Posted by: Steve Coplan | February 8, 2006

On the horns of a dilemma

My erudite compatriot and coreligionist writes that it’s time for the US to get real about Hamas, arguing that the Bush administration can’t wish away their electoral success (or manage to sufficiently influence Palestinian popular support for Fatah). The specifics aside, the Bush administration has to face the more fundamental question of whether advocating democracy gets them the results they want. In the administration’s most ambitious experiment so far, the elections in Iraq have yielded a Islamist Shia plurality and an Islamist majority if the Sunni Iraqi National Accord is included. In Iran, the pendulum has swung back to a populist, religious hardliner with strong ties to the mullahs in that country’s recent election.
The reason for this as The Economist points out is: Where Islamists do well, it is because they are the only opposition left standing. By fostering democracy, the Economist argues, pragmatism will edge out rigid ideology as these democratically elected parties come to terms with the realities of governance. There’s little empirical evidence to bear out that thesis, and if the US didn’t have some power to restrain the Iraqi parliament, it seems likely the Iraqi civil code would be derived from Islamic jurisprudence, rather than the hodgepodge of civil codes (Ottoman, British and Baathist) which was nominally in place under Saddam Hussein. But there are a few flaws in the argument. In the PA, Hamas beat out an incumbent, but hardly an entrenched regime on the scale of Syria or Egypt. Also, the argument tends to discount the appeal of Islamist political parties that extends beyond probity and the fact that few have been unsullied by power. Islam in principle is egalitarian — of necessity. The notion of equality before a higher power was a powerful message in unifying a religious community stretching from China to Mozambique and West Africa to Borneo by the 13th century, but has taken on added signifigance in societies where individuals are deprived of political power. Their appeal lies not only in their opposition to autocratic rule, hypocrisy and corruption but in the nature of their opposition.

Will the purity of their message be diluted by governance? If Ahmadinejad’s posturing in Iran is any indication, then electoral success is anything but a moderating influence. Bush is clearly not up to the task, but now that the popular appeal of the Islamists is undeniable, it’s time for engagement and not denial.

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