12 March 2010

The Future Of The Islamist Movement

In the wake of 9-11, Americans were extremely concerned about Islamic terrorism and the threat that Islamist regimes could pose. We remain afraid. But, eight years later, it does not look like the modern civilization destroying threat that it did eight and a half years ago. This is a movement without a grass roots base of support in the United States. In the United States and Europe, planned terrorist attacks have been thwarted much more often than they have been carried out. European countries with large Muslim population like Germany and France, have not experienced an epidemic of terrorism. There have been attacks, but not insurgencies, in the developed world.

The heartland of the Islamist effort to change the world is not in the West. It is in places like Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It is an effort to replace secular regimes in Islamic countries with religious ones in already overwhelmingly Muslim jurisdictions, not a movement to conquer or obliterate the rest of the world. The terrorist attacks we have seen directed as the West are more in the nature of the international sanctions that Western countries try to impose on countries we see as behaving badly than they are in the nature of a war.

Yes, the Islamist movement may hate America. But, it hates America more for corrupting countries they know than simply for being the way that it is.

Coordinated multi-lateral efforts have put groups inclined to commit terrorist attacks on the defensive. The international community has rediscovered the importance of having functional government in place even in backwaters of the world that don't directly impact the developed countries like Afghanistan, Somolia, and Yemen.

But, at its heart, the Islamist movement is a war of ideas, a bit like the long festering anti-monarchy movement that Europe experienced for a couple of centuries before republics and constitutional monarchies became the norm. Indeed, many of the places where the Islamist movement has been most vital have been places where it is offered as an alternative to dictatorships, monarchies and failed states. This will continue to fester, notwithstanding military and political gains and losses, until an ideological resolution is reached.

If non-communist democracy is to prevail is the Islamic world, it has to provide a success story of a republic in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation where Islam is not compromised to use a model. It needs a proof of concept. There are few of these so far.

Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, Kuwait and Brunei are still ruled by kings. Syria, Egypt, Sudan and Libya are ruled by dictators, sometimes claiming the mantle of single party regimes. Until very recently, so did Indonesia and Iraq. Iran replaced a monarchy. The experience of Pakistan and Bangladesh with civilian democratic self-government has been decidely inconsistent, with frequently interludes of miltiary intervention and dictatorship. Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somolia have all been failed states in recent history. Efforts at democratic self-rule in the Palestinian territories have been ineffectual.

Turkey has made one of the more successful efforts to have democratic government in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, but its model has as a core features Ataturk's effort to Westernize Turkish culture and military intervention to keep religion out of politics. Algeria's Islamist movement, ultimately organized on the communist one party rule model, was a reaction to what looked like a Turkish model of military enforced secularism in politics under its 1989 constitution.

A superficial look at democratic government in overwhelmingly Christian countries reveals that the vast majority of these countries show a strong trend towards secularization. In the long run, the political economies that have emerged in the Western world show that socialists, the leading party of the left in most of Europe, have had more success implementing their visions than Christian Democrats, the leading party of the right.

Iran is really the only significant example of a country that has embraced Islam while providing some measure of non-dicatatorial civilian self-government. Is it any wonder that forces for change in the Islamic world have looked to it as a model, albeit, a model to be improved upon?

Models of democratic self-government in the Islamic world are emerging. Kosovo and Kurdistan, while both are highly autonomous regions rather than full fledged independent states, and while both are rooted in dominant party systems, look like promising models - Kurdistan has had a genuine contested election. Civilian governments in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia seem headed towards a less military and strongman influenced era. Iraq and Afghanistan are attempting to implement regimes that combine legal supremacy for Islamic law with fully democratic institutions. Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are toying with constitutional monarchies along the lines of early English constitutional monarchy models. Reformists in Iran with grass roots support are attempting to shift the balance in its Islamist Republic in the republican direction.

But, until there is a real civilian democratic success story that preserves an Islamic society in an overwhelmingly Islamic country, the Islamist movement to replace existing depotisms, military influenced governments and anarchies with its own vision of theocratic rule will continue to be a powerful political force in overwhelmingly Islamic countries and this conflict will spill over from time to time into the rest of the world.

No comments: