One of the most galling and recurring ironies of democracy appears to be that it provides a platform, through free speech, for the very thing that seeks to undermine it. This point has been driven home with the recent revelations that the Iranian-controlled Alavi Foundation gave money to US colleges - the same colleges which proclaim "free speech" when they invite the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus.
The first way in which Islamism uses democracy is through the ballot box. This was one of the unintended consequences of the Bush administration's program of spreading democracy in the Arab world. One of the most egregious examples of this was the Hamas election victory in the Palestinian elections of January 2006. In elections in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood obtained around 20 percent of the seats in Egypt's parliament (88 of 454). Turkey has also served as a test case for Islamist democracy. Since Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) party won 34% of the vote in the 2002 elections, the country has been governed by its brand of Islamism.
The rise of Islamist parties and their use of the democratic system has three main causes. First, the Islamist parties position themselves as parties of "change," representing a supposed reform from years of economic stagnation and political corruption. Second, the parties capitalize on disillusionment with nationalism and the current return to religiosity. Lastly, the Islamist parties are aided and abetted by the West, whose democratic values are twisted by them to great success. The West tends to view electoral triumphs by Islamists as a form of "moderating" them.
Thus in the wake of the Brotherhood's gains in 2005 The Washington Post declared that "Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood may be a model for Islam's political adaptation." Numerous stories by The New York Times and others have tried to portray the AK in Turkey as a party that supports individual rights. Thus its fight for the "right" of women to wear head scarves at university is a positive struggle, rather than a negative intrusion of religion into the public space. Women in Turkey have even come to wear the head scarf out of "protest." In this way Islamism passes itself off as defending individual rights even as it seeks a monolithic imposition of piety on the masses. The West's commentators are seduced by these appeals to individual rights and protests against the national semi-secular ethos.
THE MYTH of moderation and the idea that exposure to the West's democratic values will necessarily improve the Muslim world is enticing. But it is a myth that is evidenced by the numerous Islamists who have been produced by the West, rather than existing in spite of the West's values.
Consider the fountainhead of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb. Born in Egypt in 1906, he was educated at a British school. He joined the Ministry of Education when Egypt was still under the hand of British semi-rule in the 1930s. In 1948 he received a scholarship to study education at the University of North Colorado in the US. Already gravitating towards Islamic piety, the US helped engender greater extremism and he published his first Islamist text in 1949, while in the land of democracy. He travelled widely in the US and came to loath "the American girl" and her "seductive capacity" which "lies in the round breasts, full buttocks... she shows all." He was disgusted by jazz music which was "created by Negroes... to whet their sexual desires."
Qutb's increasing hatred for the US, and hypocritical lurid interest in American women, mirrors the transformation of Major Nidal Malik Hasan who carried out the recent Fort Hood massacre. Hasan was a US-born Muslim-Palestinian whose entire success in life was primarily due to the US Army which paid for his schooling and promoted him despite his dismal record. Hasan played on the fact that FBI and army investigators feared being perceived as discriminating against him in order to proselytize fellow soldiers, spread hatred and contact a radical imam in Yemen. Like Qutb he had a love-hate relationship with women, attending the Starz strip club next to the very army base where he gunned down American servicemen.
The imam Hasan contacted was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American of Yemeni descent who was born in New Mexico in 1971. Awlaki studied in three major American universities, almost obtaining a doctorate from George Washington University. Portrayed as a "moderate" after 9/11, despite his contact with the hijackers, he moved to Yemen in 2004 to fight a jihad against the US and its allies.
Hasan and Qutb are just the tip of the iceberg. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the architect of 9/11, attended college in the US. Many of the colleagues of the Ayatollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian Islamic revolution, studied in the US and Europe on scholarships from the shah's regime. David Headley (Daood Gilani), who plotted terror against the Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of Muhammad, is a US citizen. Adam Ghadan (Adam Pearlman, Azzam the American) is the son of Northern California hippies who now works as a spokesman for al-Qaida.
Going forward in the war on terror one of the greatest problems will be the way in which the West's values of openness, secularism and free speech will be manipulated and even used to inspire terror and jihad. There doesn't seem to be a good way to prevent this problem. However, as Joshua Muravchik has shown in his recent book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East, the values of the West also inspire a positive form of democracy that doesn't simply lead to the "road to hell" of Islamism.
The writer is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.