to such excesses as the McCarthy Hearings in the US Senate and the destructive witchhunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Indeed, I can remember as a young child being fearful that the communists would steal my toys (although I wondered how the Chinese would cross the Pacific Ocean to arrive at my house).

With Russia, China, Eastern Europe and North Korea under communist control by the mid-1950s, and later followed by Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Western countries had a right to fear a communist threat. But can the same be said of Islamism, or more correctly radical Islamism which, at this time, is only in control of one country, the Islamic Republic of Iran?

There are numerous indications that Islamists do not control the protests that are sweeping the Middle East. At the same time, it is clear that Islamists have joined these movements. However, the report in the Italian newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore , that Abd al-Hakim Hasidi, who was formerly associated with al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan in 2002, is active in the Libyan opposition, has led to a slew of articles indicating that radical Islamists are going to take over the opposition movement in Libya.

I agree with Fouad Ajami's comments on CNN that the opposition movement is largely made up of ordinary Libyan citizens who seek to throw off more than 40 years of oppressive rule by a ruler and his family who have squandered the country's oil wealth. We should be less concerned with Islamists, who the West has little opportunity to control in any event, and more concerned with making Libya's nascent opposition movement and those in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere a success.

Does the Libyan opposition include radical Islamists who seek to impose a new type of authoritarian rule? No doubt it does. But the West's attitude is once again to adopt a condescending approach that refuses to recognize that peoples in non-Western parts of the world understand their interests and are sophisticated enough to know who opposes these interest.

The obsession with communism led the United States to make many bad decisions in the Middle East. The US gave the Shah of Iran unequivocal support which ultimately resulted in the creation of a radical Islamist regime that has engaged in destabilizing the region. In other words, the US helped bring about the very outcome which it so feared.

Helping the first Ba'thist regime overthrow Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq in 1963 not only deposed a non-sectarian and honest leader who was truly concerned with the interests of his people and began a period of unstable and authoritarian regimes which has still not finished playing itself out in Iraqi to this day.

Seeing communists behind every rock in the Middle East led the US and its allies to support autocrats such as Husni Mubarak and Zein al-Dine Ben Ali. In the process, we alienated large segments of Middle Eastern society and created great distrust for American policies in the region.

If we fail to realize that much of the support for Islamism is based on great ideological fluidity in the Middle East, we attribute more influence to Islamist movements than they actually possess. Arab nationalism has lost its legitimacy. Socialism on the model of the former Soviet Union is an ideology of the past. Middle Easterners want social justice but they also demand freedom. They are not going to cede the hard won freedom that they have won from the secular autocrats only to turn over control to radical Islamist autocrats.

The people of the region are searching for new models of the future. Rather than look at this with fear, the West should realize that there are great opportunities for change, especially among the region's youth

There are those who would point out that those who supported the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 also sought freedom and look where it ended up. Conditions are different today. Iran was an isolated event in 1979, there was no social media at the time, and Iranians know today that the revolution has not lived up to its promises. The Iranian regime is highly unpopular, especially Iranian youth who make up 70% of the population under the age of 30.

The US and the West need to keep their eyes on the prize, namely helping Middle Easterners achieve democracy, build civil society and create economic opportunity that will provide the necessary jobs for the large number of unemployed people in the region especially youth.

Yes, the US should be concerned when radicals become active in opposition movements which claim to support democracy. However, these radicals will lose their ability to recruit new members when the countries of the region are able to provide their citizens with freedom, employment and other social services.

If the West is really sincere about preventing radical Islamists from taking over the nascent democratic movements of the region, it will work hard to bring social justice to the Middle East.

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