Monday, April 27, 2015

James Traub: The World War Inside Islam (Feb 2015, Foreign Policy)

As Shadi Hamid points out in Temptations of Power, his book on political Islam, Egyptians are deeply pious people who do not accept the idea that religion belongs in a privatized space. They want to live under sharia, though they disagree among themselves about what that means. So do hundreds of millions of people in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In a recent conversation, Hamid argued that the only Islamist movement that has seriously tried to accommodate the nation-state is the Muslim Brotherhood, which came into being in the 1920s as the Ottoman caliphate disappeared. The Brotherhood, as Hamid makes clear in his book, is in no sense a liberal organization — but it has largely come to terms with democracy and has even accepted non-Islamic democratic outcomes, as Islamists do in countries like Morocco and Tunisia, which permit the consumption of alcohol and the like. The election of a Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2012 gave the Arab world its greatest chance to demonstrate that Islam and democracy are compatible. But thanks to the incompetence and narrow-mindedness of the government of President Mohamed Morsi, as well as the active conniving of the military and the judiciary, Morsi’s government was overthrown after a year in office — one of the great self-inflicted wounds of the Arab Spring. Egypt is once again, as it long was, a secular autocracy dominated by the military. I wonder how long the Egyptian people will put up with brutal repression and economic stagnation. Whether or not President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime endures, though, the events of recent years have demonstrated to Islamists that there is no place for them in the Arab political order.
The destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood is now treated as a tremendous success in Egypt and across the Persian Gulf (except in Qatar, a Brotherhood stronghold). Yet it is hard to think of anything that would strengthen the long-term legitimacy of Arab governance more than an embedded, democratic role for moderate Islamists. It is as deeply in the interest of the United States to encourage its Arab allies to find a place for such groups as it is to encourage democracy itself. But it won’t happen. I recently asked a senior administration official whether she thought Washington could nudge regimes to rescind the prohibition of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization across much of the Middle East. “No,” she said, flatly.
At least for the moment, the issue is an existential one: The only acceptable form of political Islam will be that practiced by the regimes themselves.