Opinion: Dealing With Political Islam

MICHAEL WILBURN – The West needs to come to terms with Political Islam now. 

Revolution has been spreading across the Middle East as of late. The world has witnessed what the power of the will of the people can do. What started with a bold statement of self-immolation in Tunisia has changed the status quo for many people. Dictators who have been in power for decades were ousted because the people wanted change. There is a desire to replace the old authoritarian rule with democratic rule. This achievement is praiseworthy, yet there are concerns about the movement to democracy in the Middle East. The main concern is the rise of Islamist political parties and Political Islam.

Moderate Islamist parties have emerged as a major force in the elections stemming from the Arab Spring. National Public Radio (NPR) reported that “In Tunisia, a moderate, once-banned Islamist political party is on track to win the country’s first free and democratic election”. In Morocco, “The Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as PJD, won the most seats in the November 25 parliamentary elections as part of the wave of election victories by Islamist political parties across North African following a series of uprisings across the Arab world”. In Egypt, “What’s making secular Egyptians even more uncomfortable is that Islamists are emerging as the victors. The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood has collected well over 40 percent of the ballots so far and the Salafists more than 20 percent”. In Libya, “And so Libya’s Islamists are treading gingerly for now, waiting to see if, after 40 years under the shadow of a dictator, they can seize what seems to be their day”. The elections across the region prove that people who want democracy are also voting for Islamist parties.

People voting for those who share their religious beliefs should not come as a surprise. Simply look at The United States of America. The majority, (60% to 76%) identify and claim themselves to be Christian. In turn, the out of 535 representatives elected to Congress, one statistic claims that 481 of those identify and claim themselves as a Christian. Based on the elections from different countries, it seems that people vote for people with similar religious beliefs.

Religion and politics cannot be entirely separated despite efforts to do so. Political Islam is an effort to combine governance with the religion of Islam. These efforts do not differ very much from some visions of America. Many Americans claim that America was founded on Christian values. Some even go further by proclaiming that America is a Christian nation. The democracies forming in the Middle East are striving to instill a democracy in line with their identity. In order to work with the newly-emerging democracies in the world in a peaceful and mutually beneficial matter, it might be helpful to consider what Cornel West writes in his book Democracy Matters: “But we must remember that the basis of democratic leadership is ordinary citizens’ desire to take their country back from the hands of corrupted plutocratic and imperial elites”.

At the core, the idea of democracy is the same in both America and the Middle East. How these ideas are expressed is what is different. It may trouble some people that Political Islam is growing. The inconvenient truth is that America has helped facilitate the growth of a movement that it perceives as threatening. West writes, “Western-style democracy has no future in the Islamic world. The damage has been done, the wounds are deep, and the die has been cast by hypocritical European and nihilistic American imperial elites. There is simply no way to turn back the hands of time. The West had its chance and blew it.” America’s foreign policy has not resonated well with the general population of the Middle East. America has violated international law by supporting autocrats that disregard basic human rights, and engaging in unpopular wars against terrorism that do great damage to civilian populations. Now that the general population is gaining the power to vote, they are expressing their displeasure of past injustice.

The best course of action is to work with the emerging democracies to encourage policies that better society, because they provide for some common ground. The West must seek to understand Political Islam, rather than to be understood. As affirmed in Democracy Matters, “The delicate dialogue between the modern West and the Islamic world should be neither a crude clash of civilizations nor an imposition of one upon another. Rather it should be a Socratic process of examining a rich past of cultural cross-fertilization.” In order to work effectively with the new governments of the Arab Spring and foster good relations we must focus on similar beliefs for freedom and societal betterment. We should both provide and accept constructive criticism to better governance.

Focusing on improving both the quality of the government and human rights throughout the region may help to settle much of the unrest. While these improvements may take some time, they are vital. The report issued by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry — a committee hired to investigate human rights abuse allegations in Bahrain — listed this as one of their recommendations, “To develop educational programs at the primary, secondary, high school and university levels to promote religious, political and other forms of tolerance, as well as to promote human rights and the rule of law”. These reforms were recommended in order to create respect and understand religious and ethnic diversity. If we work to create a basic respect and understanding about diversity instead of succumbing to fear and ignorance, we can move out of the shadow that was cast on the world by American military involvement in the region.

Islamist political parties and Political Islam are forces that are growing in strength, and America simply cannot ignore them. America should not jump to any conclusions about the new governments in the Middle East. These democracies are new and relatively weak. America should focus on helping create fair and free democracy in the region. The legacy of military intervention and supporting autocrats in exchange for oil has proven to fail. America must advance its Middle Eastern policy forward and adapt to the recent changes, or suffer the tragic consequences.


MICHAEL WILBURN studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he plans to double major in Human Rights and Political Science, and double minor in Arabic and Religious Studies. Michael is also president of SMU College Democrats.

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