View from Dubai: Why the West must engage Islamists

Three developments in the Middle East test America’s claim to be championing democracy in the Muslim world: The elections this month in Lebanon, the postponed parliamentary polls in the Palestinian territories and the upcoming presidential election in Egypt.How the United States chooses to respond to these democratic processes in the Arab-Muslim heartland may determine the future of America’s relationship with the Muslim world.

When President George W. Bush vowed in his second inauguration speech to break with the traditional U.S. policy of backing authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, he may have heralded a new era. Bush promised to support genuine democratic movements in the Middle East and elsewhere even if it meant dumping America’s traditional friends and allies. Since then, Bush has repeatedly argued, rightly, that it is the suppression of democratic urges and rights that is at the heart of Muslim extremism.

Democracy may indeed be the cure-all for most problems confronting the Muslim world. But the question is, can the United States take the bold steps that are needed to give concrete shape to its promises? Can it allow democracy to take its natural course in the Muslim world, given that across the region, from Lebanon to Egypt, Islamists are emerging as a political force the West can no longer ignore?

Promotion of democracy in Muslim countries is likely to see the empowerment of those predominant political players who turn to Islam for inspiration and guidance in public life.

Earlier this month, Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite resistance movement that Washington condemns as a terrorist group, swept the elections in southern Lebanon. In the Palestinian territories, Mahmoud Abbas had to postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for next month when his Fatah party – Palestinians’ sole political representative for half a century – realized to its horror that the Islamists of Hamas are set to dislodge it from power.

In Egypt, the corrupt and repressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak, under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections, has turned its ire on the Muslim Brotherhood. This powerful Islamist organization, with a massive support base in Egypt and elsewhere in Arab world, has been excluded from the elections in September for fear that it could wrest power from Mubarak.

If Bush were serious in his commitment to democracy, he would tell his “friends” in the Middle East to allow truly free and fair polls, even if that means Islamists coming to power.

As Islamists move to center stage in many parts of the Arab world, it’s time that the United States and the rest of the Western world accepted the idea of dealing with them as legitimate representatives of the people.

In the past half century, the West has sided with tyrants as they victimized the Islamists. In Egypt, grave human rights abuses by successive regimes have been ignored by the West. In Algeria, the military prevented the Islamic Salvation Front from taking office after it swept the 1991 parliamentary elections – with the blessing of the West, which saw the rise of Islamists as a threat to its interests. The consequence was a decade-long civil war.

As democracy has been mocked elsewhere in the Islamic world, the West has consistently looked the other way. No wonder many Muslims blame the West for the suffering inflicted by their dictators. Yet Western leaders appear surprised when Al Qaeda extremists attack Western targets.

Washington’s stance that Islamist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorist organizations is out of sync with new realities of the region. Terrorists do not take part in elections and political processes, as Hamas and Hezbollah are doing. And the Muslim Brotherhood is the most popular grass-roots organization in the Arab world.

If Bush wants to usher in a new era of democracy and peace in the Muslim world, he should be prepared to deal with Muslims’ genuine and legitimate representatives. He would do well to recognize the fact that Islamists are emerging as the leading political players in the Middle East and engage them as such.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs in Khaleej Times published from Dubai. He can be reached at [email protected])

Aijaz Zaka Syed
Silence is not an option