With protests against regimes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, the West fears a new era of Islamic political power in the Middle East. Here are four key reasons why it shouldn't.
When Egyptian youths battled draconian police tactics in recent demonstrations, they made a point of showing journalists the inscription on the tear-gas canisters that had been hurled at them: Made in the USA. It symbolized an important point: US support of autocratic governments for the sake of stable, pro-Western regimes in the oil-rich and strategically vital Middle East has long been an inconvenient truth.
Yet uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are demonstrating the shortsightedness of that doctrine, as the West's support of autocracy that violently suppressed other channels of dissent may now be ushering in the very democratic and Islamic-oriented governments it has long feared.
The bottom line is that political Islam, in some form, will be a significant factor in much of the Arab world and beyond. US foreign policy must come to grips with this emerging reality. Its approach must reflect an understanding of how contemporary political Islam came about and how democratic governments rooted in its principles will behave. These four points are essential:
1. Contemporary political Islam was largely a side effect of cold-war regional politics. Though political Islamic organizations have old roots within the wider Islamic world, their rise was a direct result of US- or Soviet-backed dictatorship in the region. When the "red threat" passed, Washington reframed this narrative as support for "moderate" regimes over "extremist" ones.
Strong US support for client states translated into violent repression of independent political parties, labor unions, and other aspects of civil society. Religion became the credible avenue of opposition, because only Islamic groups had the collective constituency, financial means, and organizational ability to counter the state. This pattern has emerged in similarly repressive climates, whether in Roman Catholic opposition to communism in Eastern Europe or Buddhist monk activism in Burma (Myanmar).
2. Political Islam is not hostile to the West, but to its policies. Many Westerners assume that Muslims "hate our freedoms," but reliable surveys paint a different picture. Drawing sweeping inferences from sound bites or selective "alarming" data isn't valid, because political Islam is less a monolithic ideology than an outgrowth of each nation's society. Years of regular polling in the Islamic world suggest that the majority of Muslims hold in high regard core American values such as religious tolerance, meritocracy, individual liberty, freedom of the press, and economic vitality.
For instance, the 2008 World Public Opinion poll showed that majority-Islamic societies not only were willing to engage in globalization and trade, but also viewed the "increasing connections of our economy with others around the world" as positive forces for their own lives. Moreover, the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll shows that, when asked which country they would prefer a family member to study in, the overwhelming majority cited Western states. At the same time, surveys show deep antipathy for Western policies in their region. Particularly grievous are Western support for dictatorship in their host countries (in spite of US promotion of democracy), regional wars of aggression, and unbridled support for Israel against Palestinian self-determination.