Engaging Political Islam to Promote Democracy

Engaging Political Islam to Promote Democracy

Editor”s Note: The full text of this policy report is available in Adobe PDF format, only. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)



Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have struggled to articulate an overarching, long-term strategy for fighting religious extremism and terror in the Middle East. Most experts on both the left and right agree that promoting democracy will help address the root causes of terrorism in the region, though they differ on to what degree. The reasoning is simple: If Arabs and Muslims lack legitimate, peaceful outlets with which to express their grievances, they are more likely to resort to violence. In one important 2003 study, Princeton University”s Alan Krueger and Czech scholar Jitka Maleckova analyzed extensive data on terrorist attacks and concluded that “the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.”

This is not to say that democracy is a magical solution for the Middle East”s long list of problems and pathologies. It is, however, a first step, and a necessary one. Without substantive political reform, the region will continue to suffer under the same poisonous political environment that produced the Jihadist movement and gave us 9/11. In short, the status quo is untenable and threatens America”s security.

Anger and frustration are the prevailing sentiments in today”s Middle East, and they must be channeled constructively. Arab autocracies, however, lack the willingness and institutional capacity to absorb the growing participatory demands of their citizens. Related to this, Islamic extremism is also fueled by humiliation, or what Tom Friedman has called “the poverty of dignity.” Arabs have lost their ability to chart their own course, to ask their own questions, to form their own governments. As I have noted elsewhere, Arabs can reclaim their dignity only through a democratic process which treats them as citizens with rights, rather than subjects whose sole obligation is to obey.

But if democracy is part of the solution, many today see it as part of the problem. With the electoral rise of Islamist parties throughout the region, Americans are questioning the wisdom of a democracy promotion policy that elevates our adversaries to power. Rightly or wrongly, fear of political Islam remains the stumbling block for U.S. policymakers. The unexpected victory of Hamas in last year”s Palestinian elections only served to highlight this reality. The embedded contradiction in American policy — between wanting democracy and fearing its outcomes — has prevented the Bush administration from adopting a more effective, coherent approach to supporting democracy abroad. Where only two years ago the ambitious “forward strategy for freedom” formed the centerpiece of the administration”s Mid-east agenda, it has now been almost entirely abandoned.

This report calls for a new U.S. policy for the Middle East that unequivocally gives democratic reform priority over so-called “stability.” To be credible, however, such a policy must recognize and engage mainstream Islamist parties, which often offer the most effective and organized opposition to the region”s autocratic regimes. Whether we like it or not, such parties are often seen as more legitimate champions of popular aspirations than more secular and liberal groups. The United States, of course, should not engage Islamist groups that refuse to foreswear terrorism or whose commitment to democracy expires the moment they actually win power. But our government must become much more sophisticated in its ability to distinguish mainstream and extremist varieties of political Islam, and in dealing with groups that have a genuine interest in democratic reform. To isolate extremists and cultivate democracy in the region, America must enter into dialogue with political Islam.

Download the full text of this report . (PDF)

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. He has written widely on political Islam and democratization in the Middle East, and has served as a program specialist on public diplomacy at the State Department as well as a legislative fellow at the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein. Hamid is an associate of the Truman National Security Project. He can be reached at
[email protected].