The Region: Why Obama can't tame the Islamists

Western leaders fail to understand the radical nature of Islamism.

Voters line up in Tunisia 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Voters line up in Tunisia 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Many people find it hard to comprehend what the Obama administration thinks it’s doing in the Middle East. One liberal friend of mine has called my analysis “mind reading.” But it’s really very simple if you know the history of the arguments, read the speeches and documents of Obama administration officials carefully and observe their actions.
Leaving aside a number of points I’ve made in previous articles (which would be good to read in conjunction with this one), I want to focus on the idea that the US government has outsmarted the Islamists.
After all, it has “lured” them into sharing power openly by participating in elections and a share of power, so now, it is argued, the Islamists have to play by the rules of the electoral and democratic game. They must produce policies that please and benefit the people if they want to remain in power, since if they fail to do so, they will just lose the next election.
Having accepted democratic norms, the US administration’s expectation is that the Islamists will be locked into the system and have no choice but to compromise ideologically or hand over power with a show of good sportsmanship.
Western officials and experts generally and genuinely believe radical Islam cannot produce material results.
They believe the Islamists will have to water down their “impractical” beliefs to be effective in government. To remain in power they will gradually abandon their radical ideologies. In short, the Obama administration believes it’s got the Islamists where it wants them.
THERE ARE just a few problems with that view.
1. No Arab nationalist regime (even those pretending to be democratic) or monarchy in the Middle East has ever let itself be voted out of office. There are ways of persuading the masses to keep supporting a regime even if in Western eyes that government has “failed.” There are also many ways to win “elections” – by manipulation, selective repression, media control, using patronage to buy votes, etc.
Together, instead of “one man, one vote, one time” you can get “one man, one vote, one result.”
For example, consider Turkey, where the regime has steadily increased its base of support among voters; or Egypt and Jordan, where the regime always wins the election.
Once in office, there is no reason to think the Islamists can’t last as long as the Arab nationalists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Syria – that is, for decades.
In addition, as a last resort elections can always be canceled, as they were in Algeria, or results can be repressed if the incumbents think they’ll lose. Another example is the Islamist regime in Iran, which finally lost popularity after three decades of mismanagement but remained in power by simply quashing internal resistance, and faced no external costs due to the stolen election.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of ideology and demagoguery, which can be more powerful than material pay-offs. The history of the modern Arab world is full of examples where ideology and demagoguery trumped material political achievement. Look at the history of the PLO and of Yasser Arafat’s leadership.
(Yes, I know Hamas won the 2006 elections and rules in Gaza, but Fatah still runs the more important West Bank to this day).
And let’s not forget the use of foreign scapegoats, which will be as important for the Islamists as it was for the nationalists. Consider how the Turkish Islamist regime has made Israel and the West into an enemy in order to mobilize both nationalist and religious fervor at home. This can also lead to foreign adventures – wars and terrorism – that are popular at home, even if they are lost.
3. The elected regimes can use the educational system, religious institutions and media to indoctrinate the public and ensure continued support. They can use jobs and the economy to control patronage and votes; create or control trade unions and professional associations.
By controlling the religious institutions, Islamists can get rid of traditionalist Islam and entrench their own interpretations.
And let’s not forget the greatest prize of all: control over the military, a plan that might include creating separate elite units (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, Republican Guards in Syria, etc.)
4. The intrinsically radical nature of the Islamists themselves: if you’re taking your orders directly from the Supreme Being and in accord with the most sacred religion, you’re unlikely to change your views. Western materialist cynicism goes too far in thinking Islamists will sell out for luxury and power. Besides, they can enjoy luxury and power (see Iran) without having to throw away their principles.
Moreover, we are not dealing with Communism in the era of Leonid Brezhnev here. The Islamists are a relatively young movement, unbowed by failure and not jaded by long possession of power. They genuinely believe the future belongs to them. Maybe they will become tired and lose their confidence in 30 or 40 years, but not now.
5. Knowing that they confront such idiots in the West, the Islamists can use the credulity of their enemies to play moderate when necessary and get lots of benefits and concessions. How about the idea of massive US aid to Islamist regimes? That’s about to happen, isn’t it? Played on by Middle Eastern con men and eager to avoid confrontation, it’s easy to understand how those with no real understanding of the region make the mistake of believing they can “tame” radical Islam.
Yet they will surely fail in this endeavor. Those who are wise will avoid paying the price for this foolishness.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.