Can Deflate Islamic Populism
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.
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.
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
THE ARAB ASTERISK
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
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.