Should America Support Islamists?

American-led efforts to spur democratic reform in the Middle East have brought with them a controversial consequence: the electoral fortune of Islamist groups. From the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections to Hamas’ recent strong showing in the Palestinian municipal elections to Hezbollah’s growing assertiveness in Lebanon’s legislative process, the possibility of Middle Eastern states electing Islamist governments begs the question, “Should the United States support Islamists?”

To supporters of U.S. military efforts in the Middle East, the question may seem counterintuitive. It is a question we might expect from the defeatist voices of the American Left or the realpolitik-fixated Right. Thus, it is astonishing to know it was the subject of discussion at a recent debate between two prominent intellectual supporters of the spread of freedom and democracy in the Arab Muslim world, Dr. Daniel Pipes and Reuel Marc Gerecht. Both Pipes and Gerecht agreed on the need to establish democratically-elected, representative governments in the Middle East, built upon the solid foundations of a written constitution while concurrently reflecting those Middle Eastern and Islamic traditions the West need not fear nor oppose. However, their agreement ended there.

When Marc Plattner of the National Endowment for Democracy asked Pipes if he considered Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani to be an Islamist, Pipes answered, “Sistani is not an Islamist,” but warned that the threat of radical Islam cannot be remedied by a rush to democracy in the Middle East. Reuel Marc Gerecht offered a different perspective. Gerecht argued that America must be prepared to accept the undesirable results of unfettered democratic elections in the Middle East, and we must be prepared to countenance such outcomes now. Some in the audience were stunned when he stated that, should democratic elections in Egypt lead to a legitimately-elected Islamist government, the United States and the West would have to bear this outcome as part of the “difficult growing pains’ process of democracy.” His central point was that the pro-American Arab governments lack legitimacy, and should elections barring Islamists occur under the auspices of the U.S., the elections will be viewed by discontented majorities as illegitimate.


Distinctions of time and process became the central points of contention between the two men. Notwithstanding his concerns about the potentially hazardous consequences of free democratic elections, Gerecht considered any delay in hastening their institution as untenable, counterproductive, and doomed to bitter failure. In contrast, Daniel Pipes placed his faith in Middle Eastern strongmen committed to gradual democratic reforms over a twenty- to twenty-five year process. Gerecht argued that although the U.S. government should not support Islamists, it is inevitable that Islamists will triumph in some, perhaps most, Middle Eastern countries if full-fledged democratic elections are permitted. “Democracy in the Middle East is going to be frontloaded, that is, elections first, organic democratic institutions second,” he explained. President George W. Bush, while lacking Middle Eastern “expertise,” was credited by Gerecht with understanding that the status quo in the Middle East had become dangerously dysfunctional; political extremism necessitates a fundamental change in the U.S. “business as usual approach” toward undemocratic Arab regimes. Gerecht warned that the business of building democracy in the Middle East was always going to be messy and at times unsatisfactory to U.S. interests. However, we have to accept these possible outcomes – trauma and anti-Americanism – as part of the “fever-breaking” process of moving from decades of tyranny to lawful, democratically-elected, representative governments. “You don’t get Thomas Jefferson unless you’ve had Martin Luther,” said Gerecht, although he was quick to disclaim Luther as a role model, given the Christian reformer’s legacy of religious wars.


In Gerecht’s view, we have to accept the risks. Legitimacy is central and crucial to successful electoral processes and the slow formation of democratic culture. A recent Associated Press story about an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood female candidate, Makarem Eldery Ph.D., 55, campaigning for office, reveals the prevailing sentiment among large sectors of Egyptians: “‘We draw our legitimacy from the people. We don’t need a despotic regime to recognize us,’ she said. ‘It’s the regime that lacks legitimacy.’” In Gerecht’s view, restricting the participation of Islamists like Eldery only further endangers Middle Eastern stability as emerging democratic ideas mixed in with older forms of Islamic identity struggle to compete in the open market. Purging Islamists will drive them underground and lead large Arab majorities to regard the electoral process a fraud. “The Genie is out of the bottle,” said Gerecht, and if we encourage an Algerian solution—holding elections only to negate their results when they result in the election of Islamic parties—we risk driving Islamists further away from the political process and into armed struggle or terrorism. He added, “And we will hit a dead end if we do not open up the process now.”


