Illiberal Islam: Arab Protesters Demand Democracy-But Not Secularism

Article excerpt

THE ARAB WORLD'S unrest has brought forth gushing, rather adolescent analysis about what the region will look like a year or more hence. Americans have decided that these upheavals have everything to do with the advent of liberalism, secularism, and Westernization in the region and that Islamist militant groups like al-Qaeda have been sidelined by the historically inevitable triumph of democracy--a belief that sounds a bit like the old Marxist-Leninist claptrap about iron laws of history and communism's inexorable triumph.

How has this judgment been reached? Primarily by disregarding facts, logic, and history, and instead relying on (a) the thin veneer of young, educated, pro-democracy, and English-speaking Muslims who can be found on Facebook and Twitter and (b) the employees of the BBC, CNN, and most other media networks, who have suspended genuine journalism in favor of cheerleading for secularism and democracy on the basis of a non-representative sample of English-speaking street demonstrators and users of social-networking sites. The West's assessment of Arab unrest so far has been--to paraphrase Sam Spade's comment about the Maltese Falcon--the stuff that dreams, not reality, are made of.

A year from now, we will find that most Arab Muslims have neither embraced nor installed what they have long regarded as an irreligious and even pagan ideology--secular democracy. They will have instead adhered even more closely to the faith that has graced, ordered, and regulated their lives for more than 1400 years, and which helped them endure the oppressive rule of Western-supported tyrants and kleptocrats.

This does not mean that fanatically religious regimes will dominate the region, but a seven-year Gallup survey of the Muslim world published in 2007 shows that a greater degree of Sharia law in governance is favored by young and old, moderates and militants, men and even women in most Muslim countries. While a facade of democracy may well appear in new regimes in places like Egypt and Tunisia, their governments will be heavily influenced by the military and by Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. If for no other reason, the Islamist groups will have a powerful pull because they have strong organizational capabilities; wide allegiance among the highly educated in the military, hard sciences, engineering, religious faculties, and medicine; and a reservoir of patience for a two-steps-forward, one-step-back strategy that is beyond Western comprehension. We in the West too often forget, for example, that the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda draw from Muslim society's best and brightest, not its dregs; that al-Qaeda has been waging its struggle for 25 years, the Muslim Brotherhood for nearly 85 years; and that Islam has been in the process of globalizing since the 7th century.

As new Arab regimes develop, Westerners also are likely to find that their own deep sense of superiority over devout Muslims--which is especially strong among the secular left, Christian evangelicals, and neoconservatives--is unwarranted. The nearly universal assumption in the West is that Islamic governance could not possibly satisfy the aspirations of Muslims for greater freedom and increased economic opportunity--this even though Iran has a more representative political system than that of any state in the region presided over by a Western-backed dictator. No regime run by the Muslim Brotherhood would look like Canada, but it would be significantly less oppressive than those run by the al-Sauds and Mubarak. This is not to say it would be similar to or more friendly toward the West--neither will be the case--but in terms of respecting and addressing basic human concerns they will be less monstrous.

The West's biggest surprise a year out may well lie in being forced to learn that Westernization, secularization, and modernization are not synonyms. The postwar West's arrogance--dare I say hubris? …