ISLAMIST IDEOLOGY: THREE TYPES
Islamists can be broken down into three main forces:
SHIA REVOLUTIONARIES: Spearheaded by the Iranian regime, they are on the warpath, relying on Tehran’s help, apocalyptic ideology, subversion, and (eventually) nuclear weaponry. They want to overturn the existing world order and replace it with the Islamic one envisioned by Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolutionaries’ strength lies in their determination; their weakness lies in their minority status, for Shias make up just 10% or so of the total Muslim population and further divide into multiple sub-groups such as the Fivers, Seveners, and Twelvers.
SUNNI REVISIONISTS: They deploy varied tactics in the common effort to overthrow the existing order. At one extreme stand the crazies — ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Shabaab, and the Taliban, hate-filled, violent, and yet more revolutionary than their Shia counterparts. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (such as President Erdoğan of Turkey) fill the middle ground, using violence only when deemed necessary, but preferring to work through the system. Soft Islamists like Fethullah Gülen, Pennsylvania’s Turkish preacher living in self-exile, forward their vision through education and commerce and work strictly within the system, but whose goals, despite their mild tactics, are no less ambitious.
SUNNI STATUS-QUO MAINTAINERS: The Saudi state heads a bloc of governments (GCC members, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco), only some of which are Islamist, that wish to hold onto what they have and fend off the revolutionaries and revisionists.
ISLAMIST TACTICS: VIOLENT VS LAWFUL
Violent Islamists, Shia and Sunni alike, are doomed. Their attacks on fellow Muslims alienate co-religionists. They challenge non-Muslims in precisely those areas where the latter are strongest; the combined might of the military, law enforcement, and the intelligence services can crush any Islamist uprising.
Islamist violence is counterproductive. Its drumbeat quality teaches and moves public opinion. Murderous assaults move opinion, not the analysts, the media, or politicians. Incidents like the two Paris massacres of 2015 move voters over to anti-Islamic parties. Blood in the streets teaches. It’s education by murder.
In contrast, lawful Islamists working within the system are very dangerous. They are seen as respectable, appearing on television, appearing as lawyers in courtrooms, and teaching classes. The Indian government mistakenly treats them as allies against the crazies. My rule of thumb: The less violent the Islamist, the more dangerous.
Therefore, were I an Islamist strategist, I’d say, “Work through the system. Cut the violence except on those rare occasions when it intimidates and helps reach the goal.” In fact, the Islamists are not doing this, to their detriment. They are making a major mistake.
ISLAMISM IN DECLINE?
The Islamist movement could be on the way down due to infighting and unpopularity.
As recently as 2012, it appeared able to overcome the many internal tensions — sectarian (Sunni, Shia), political (monarchical, republican), tactical (political, violent), attitudes toward modernity (Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood), and personal (Fethullah Gülen, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). Since then, however, Islamists can’t stop fighting each other. This fits an historic West Asian pattern in which a victorious element tends to split. As it approaches power, differences become increasingly divisive. Rivalries papered over in opposition emerge when power is at hand.
Second, to know Islamists is to reject them. The massive Egyptian demonstrations after one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule offer the strongest piece of evidence for this conclusion. Other indications come from Iran (where a great majority of the population despises its government) and Turkey (where votes for the ruling Islamist party just went down by 20%).
Should these tendencies hold, the Islamist movement cannot succeed. Some already see the “post-Islamization” era as underway. Here is Haidar Ibrahim Ali of the Sudan: “We are witnessing the end of political Islam’s era, which began in the mid-1970s, to be replaced by what Iranian intellectual Asef Bayat described as a ‘post-Islamization’ era, when politically and socially, following a period of trials, political Islam’s vitality and attractiveness have been exhausted even among the most ardent of its supporters and enthusiasts.
These problems offer grounds for optimism but not for complacency, for trendlines can change again. The challenge of marginalising Islamism remains alive.
Violent Islamists are doomed. Their attacks on Muslims alienate co-religionists. They challenge non-Muslims in areas where latter are strongest; military, law enforcement, intelligence can crush any Islamist uprising.
THREE WEST ASIAN POLITICAL FORCES
West Asian political forces divide into three: the Islamist, the liberal, and the greedy. Each requires a specific approach.
We on the outside should reject any and all that is Islamist. As much as possible, this means not dealing with and never helping Islamists, whether as seemingly democratic as the ruling party in Turkey or as maniacal as the ISIS militias, for they all aspire to the same ugly goal of imposing Islamic law. Just as we’re wall-to-wall anti-fascist, let us similarly be resolutely anti-Islamist.
In contrast, we should always favour those called liberals, moderns, seculars, or Tahrir-Square types; they aspire to a better West Asia and are the region’s hope. The West is their model; they look to it for moral and practical sustenance. The West must stand by them because, however distant from the corridors of power and forlorn their circumstances, they point to a better future.
The third group, that of greedy kings, emirs, presidents and other dictators, requires more nuance. We should cooperate with them, but also constantly pressure them to improve. For example, with the exception of a mere two years, 2005-06, foreign governments did not pressure Hosni Mubarak, the tyrant who ruled Egypt for 30 years; they didn’t encourage political participation, advocate for the rule of law, or demand personal freedoms. Had they consistently taken those steps, Egypt would be in a much better place.
In sum: reject Islamists, accept liberals, deal warily with dictators.
US foreign policy has been thoroughly inconsistent the past 15 years:
In a high-minded way, George W. Bush tried to attain too much in West Asia—a free and prosperous Iraq, a transformed Afghanistan, a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy throughout. Brushing up against the region’s hard realities, he failed in all these efforts.
Barack Obama did the opposite—too little—and he too failed. Boiled to its essence, his policy amounts to “downgrade US interests, snub friends, and seek consensus”. He snubbed the Iranian uprising, abandoned long-standing allies, tried to leave the region to pivot to Asia.
This outlook marks the President as a standard-issue American leftist, not an outlier. Although he was born and raised a Muslim, this background does not have a perceptible impact on his policies. His political views alone explain his outlook.
Iran is the one (inexplicable) exception to this pattern: the past seven years reveal that Iran—and not China, Russia, Mexico, Syria or Israel—has been Obama’s top foreign affairs priority.
I propose a US policy between these two extremes: one defined by the protection of Americans and American interests. Promoting American interests offers a guideline to decide where to get involved and where not to. This also has a benign impact on allied countries, such as India.
A region notorious for its problems also offers some good news. Tyranny is shakier than five years ago. Islamists are weakened by their infighting and unpopularity. The foul Syrian and Iraqi states are dying, Kurdistan is emerging. Israel is flourishing. Gulf Arabs, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are experimenting with new paths to modernity. So, amid a sea of misfortune and even horrors, there are also some wisps of hope in West Asia. Policy makers should note these and build on them.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the US-based Middle East Forum. © 2015 All rights reserved by Daniel Pipes.