Thursday, December 06, 2012

Beware Of The Islamist Trap

By Monte Palmer,
Courtesy Of "Asia Times Online"

Islamists, judging by the use of the term in the global press, is a simplified way of referring to all Muslim groups seeking some form of Islamic rule in the Middle East. 

Like most simplistic expressions, "Islamist," is laden with hidden traps. 

The first Islamist trap is believing that all Muslim groups seeking some form of Islamic rule in the Middle East are of one mind and body. They are not. 
The second Islamist trap is assuming that all groups seeking some form of Islamist rule are inherently hostile to the interests of the United States and its allies. Some are, and some are not. 
The third Islamist trap is thinking that the US and its allies can stop the Islamist surge now sweeping the Middle East by diplomacy, sanctions, and covert action. The verdict on this supposition has yet to be rendered, but the outlook is not promising. 
The fourth and most lethal Islamist trap is the belief that force alone can stop the Islamists. Iraq and Afghanistan suggest otherwise. 
The dangers of assuming that all Islamists are the same is easily illustrated by a brief review of the four main Sunni Islamist currents competing for control of the Middle East. 

Islam Lite 

The most liberal of the four main Islamist currents is Islam Lite, the sarcastic Turkish nickname for the Justice and Development Party that has ruled Turkey within a secular framework for more than a decade. Islam Lite, the most forward looking of the four Islamic currents, has built Turkey into the world's seventeenth largest economy, consolidated Turkish democracy, brought Turkey to the doorstep of membership in the European Union, reaffirmed Turkey membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and established Turkey as the dominant Muslim power in the Middle East and beyond. 

At the regional and international levels, the Justice and Development Party's Islamic agenda includes support for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Gaza Strip. It also calls for an independent Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. All have soured Turkey's relations with Israel, but war between the two former allies is not in the picture. 

Partnership with the US and EU is an essential component of Islam Lite. Subservience is not.

... the Islamic Lite model practiced in Turkey does demonstrate that moderate Islamic rule is compatible with democracy and development. Much like Turkey itself, the Justice and Development Party provides an avenue for cooperation and dialogue between the West and Muslim currents throughout the Middle East. 

The Muslim Brotherhood

... the world's largest and most powerful Islamic organization. The Brotherhood now rules in Egypt and Tunisia and exercises profound influence throughout the region. The name may differ from place to place, but they are all Brotherhood offshoots. 

The odds are that it will control most of the Arab Middle East by the end of the decade. 

The foundation of the Brotherhood's success is a vision of Islam that promises Islamic morality, modernity, welfare, honesty, capitalism, stability, and development in a single and seductive package. It is this seductive package that has enabled the Brotherhood to capture the center of the Sunni Islamic community. 

Popular support, in turn, is bolstered by an organizational structure that spans the globe... the Muslim Brotherhood is first and foremost a Muslim organization that places Islam above nationalism. Egypt is the headquarters of the Brotherhood, but its goal is a Middle East dominated by moderate Muslim rule. Brotherhood dominance in one country is used to strengthen Brotherhood influence in others.

In sum, the Brotherhood possesses a forward looking agenda that includes democracy and development within an Islamic framework. The Brotherhood is willing to cooperate with the US and the EU, but only on terms that advance its Islamic agenda. 

The Brotherhood, in common with the Islamic Lite model, pursues its Islamic agenda in a patient and pragmatic manner that avoids violence if possible. 


The salafis are exceptionally conservative Muslims who believe that the Koran and Sunna (sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed) should be followed to the letter. This includes accepting the rule of tyrants as the will of God. God will judge the kings and tyrants when the time comes, but that is his call and not theirs. 

While dominant in the Gulf, diverse Salafi currents are emerging as a major force in Egypt and Tunisia, two of the most westernized countries in the Arab world. 


... the Jihadists differ from the mainline Salafis in three key ways. 

First, they have arrogated unto themselves the right to excommunicate Muslim leaders by declaring them to be kafirs or non-believers. Most salafis deem excommunication to be the right of God unless individuals denounce their belief in God and refuse to accept the Prophet Mohammed as his Messenger. 

Second, by excommunicating political leaders for their cooperation with the US, the jihadists are absolved from Koranic scriptures requiring them to support their ruling tyrants and kings. Rebellion and assassination await. 

Finally, it is not enough for the Jihadists to impose strict Islamic law on society. All Muslims societies, in their view, have been so corrupted by their association with the West that they must be totally destroyed and rebuilt in a purely Islamic framework. 

Traps and Consequences

The trap of viewing the main Islamist currents as a cohesive force deprives the West of much needed flexibility in dealing with the competing Islamic movements most likely to dominate the Middle East during the coming decade. 

The trap of viewing the main Islamists currents as being of one mind and body sets the stage for believing that all Islamist currents pose an imminent danger to the US and its allies. The battle lines for an inevitable conflict between Islam and the West have been drawn. Panic and islamophobia soar.

The drawing of battle lines, in turn, unleashes the trap of urgence. Something has to be done, but what? Iraq and Afghanistan have dulled the West's taste for drawn out guerilla wars. 

As former Secretary of Defense Gates framed the issue, "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army to Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined." 

This sets the stage for an endless series of sanctions, covert actions, and drone strikes which stoke extremism, anti-Americanism and, eventually, a new explosion. 

If sanctions and covert actions don't work, the trap of assuming that the US can save the world from the Islamist threat by military force remains. I stress the US, because America's EU allies are bailing out, while Japan, China and Russia are pursuing Middle East agendas at odds with that of the US.

As the proverbial rhyme states:
"For want of a nail a shoe was lost.
For want of shoe a horse was lost.
For the want of a horse the rider was lost.
For the want of a rider a message was lost.
For the want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost."
For want of recognizing the complexities of Islamic currents, the Middle East could be lost. 

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