Much of the Muslim world appears to be undergoing a profound change. For the United States and other Western nations, the questions of the moment are: “Who can we trust? Who should or would be our ally?”
For a long time the United States had a pretty clear answer for this question. For all we might like to say about human rights and democracy, the answer was generally: A Western-leaning dictator. In the context of the Cold War, this made some amount of sense – nations were considered either Communist-aligned or Western-aligned. Though some nations claimed non-aligned status, for the most part we didn’t believe them and treated them as pre-aligned pawns. In this context a strong man who liked us was better than no strong man at all. The apparent lesson of the Iranian revolution was that the fall of a strong man could spell disaster for western interests. But now we’re increasingly facing much more complicated post-autocratic states in the Muslim world, and the Cold War context no longer exists.
And so begins our search for Muslim moderates: allies who may not share all of our Western values but who, we hope, will share certain commitments to the rule of law, democratic representation, independence for the judiciary and the press, equal rights, etc. The challenge in recognizing these Muslim moderates is at least two-fold. First, we have to learn to see beyond the deeply felt religious and cultural differences to focus on the central values that are absolutely necessary for our governments to work together peacefully. We can’t expect them to become exactly like us to be our allies, but we can hope that we’ll have enough in common to come to mutual understanding. Second, we need to learn to tell when once-violent extremists have actually converted to political moderation, especially when they do so without renouncing their deeply felt commitment to conservative Islam.
A few examples to consider:
- Could we work and even ally with an Egypt in which the Muslim Brotherhood was the main political power?
- If Fatah and Hamas continue their reconciliation, will that mean that Hamas adopts moderation or that Fatah grows more extreme? If Israel refuses to deal with either of the two, does that mean the United States should do so too?
- In Yemen, are we willing to back the Western-leaning ruler (reasonably called a dictator) out of fear that elements aligned with Al Qaeda may take over the country? Is there a reasonably strong moderate alternative we could back if we were willing to turn against Saleh?
- In Iraq, have we substituted the trappings of democracy for dictatorship without strengthening those actually committed to the institutions of civil society?
- Are the moderates in Afghanistan and Pakistan strong enough to survive on their own? Is our continuing support in fact weakening their credibility by equating commitment to the rule of law with all things Western?
- Are the Libyan opposition leaders more committed to democracy, equality, and the rule of law or are they more committed to stealing the same kind of power that Gaddafi now wields? This seems especially troubling as it relates to the continuing defectors from Gaddafi’s leadership. Have these men really had a change of heart about the way the country was run or are they merely betting on the other team (the one supported by NATO air and sea power and foreign aid)?
In dealing with each of these questions we have to ask ourselves: “Can violent extremists become moderates? How would we know if they did?”
In considering the answers to these questions, I’d like to suggest two pieces that caught my attention recently. The first is an interview of Essam El-Erian, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, conducted by Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post (available here). The second is an 11 minute piece reported by Nancy Updike from Cairo for This American Life (Act Two here).
Democracy is a messy process and it requires learning to work with people who have different values and goals. Part of how this works is through a shared commitment to the process. I hope the Egyptians highlighted here and others will be able to find that shared commitment, trust it, and steer their nation together in the most positive directions. And I hope we can figure out how to support that.