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Political Islam and US foreign policy
Political Islam and US foreign policy
What creates unfavorable attitudes towards the United States? Belief that the United States is serious about democracy in Muslim countries has long been undermined by what is perceived as the United States’ "double standard" in promoting democracy.
Friday, December 14,2007 14:32
by John L. Esposito The Nation


What creates unfavorable attitudes towards the United States? Belief that the United States is serious about democracy in Muslim countries has long been undermined by what is perceived as the United States" "double standard" in promoting democracy. Key factors of this perception include a long track record of supporting authoritarian regimes in the Arab and Muslim world while not promoting democracy there as it did elsewhere after the fall of the Soviet Union. Then, when weapons of mass destruction were not to be found in Iraq, the Bush administration boldly declared that the US-led invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein were intended to bring democracy to Iraq as part of a broader policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. In a major policy address, Ambassador Richard Haass, a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, acknowledged that both Democratic and Republican administrations had practiced what he termed "Democratic Exceptionalism" in the Muslim world: subordinating democracy to other national interests such as accessing oil, containing the Soviet Union, and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While the spread of democracy has been the stated goal of the United States, majorities in every nation surveyed by Gallup do not believe that the United States was serious about the establishment of democratic systems in the region. For example, only 24 percent in Egypt and Jordan and only 16 percent in Turkey agreed that the United States was serious about establishing democratic systems. The largest groups in agreement are in Lebanon and Indonesia at 38 percent; but even there, 58 percent of Lebanese and 52 percent of Indonesians disagreed with the statement.

How can this be? Responses to another question shed some light. When respondents were asked if they believe the United States will allow people in the region to fashion their own political future as they see fit without direct US influence, only 22 percent of Jordanians agreed, and as low as 16 percent of Pakistanis. Yet, while saying that the United States is not serious about self-determination and democracy in the Muslim world, many respondents say the thing they admire most about the West is political liberty and freedom of speech. Large percentages also associate a fair judicial system and "citizens enjoying many liberties" with Western societies while critiquing their own societies. Lack of political freedom was what they admired least about the Islamic/Arab world.

Muslim perceptions of the US role and response to the Israeli wars in Gaza and Lebanon must also be seen within the broad context of the Arab and Muslim world. From North Africa to Southeast Asia, the Gallup World Poll indicates an overwhelming majority of people (91-95 percent) do not believe that the United States is trustworthy, friendly, or treats other countries respectfully, nor that it cares about human rights in other countries (80 percent). Outside of Iraq, over 90 percent of Muslims agreed that the invasion of Iraq has done more harm than good. The Bush administration recognized that the war on global terrorism has come to be equated in the minds of many Muslims (and others) with a war against Islam and the Muslim world and reemphasized the importance of public diplomacy. The administration appointed a senior Bush confidante, Karen Hughes, as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, and spoke of a war of ideas. However, public diplomacy is more than public relations. It is about acting consistently with the words one speaks - and so a return to foreign policy.

The administration"s responses in Gaza and in Lebanon undercut both the president"s credibility and the war on terrorism. The United States turned a blind eye to Israel"s launching of two wars in which civilians were the primary casualties. The United States failed to support UN mediation in the face of clear violations of international law, refused to heed calls for a ceasefire and UN intervention, and continued to provide military assistance to Israel. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan"s criticism of the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon as an "excessive use of force" was countered the next day by the New York Times headline United States speeds up bomb delivery for the Israelis.

America"s unconditional support of Israel cast it in the eyes of many as a partner, not simply in military action against HAMAS or Hizbollah militants, but in a war against the democratically elected Palestinian government in Gaza and the government of Lebanon, a long-time US ally. The primary victims in Gaza and Lebanon were hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, not terrorists. In Lebanon, more than 500 were killed, 2,000 wounded, and 800,000 displaced. Israeli"s military destroyed the civilian infrastructures of both Gaza and Lebanon. International organizations like the United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have criticized Israel for violating international law. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch has specifically cited the use of collective punishment and war crimes. The regional blowback from the approach that the United States has taken will be enormous and enduring.

The Bush administration"s promotion of democracy and the Middle East Peace Process are in critical condition. The United States remains mired in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear "success" stories in sight. The situation has been compounded by the US failure to respect the democratic choice of Palestinians, whatever its reservations, and then its passive and active compliance with Israel"s wars in Gaza and Lebanon. HAMAS and Hizbollah have become symbols of resistance, enjoying a level of support that would have been unimagined in the past throughout much of the Muslim world. At the same time, many US allies in the Arab/Muslim world increasingly use the threat of extreme Islamists and the war against terrorism as excuses for increased authoritarianism and repression, trading their support for United States backing down on its democratic agenda. The unintended consequences of uncritical US support for Israel"s extended war have played right into the hands of the Bin Ladens of the world.

A critical challenge for US policymakers will continue to be the need to distinguish between mainstream and extremists groups and to work with democratically-elected Islamists. US administrations have often said that they distinguish between mainstream and extremist groups. However, more often that not, they have looked the other way when autocratic rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have intimidated and suppressed mainstream Islamist groups or attempted to reverse their successes in elections in the past several decades.

In the early 1990s, the Algerian military intervened to deny the Islamic Salvation Front its victory in parliamentary elections. Both the Algerian and Tunisian governments arrested and tried the Islamic party militarily, and were denounced by the international community. More recently, Egyptian elections were marred by attempts to silence opposition candidates, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the post-election period, the Mubarak government, a long-time US ally, imprisoned the only opposition presidential candidate and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian press. Despite its commitment to democratization, the Bush administration has been virtually silent.

A more recent and complex challenge is dealing with resistance movements like HAMAS and Hizbollah. Both are elected political parties with a popular base. At the same time they are resistance movements whose militias have fought Israeli occupation and whom Israel, the United States, and Europe have labeled as terrorist organizations. There are established precedents for dealing with such groups, such as the ANC in South Africa and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA in Ireland, groups with which we"ve had to come to terms. The United States and others need to deal with the democratically elected officials, while also strongly condemning any acts of terrorism by their militias. Diplomacy, economic incentives, and sanctions should be emphasized, with military action taken as a last resort. However, overuse of economic sanctions by the Clinton and Bush administrations has reduced US negotiating leverage with countries like Iran and Sudan.

Equally difficult, the United States, while affirming its enduring support for Israel"s existence and security, must clearly demonstrate that this support has clear limits. The United States should condemn Israel"s disproportionate use of force, collective punishment, and other violations of international law. Finally, most fundamental and important is the recognition that widespread anti-Americanism among mainstream Muslims and Islamists results from what the United States does-its policies and actions-not its way of life, culture, or religion.

The Gallup Organization, in association with Gallup Senior Scientist John L. Esposito, is producing the "largest, most in-depth study of Muslim opinion ever done." Its careful and rigorous methodology has taken care to ensure that the data is nationally representative, with questions and interview lengths standardized across nations and over time. The preliminary findings of the Gallup study reflect the voices and opinions of 800 million Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia. Samples include at least 1,000 adults surveyed in each of the poll"s 10 targeted preliminary countries. By the end of 2006, the study will reflect the views of more than one billion Muslims in nearly 40 countries, about 90 percent of the world"s Muslim population.


Posted in MB and West , Reform Issues , Political Islam Studies  
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