Opinion

Let the Islamists take power, they say. What could go wrong?

Barry Rubin Director, GLORIA Center

The New York Times published an op-ed this week entitled, “The Overblown Islamist Threat,” which isn’t surprising since it would never publish an op-ed entitled, “The Islamist Threat is Very Real.” The surprise is the author’s identity: former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher.

That’s strange since Jordan’s policy on Islamism has been based on the idea that letting the Islamists take power would be a terrible disaster. How has Jordan handled Islamists? By assuming they would win any fair elections and thus ensuring elections are fixed and that the Muslim Brotherhood is intimidated and kept from power.

Otherwise, Muasher and his friends would be shot or imprisoned, Jordan would stumble into a disastrous war with Israel and the country would be turned into a ferociously repressive dictatorship. But since Muasher is now in Washington, D.C., he wouldn’t have to flee into exile.

Like George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” everything he says is the opposite of reality. The Islamist victory in Tunisia, he claims, has “reinforced the conventional wisdom that Islamists will be the biggest beneficiaries of the Arab Spring.” The conventional wisdom, of course, has been that this isn’t true at all and to ridicule those who say otherwise.

His supposed solution is that “Islamist parties will … become more moderate if they are included in government.” Really? How did that work out in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Lebanon, and with Hamas in the Gaza Strip? And how did it work with non-Islamist radicals like Yasser Arafat or Saddam Hussein?

Well, Muasher explains, “Islamists are unlikely to take over new governments in the Arab world,” and in Tunisia the Islamist party “has made it clear that it’s uninterested in ruling the country alone.” Nonsense. It just lacks a majority. In Turkey, the Islamists have been eager to rule “alone.”

Islamists also don’t want power, he explains, because “whoever governs will need to tackle tremendous political and economic problems. Islamists don’t want to be blamed for the mess.”

We already know the answer to that one: They’ll blame it on Western imperialism, Zionism and the lack of a proper Islamist society. That demagoguery has consequences.

He next claims that “Western pundits” overestimate the popularity of Islamists who only get “15 to 20 percent of the popular vote.” It’s strange that he would write an article saying that, since Western pundits have been minimizing the likely Islamist vote. In Tunisia— where Islamists are far weaker than elsewhere — they received 40 percent in a fair election. Polls in Egypt show similarly high levels of support for Islamists. Muasher is obviously thinking of the far lower number of votes Islamists receive in fixed elections in Egypt and Jordan.

His wrong numbers, though, are really a tip-off. Muasher is thinking of how Islamists fare when repressed. When Muasher tells us that most people in these countries don’t want “religious theocracies,” he is referring to their behavior when they are living under non-Islamist dictatorships. Moreover, as is evident now, Islamists are well-organized while it is the secular, moderate parties that are weak, divided and lack broad support.

But here’s my favorite point. According to Muasher, Jordan had Islamists in its government in 1990 but they became unpopular because they wanted “to introduce segregation between fathers and their daughters at school events. This backfired and citizens simply refused to go along with it. Jordan’s Islamists quickly backed down and dropped the demand. Political inclusion, it turned out, had a moderating effect on Islamists.”

Maybe Muasher can fool New York Times readers into thinking that Jordan’s voters rebelled because of seating arrangements at school plays in Amman, but this isn’t a big concern for the average Jordanian. In fact, it was government repression and election cheating, not the masses demanding dads and daughters sit together, that kept them out of government.

Jordan’s monarchy has survived for decades because it would never give up its monopoly on power out of a naïve belief that Islamists will become moderate with power or that voters won’t support them.

Muasher himself reveals the ludicrousness of his own argument. “In order to ensure peaceful political competition between Islamists and other political parties, the new Arab democracies” must ensure “a peaceful political landscape that is free of armed groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Yet these two groups both won free elections with no moderation of their positions! How are civilian middle-class movements going to get rid of masses of Islamists who are ready to resort to violence?

This kind of article, which has a near-monopoly in the Western media, has nothing to do with reality. “Excluding and marginalizing Islamists out of fear,” Muasher says, “will only strengthen their appeal.” Maybe so. But not excluding them strengthens their appeal, too, and once all gates are open wide, nobody can counter the Islamists.

In much of the Arab world, it’s too late. Non-Islamist moderates are being marginalized and they might soon be excluded altogether, as has already happened in Iran, Turkey, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

There’s not much transparency in the Muslim-majority world, but one thing is definitely transparent: the inaccurate, illogical nature of what we’re told about Islamists.

So how will Muasher and others who claim that Islamists are harmless be proven wrong? Simple. A number of countries will be subjected to horrible dictatorships for decades — women’s rights will be crushed, development will be set back, bloody wars will be fought, Western interests will be attacked and tens of thousands of people will be killed. Then the Western establishments that have gotten things so wrong will say, “Oops!”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal at Gloria-Center.org. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.