As democracy empowers Islamist political groups, al-Qaeda will only become weaker
The current unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa raises a basic question about U.S. foreign policy in the region that has confounded this country for years now. At the heart of our democratic experiment is freedom of choice at the ballot box, a freedom that has led to more than two centuries of democratic experimentation. History shows that we haven't always made good choices -- Jim Crow laws and Prohibition come to mind, for example -- but we've stuck with this democratic experiment. Will we see that dedication through in a democratic, Arab, Muslim Middle East? Democracies are often imperfect. But our interest in supporting democracy in a country like Egypt should be about more than just ideology -- it could be a boon for counterterrorism as well.
We are struggling to accommodate our democratic views with the Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which are poised to gain power, or at least influence, in a democratic Arab world. If they win elections, we ask, are they inherently antidemocratic enough to stifle secularists? Will they prove anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic? These are fair questions, but the facts are that in an increasing number of states where the people are making choices in some semblance of a democratic process -- the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, possibly Egypt -- we find ourselves uncomfortable with the prospect of accepting leaders who reflect the will of their people but violate some of our fundamental policy interests.
Polling numbers highlight the uphill, perhaps unwinnable battle we would face in opposing either the Brotherhood's involvement in government or Islam's role in politics. In Egypt, for example, a Pew Research poll from the Spring of 2010 shows 40 percent of respondents with a positive view of Hamas, contrasted with 20 percent positive for al-Qaeda. Even more telling, 95 percent of respondents support a major role for religion in politics. And the Egyptians are not isolated: 60 percent of Jordanians have positive views of Hamas, and 53 percent support a major role for religion in government. We can feel uncomfortable with both the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood role and a mix of religion and government, but we would be unrealistic in believing that we will find great support for our version of democracy and secularism.
Regarding the Brotherhood, many in the U.S. worry about its anti-Israeli views and its suspicion not only of secular governments but of the entire proposition of the separation of church and state. However, the Brotherhood's role in our now decade-long campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliates doesn't appear prominently in the U.S. debate. It should, especially for those who accept the maxim that the enemy of an enemy is a friend. If we're looking for friends, especially Arab friends, to help us fight al-Qaeda on the ideological front that has been our most significant shortfall, we might look to the Brotherhood.
In the U.S., we are apt to wrongly conflate Islamist movements. Some overlap among movements is clear: al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood have common roots going back to the evolution of the Islamist movement in Egypt almost 90 years ago. They both abhor the state of Israel and the rise of Brotherhood influence in Arab governments could reduce support for a two-state solution.
But lost in this simple mixing of Islamist strains is the fact that these two versions of Islamism are at each other's throats, openly and frequently. Al-Qaeda is fundamentally more than just a terrorist group. It is a movement of nihilistic, violent Islamists who want to spark a revolution through the tactical use of terrorism. The presence of undemocratic, repressive regimes in the Middle East has given the group fertile territory from which to recruit, and the Brotherhood, sidelined by regimes for years, has struggled to match al-Qaeda's draw among disaffected youth.