Is Islamism (also known as fundamentalist Islam) waxing or waning? Does it present a dangerous form of radical utopianism or a force for democracy? To explore these and other issues, the Middle East Quarterly assembled four leading American experts. John Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. Martin Kramer is research professor in Middle East affairs at Tel Aviv University. Graham Fuller is senior resident consultant at the RAND Corporation. Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum. Patrick Clawson, the Middle East Quarterly's senior editor, moderated the discussion, which took place on September 2, 1999, in Washington D.C.
What Islamism Is
Middle East Quarterly: Please define Islamism in a sentence.
Martin Kramer: It is Islam reformulated as a modern ideology. Whereas Islam was traditionally conceived as being in a class with Judaism and Christianity, Islamism is a response to ideologies that emerged in the modern West—communism, socialism, or capitalism.
Graham Fuller: Islamism is largely synonymous with political Islam—an effort to draw meaning out of Islam applicable to problems of contemporary governance, society, and politics.
John Esposito: Islam interpreted as an ideology to support political and social activism.
Daniel Pipes: I think we're all pretty much in agreement.
MEQ: Is the Saudi establishment Islamist? How about the Taliban?
Pipes: No. The Wahhabi idea in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban project in Afghanistan are attempts to spread an idealized and systematized version of village customs to an entire country. Wahhabi ideas don't respond to modern ideologies. In contrast, Islamism is the response by modern people to modern problems and ideologies.
Fuller: Change and reform are inherent in Islamism and are essential to it. But I see Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia as dedicated to the preservation of the status quo, and almost totally apolitical, and therefore no, it does not qualify as Islamism. The Taliban are closer to Islamism in terms of bringing about political change to replace the old, but they are on the borderline of tradition, and certainly not viewed by most Islamists as representing genuine Islamic values.
MEQ: Islamists want to change the status quo, while other pious Muslims do not necessarily?
Fuller: Yes. Islamists certainly want change - that's one of the key goals of their movement. I don't want to say that other pious Muslims don't believe in change. But most Islamists are by nature activists.
Esposito: Note that in Saudi Arabia the opposition is largely composed of Islamists.
Pipes: It's the self-conscious return to a mythical past that makes Islamists distinct from the Wahhabis or the Taliban, who are instead trying to preserve and extend existing law and custom.
Kramer: Islamists believe they are restoring a lost ideal. One can never go back to that ideal in practice, but they don't seem to understand that. Often what you see in Islamism is an appeal for change couched in the language of the return of something that has been lost.
Esposito: I agree but only up to a point. If Islamists wish simply to go back and implement an ideal, they undercut change. Some Islamist thinkers and writers see themselves going back to then come forward; Rashid al-Ghannushi of Tunisia and others are talking about Islam's relationship to modern concepts and institutions that didn't exist in the past. And in doing that they reinterpret Islam.
Pipes: And they're not villagers.
Esposito: No, they often are urban mainstream professionals.
MEQ: Who are the most important Islamist thinkers today?
Esposito: On the relationship of religion to democracy, it's Rashid al-Ghannushi. But
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian living in Qatar, has the most overall influence. A very diverse group of Muslims look to Qaradawi and his fatwas and statements.
Kramer: My list focuses on those thinkers who are formulating attitudes towards power, so I would expand it to include Hasan at-Turabi of Sudan and Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah of Lebanon.
Power and the Law
MEQ: Are Islamists by definition intent in taking political power, or is their agenda sometimes primarily social and cultural?
Fuller: The majority of Islamists are interested in coming to power, as all politicians want to come to power.
Esposito: In places like Egypt, you now find people in their twenties and early thirties who have been political activists, but now opt for grassroots social and cultural change as the way to transform the system. They seek to Islamize society, not challenge the government, which leads to violence and repression.
Pipes: John, you are simply distinguishing between two different tactics. The goal is the same—to build a society in which the Shari‘a [the sacred law of Islam] is applied according to the Islamists' interpretation. I challenge you to come up with a leading Islamist who is not political, who is not striving for power.
