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
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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:
Cold-war side effect
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.
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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).
Muslims like American values
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
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.
No need to fear sharia law
3. Political Islam does not mean sharia law or global caliphate.
When Westerners hear the word sharia, they think of Taliban-style