“Hypocritical”. “Selfish”. “Oppressive” – these are just a few of the many negative words used to describe the US foreign policy in most of the Muslim-majority countries. According to the Pew Center’s survey of global attitudes, “most of the world views American foreign policy favorably, except the Muslim world”. The Muslim world holds strong negative views of the US foreign policy. This “Muslim world exceptionalism” has often been misunderstood in the Western countries. Osama bin Laden in his “Letter to the American people” in 2002 highlighted one of the major causes of the “Muslim world exceptionalism”. He argued that many Arab regimes are “agents” of the United States which “… give us a taste of humiliation, and places us in a large prison of fear and subdual.” The support of Western democracies of Arab regimes was one of the major causes of September 11th terrorist attacks. This raises a fundamental question; why do Western democracies, and especially the US, support Arab dictators? There are numerous strategic, economic, and political reasons for the Western backing of the Arab regimes. However, one of the major reasons is the fear of Islamic revivalism.
The Western rhetoric of democratization in the Muslim world has been reduced to “secularism vs. revivalism”. Western democracies have traditionally supported secular Arab dictators, in the hopes that this is the only strategy to curtail Islamic revivalism. In fact, many of these regimes successfully curtailed Islamic revivalist movements through oppression. The Hama massacre in 1982 by Syrian President Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein’s execution of Shiite revivalist leader, Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr in 1980 are just a few examples of Western-backed regimes crushing Islamic revivalist movements. However, with the expansion of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other such countries, it has become clear that such a policy is inherently flawed. Thus, this begs the questions, as S.V.R Nasr eloquently put it, “What is the danger of democracy to revivalism?”
“Islamic Free-Elections trap” is the destruction of democracy though democracy. The logic this theory is based upon is that free and fair elections in Muslim-majority countries would give revivalist movements an avenue to promote their religious agenda. Once these Islamic revivalist parties come to power, by utilizing democratic means, these parties will infringe upon democratic values. Thus, in essence, democracy will be abolished due to the pursuance and imposition of radical Islamic agendas. The fear of Islamic revivalism has profoundly influenced American foreign policy. United States reaffirmed its commitment to democratic values under President Jimmy Carter. President Carter emphasized on human rights in foreign policy, and President Reagan introduced support of democracy abroad. However, the stark shift in the policy concerning Muslim countries raises concerns. Perhaps, it is time to revisit the logic behind such policies.
Statistics and historical facts refute the “Islamic Free-Election trap”. As duly noted by Alfred Stepan in his book, “Arguing Comparative Politics”, democracies in Muslim countries have actually flourished and the lack of popularity of revivalist movements has become apparent in free and fair elections. The 1997 general election in Pakistan, which observers claim to be one of the freest elections of Pakistan, Islamic revivalist parties won only 2 seats in the National Assembly. Furthermore, the much debated radical Islamic laws in Pakistan were mostly introduced by military dictators, not by democratically elected governments. Another example of democratization in a Muslim-majority country is Indonesia, the largest Muslim country. After the fall of the dictator, Suharto, Abdurrahman Wahid ran a campaign in which he openly denounced the idea of an Islamic state. He was elected the first President of Indonesia. In Bangladesh, 1997 elections saw a 73% turnout rate and the fundamentalist Islamic party, JI, won only 3 seats. Turkey saw their first democratically elected President Erbakan resignation for violating the secular constitution of the country. The more recent events, specifically the Arab Spring, have profoundly rejected not only the message of Islamic fundamentalist movements, such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but it has also defied the logic of “Islamic Free-Election trap”. A report published by Pew Research Center suggests that majority of the Egyptians favor democracy. Libyan former Ambassador to the US, Ali Aujali, has emphasized that the opposition party Libyan National Council is a democratic force. The democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and others, are the result of state oppression, economic grievances, and a universal hunger for democratic values.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, the fear of Islamic revivalism through Muslim Brotherhood and Shariah became apparent in the Washington political rhetoric. Perhaps, the time is ripe for the Obama Administration to get on the right side of history by revisiting the US policies aimed to keep Islamic revivalism in check. Historical facts demonstrate that a western-backed gun is not the answer, but a ballot box is. Democracy is not a regional concept, but a global phenomenon. United States, and other Western democracies, should be far-sighted in their foreign policy and support (perhaps it is not too early to call it) the fourth way of democratization. Supporting oppressive regimes may be beneficial for the short-term interests, but oppressive regimes are inherently unstable. An open political process is the only way to “de-legitimatize” Islamic revivalist parties, whereas oppression helps them gather public support. Hence, Western support of democracy will not only reaffirm their commitment to democratic values, but essentially destroy Islamic revivalism though democracy.
-The writer is a student at Furman University, SC, USA