Have advocates of Arab democracy been “mesmerized by some ideological mirage”? Are Western commentators underplaying the risk to women’s rights and religious minorities arising from the region’s Islamist resurgence?
“If tourists can wear bikinis but local women must wear chadors does that prove the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate?” asks analyst Barry Rubin.
Such sentiments reflect the prevailing sentiment in some circles of opinion, notes a leading commentator.
“There is a sour mood nowadays about the so-called Arab Spring,” writes Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:
The whole “experiment” seems to some critics to be a foolish, if idealistic project that promises to do nothing but wreak havoc in the Middle East. These same critics cast blame at the Americans who applauded the Arab revolts of the past year: naive, ideological, ignorant, dangerous folk.
The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafists as the dominant majority in Egypt’s new parliament, allied to Islamist successes in Tunisia and Morocco, has raised old fears of illiberal forces exploiting democratic rights and institutions prior to subverting them.
“But the sour ‘analysis’ that the Arab revolts will lead only, inevitably, and permanently to disaster is based in neither experience nor scholarship,” Abrams argues.
Islamist victories are neither unavoidable nor permanent, he notes, citing Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi’s study of Islamist parties and Muslim voters in 21 countries, published in the Journal of Democracy, which revealed that Islamist parties perform more poorly than widely believed and tend to secure their highest vote in the first election following a democratic transition.
“When Muslims are given the opportunity to vote freely for Islamic parties, they have tended not to do so,” they conclude.
The evidence indicates “a common political arc for Islamist parties,” writes Abrams:
They often emerge from the oppression of the previous regime with a reputation for honesty and courage, and attract many voters who are not zealots. Then when they fail to produce tangible results — when, to put it starkly, Islam turns out not to be the answer — many voters turn elsewhere.
There are plenty of caveats, of course. Islamist parties do better on average in Arab than non-Arab lands, and in any event, this process takes time, often requiring second and third free elections. But time is also part of the antidote to extremism. As Bush noted in his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, “The daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress. It teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences.”
As the old Arab regimes have found out the hard way during the past year, authoritarian rule is inherently unstable. …..The new governments of the Middle East will need to win the loyalties of populations that seek more dignity, more freedom from oppression, and better lives. Arab culture will prove an obstacle to moving forward: Both the treatment of women and the widespread conspiracy theories blaming Jews and others for national failures will undermine a population’s ability to take responsibility for its own future.
What should the United States do?
Prepare to protect U.S. interests and America’s allies if, during this long and uneven process, they are threatened. In addition, what America should do is help: help the liberals, the constitutionalists, the democrats, and the human rights advocates, whose enemies — in the mosques or streets or barracks — will have plenty of outside support.