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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Islamists and the Grave Bell


The idea of democracy as an answer, if not the answer, to America’s problems in the Middle East is premised on this basic idea that Islamist political groups are declining in popularity. The problems that Islamists in power present for American policy are clear: they have not resigned themselves to accepting Israel as a permanent part of the Middle Eastern map and thus do not support the Arab-Israeli peace process; they reject the extent of American influence in the region as a whole and would not cooperate with either American defense plans or the “war on terrorism”; they most certainly would not be willing to host American military facilities. Our experience with the Islamist revolutionaries who took power in Iran in 1979 has not, to put it mildly, been encouraging. It was the victory of Islamists in the Iraqi and Palestinian elections that took the wind out of the sails of the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion plans in 2005-06. So a revival of democracy promotion in Washington requires the underlying assumption that Islamists will not win Middle Eastern elections.

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The Middle East authoritarians supported by these strong states also have little personal or political incentive to run the risks that real democratic reform would entail. With the fall of the Left globally in the 1980s, pro-American, right-wing authoritarians in Latin America and East Asia could open their political systems with little fear that their opponents, if they won elections, would completely reverse the course they set for their countries. The United States could encourage such openings without fear of disrupting its foreign-policy goals. This is not the case for American allies in the Arab world, where the Islamist opposition represents a real alternative to existing regimes and offers a distinctly different model of both domestic politics and foreign policy. The risks of reform for Arab leaders and their favored constituencies go beyond merely losing personal power. They include the possibility, if Islamists won free elections, of profound changes in the structure and direction of the political systems, the loss of the wealth that leaders and their allies have built up over decades, and perhaps even the loss of the leaders’ lives. It would be hard to persuade any Arab leader that the risk of real political reform was worth taking.

THE OBAMA administration was right to avoid emotionally satisfying but pointless, if not counterproductive, rhetorical interventions in the Iranian events of June 2009. It should be equally poised in rejecting calls, based upon Iran and Lebanon and other recent regional events, to make democracy promotion a major pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Instead of pressuring authoritarian American allies who play important roles in Arab-Israeli and Persian Gulf issues to become democratic, it should have a limited-but-achievable democracy agenda. That agenda should focus on sustaining democratic experiments where they already exist and where they reinforce rather than challenge other American stakes in the Middle East. Such an approach would not put at risk core U.S. regional interests, would not open up the United States to the charge of hypocrisy in talking about democracy but rejecting it when the administration does not like the results, and would have a decent chance of achieving some limited-but-real aims.

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