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Volume 10 #3

Inclusion Can Deflate Islamic Populism
Augustus Richard Norton - Professor of Political Science at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Colonel Norton is one of the U.S. Army's top experts on the Middle East.

WEST POINT - The global trend toward more open political systems is by no means immutable, and autocratic rule is certainly not obsolete, but "democracy' vibrantly resonates in all of the corners of the world.

The simple ideas that people should have a voice in decisions that effect their lives, that government should respond to citizens' needs, that people have a right to not be mistreated by their rulers seems to provoke little controversy, except, that is, until we come to the Middle East and, particularly, the Arab world. There democracy is said by the skeptics to have no resonance at all given the emerging social forces of Islamic populism. The skeptics' argument-which is predictably popular in Arab government circles-runs along the following lines:

- The Arab regimes are inefficient, often corrupt, and persistently unresponsive to the needs of the majority of their citizens;

- Simultaneously, the regimes' legitimacy is eroding under the strains of the shattering of Arab unity, the end of the Cold War, and the move toward a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict;

- The force of populist Islam has moved into the void, capturing the social base the regimes are losing by offering a dynamic ethos of change and reform while simultaneously providing a basis for erecting a network of social services that the government does not provide;

- However, these political movements are inherently anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and anti-democratic. Therefore, there is no sensible alternative save to oppose these movements and lend support to the corrupt, ineffective and widely hated regimes.

In my view, this is a maliciously dangerous argument that could lead to precisely the sort of clashes of civilizations that leading conservative scholars like Samuel Huntington are predicting as the defining element of the post Cold-war world. Therefore, it is imperative to examine the prospect that the Arab world is the asterisk, the exceptional case where societies are uncivil and where the emerging social force, namely the populist Islamist movements, is peculiarly inimitable to democracy. In Washington, the Clinton Administration is beginning to map its global campaign for democracy. Should the Administration's cartographers treat the Middle East as a land of fire-breathing anti-democrats or is there a reasonable chance for tolerant and open political systems emerging there?

Were Bill Clinton to listen to Farouk al-Sharaa, the Syrian foreign minister and a proponent of, shall we say, strong government, he would see that authoritarian government is not a vice but a virtue, provided, of course, that the government emulates the wisdom of the great leader president, Hafez al-Assad. Democracy and Arab peacemaking are incompatible, al-Sharaa argues. Speaking at the opening of the 1991 peace talks in Madrid, al-Sharaa observed: I think the Israelis as a people desire peace. They are looking for peace. Israel is a special case, where the government is more hawkish than the people. In the Arab world, it is just the opposite. We are more flexible than the Arab people." Many members of the Arab political elite seem to share al-Sharaa's perspective. Of course, the argument is self-serving, but that alone does not make it wrong.

Nonetheless, we must underline that political identity and political attitudes are not genetically bestowed but are contingent on a host of social, economic and political factors. To argue that popular political players are irremediably intransigent and therefore unmoved by events in the real world is at best naive and, at worst, racist.

So long as the Islamist movements are given no voice in politics, there can be no surprise that their rhetoric will be shrill and their stance uncompromising. In contrast, well-designed strategies of political inclusion hold great promise for facilitating essential political change. The pace of change is obviously crucial. All too often, we forget that there is a great difference between governments wrought of revolution and those wrought of reform. This fact, even more than sectarian or ethnic differences, distinguishes the present regime in Iran from its counterparts in the Arab world. Revolutions bring with them a new class of rulers and a new political world, while reform is by definition incremental and familiar.

One promising example is provided by Jordan, where an important experiment in political reform is underway. King Hussein of Jordan argues that democratization is the only answer to ensuring political stability, and he chastises his fellow rulers for viewing democratic reform "as a luxury they cannot afford." Notwithstanding the monarch's peroration, Arab rulers do have choices ranging from squashing dissent and co-opting potential opponents to political liberalization and democratization. Nonetheless, as the example of Jordan shows, at least some of the Arab states will choose the path of democratic reform.

A fundamentally important question is whether experiments in democratization, as are now underway in Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Lebanon, will domesticate the populist Islamists movements which often comprise the most significant challenger for popular legitimacy, while simultaneously serving as an important motivation for government action. Put another way, does the political process instill pragmatism and a political logic of give-and-take that will slake all but the most ardent activist? The evidence is mixed, but promising. In each of the four countries mentioned, recent elections have brought Islamists into the political process, and in each of these cases Islamist politicians have proved willing to play by the rules.

Of course skeptics marshal the case of Algeria, where the 1991 election -designed to magnify the victory of the ruling party- instead magnified the popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which was on the verge of seizing power until it was thwarted by a coup in January 1992. However FIS might have behaved once in power, no quantity of ex post facto ergo propter hoc arguing, as by invoking the post-coup anti-regime violence mounted by FIS, will alter the simple fact that FIS won the election and that its victory was stolen from it.

Thus, the Algerian case tells us little about political behavior in reformist contexts, and much about how poorly designed elections can lead to unsettling results.

Despite the visceral satisfaction in castigating the Arab regimes, these regimes remain crucial to the stability of the region. I do not mean stability in any static sense, since it is obvious that the problems that plague governments - inefficacy, faltering legitimacy, corruption, and so on - must be addressed. Instead, the reference is to a dynamic stability in which political reformation is the project of a government intent upon survival. Some of us have extolled the potential importance of civil society, and especially the crucial element of civility and tolerance, in promoting open political society. Yet, it is altogether clear that the emergence of a vibrant, autonomous civil society is not an unmitigated good. Even if civil societies are successfully encouraged and promoted, government must play a critical role as referee, rule-keeper and policer. Some governments will play this role deftly, and others will be heavy-handed and clumsy, but it is altogether wrong to presume that the process of change is self-regulating or that the process of political change can be autonomous of government.

The rulers have no intention of stepping aside, but they must be encouraged to widen the political stage and to open avenues for real participation in politics. For the West, and especially the United States, the issues are complex and vexing, but the basic choice is simple: construct policies that emphasize and widen the cultural barriers that divide the Middle East from the West, or pursue policies that surmount the barriers.

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