A counterview was voiced by Daniel Pipes as he cautioned against unfettered democratic elections in which the result could be “one person, one vote, one time.” He outlined the four goals of the radical Islamist agenda: The implementation of Shari’a as an exclusive system of law; the transformation of personal faith into a radical utopian ideology, similar to fascism and Communism; the rejection of Western influence by dividing the world into two mutually exclusive camps; and the drive to power. The Islamist movement, Pipes noted, is a unitary one and uses both violent and nonviolent components as a means to power. Similar to Italian communists who did the Soviets’ bidding while posing as nonviolent alternatives to revolutionary communism, Pipes argued that the so-called “peaceful” Islamists adapt to their immediate environment. He also said there was no distinction to be made between Islamists. “All Islamists are bad,” said Pipes. At the same time, he pointed out that the anti-Islamists are fractured and weak. According to him, “Islamists are the ones dominating the agenda” and “between 10 to 15 percent of Muslims worldwide are actively Islamists. Like the German Nazis, the Islamists’ will to power, their effectiveness, and the overall weakness of moderate Muslims give the radicals a level of power that exceeds their actual numbers.


Pipes opined that while only moderate Muslims’ resistance to Islamism can lead to a victory over radical Islam, a premature move to democracy is not the solution. To Gerecht’s appeal for immediate democratic change, Pipes rejoined, “Yes democracy, but not democracy now.” He invoked a Burkean argument for slow, gradual change, stating that people traumatized by decades of tyranny could not possibly develop democracies while simultaneously under assault by Islamo-fascism. “Democracy is counter-intuitive. Democracy takes time to learn…it is a slow, long deliberative process. By jumping too fast, Islamists …gain and we will unfortunately assist our worst enemies to power.”


Following their debate, Pipes and Gerecht fielded questions from an audience that included Clifford May (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies), Arnaud de Borchgrave (CSIS), Ambassador Martin Indyk (The Brookings Institution), Daniel Kimmage (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Stephen Schwartz (Center for Islamic Pluralism), Fatiha Remh (Embassy of Morocco) and Paul Marshall (Center for Religious Freedom). While both men debated the Middle Eastern response to change, Pipes was also asked whether he believed the American public had the patience to endure what was potentially a decades-long conflict, and whether the American political leadership had sufficiently steeled the public’s resolve. He answered that the American people had the resolve, although he acknowledged “they do not see the threat the way they saw the Soviet one.” He also mentioned that American leadership had done an inadequate job in conveying to the American public the threat posed by radical Islam.


Moderated by Zeyno Baran of The Nixon Center, the debate between the two men was civil, informative, and marked by a few moments of profound clarity. There were also moments to give an observer pause. Particularly discomfiting was Reuel Marc Gerecht’s proposition that we may have to accept an Islamist Egypt—that is, the possibility of Islamists in control of the Suez Canal and fairly modern American weaponry. According to the military information site, Egypt’s air force alone consists of over “500 combat aircraft including sixty-seven multi-mission F-16 A/Cs and thirty-three F-4Es from the United States, as well as sixteen Mirage 2000s from France.” Recall that just three years ago, the Bush administration floated the possibility that Iraqi Unmanned Aerial Vechicles could be launched, perhaps from cargo ships, and that these aerial devices could spray a major U.S. city with anthrax. Much of the public scoffed at such warnings. But few would laugh at the prospects of the high-performance F-16, one of the world’s leading fighter-planes, in the hands of Islamist Kamikaze pilots. After all, we all remember what happened the last time jihadists manned the controls of modern aircraft.