Some commentators are trying to characterize in broad-brushstrokes what is taking place in Arab political culture. Some are identifying the main feature as a liberationist imperative that has gripped the Arab political imagination. Others warn that popular uprisings without clear aims will inevitably lead to the "victory" of Islamists. Others say we have entered into a period of protracted chaos that will be characterized by increasing violence and conflict within states and regionally.Read his whole piece. It as, as usual, useful and erudite. For what it's worth, though, I think it's possible to declare a preliminary winner: The Islamist parties that have moved closer to power in Tunisia and Egypt (and will soon enough come to power in Syria). In a recent Bloomberg View column, I outlined some early conclusions:
The big news out of Cairo late this fall was not the Muslim Brotherhood's triumph in parliamentary elections, even though the Brotherhood-affiliated party took 37 percent of the popular vote. The main news was made by the more extreme Nour Party, which is affiliated with Egypt's Salafists. The Salafists, who believe that the world should be made over to look as it did during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, took almost 25 percent of the popular vote. In other words, the majority of voters in the Arab world's most populous country chose either a party whose motto is "Islam is the Solution" or a party that believes that medieval Arabia is an appropriate state model.
There have been two predictable Western responses to the rise of Islamism in Egypt and across the Arab world: panic and rationalization. Panic is self-explanatory: The Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical cousins are, generally speaking, anti-Western, anti-Semitic, hostile to Christians in their midst, and have a view of women that most Westerners find abhorrent. It is not difficult for creative minds to place the Muslim Brotherhood on a continuum that ends at al-Qaeda, even though al-Qaeda was created in part as a corrective to what Osama bin Laden & Co. viewed as the unforgivable moderation of the Brotherhood. The panic felt in some quarters is precisely what men such as Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and even the late-stage Muammar Qaddafi in Libya hoped to cultivate in their Western interlocutors.
The other predictable response among Westerners has been to rationalize the rise of Muslim fundamentalism by arguing that the Muslim Brothers and even the Salafists are not the bogeymen we think they are. Scratch a Muslim Brother, the argument goes, and you'll find the Middle Eastern analog of a European Christian Democrat. This argument elides the misogyny and anti- Semitism of Islamists, not to mention their embrace of various baroque and pathetic conspiracy theories, including the notion that the attacks of 9/11 were plotted by the Mossad or the CIA. On the other hand, the Egyptian Brothers no longer have to look to Iran to see how Islamists govern; they can look, and are looking, to Turkey, where the ruling AKP party has come closest to maintaining a commitment to traditional Islam without turning its back on the West or completely cutting off the oxygen to liberal-minded secularists.
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