Esposito: There is the example of ‘Abd al-Karim Sarush, an Iranian intellectual who wants to see the clergy out of politics. He holds that if a society is Islamically-oriented from below, then that's going to be reflected in its laws. But he's not talking about the Shari‘a, rather about culture and values. He'll say that the same thing can happen in an overwhelmingly Christian or Jewish society; it doesn't formally have to be a Jewish state or a Christian state. Clearly if one thinks about the potential, even in our own country, to have legislation on family values or abortion or homosexuality inspired by religious opinions, then it's not necessary formally to take power.
Fuller: Further on Daniel's comment: Historically, yes, the Shari‘a has been the focus of Islamist thinking, but today, application of the Shari‘a may be taking a second place in the thinking of many. They debate what it means to apply the Shari‘a and what the role of the Shari‘a should be in creating an Islamic society. For example, on the question of hudud punishments [cutting off a thief's hand and the like] there's considerable variation of viewpoints on the urgency, timing, and context of applying them. So I doubt that applying the Shari‘a is the sole goal or even the chief priority of all Islamists.
Pipes: What then is the sole goal?
Fuller: To introduce concepts of morality into human conduct, to achieve just governance, and to establish social relations that reflect Islamic values, where the Shari‘a is only a modest part of the whole. The Shari‘a is actually extremely limited in what it talks about and stipulates.
Pipes: What you say is true historically, but not for Islamists. The heart of Islamism is the drive to extend the Shari‘a into all sorts of new areas of life, such as economics. To Islamists, living by the Shari‘a is the key both to the moral life and to Muslim revitalization.
Kramer: This fits into a larger pattern of fundamentalist movements: they extract one single element from a vast sea of principles, traditions, histories, and texts. The whole tradition is reduced to implementation and preservation of this one element, identified as the core. In the case of Judaism, it's the land. In the case of Christianity, it's the right to give and take life. In the case of Islam, it's the Shari‘a. The ideology of Islamism is given coherence by its focus on this one element.
I have not seen among Islamist thinkers a perceptible shift away from the Shari‘a as the core, or a move to another focus, another kind of reduction. Certainly not to the vague constellation of moral principles that Graham alludes to. Where's the evidence that this is
Fuller: For some Islamists, yes, the Shari‘a is the defining point, but I've had many discussions with Islamists who say the Shari‘a is not the be-all and end-all and that Islamism should not be reduced to the Shari‘a. Islam's broader political goal goes far beyond simply the application of the Shari‘a.
MEQ: If their principal aim is to reform society rather than to seize power, wouldn't that focus be less single-minded?
Kramer: Sarush of Iran represents what might be called post-Islamism—something altogether different. He is someone living in an Islamist order who is trying to figure out what went wrong and to propose alternatives. If it is true that Islamism's moment has passed and that, as [the French scholar] Olivier Roy argues, the era of post-Islamism has begun, then we should not be surprised that the Islamist movements are foregoing the pursuit of political power.
Pipes: But I disagree with Roy's premise that the Islamist moment has passed, outside of Iran at any rate. As I suggested before, it's a matter of tactics. Perhaps reality teaches that revolution on a grand scale, such as Khomeini dreamed of, has passed; but the goal very much remains the seizure of power and more broadly, the domination of societies. In that sense, Islamism is still very much alive, with its adherents very willful, very energetic, and full of optimism about the future.
Esposito: I see a younger generation within the Islamist movement, sometimes more militant and at other times more accommodationist. The more accommodationist types are the ones almost talking in what you would describe, Martin, as a post-Islamist kind of rhetoric. They're the ones who really want to focus on social change.
MEQ: But how do Islamists act in the present?
Fuller: That's the key question. It's very interesting, for example, that we find hudud punishments rarely applied in Islamist states like Iran and Sudan. Turabi of Sudan says they are only to be applied when Islamic society has reached a higher stage of general morality and understanding. Pakistan backed away from amputation of hands a long time ago in most respects. Most politicians, and those who are working with Islam and legislation, are uncomfortable with these punishments—a fact I find very significant in the evolution of practical Islamist thinking.
Kramer: You've gone one step further than the Islamists. The Islamists reduce Islam to Shari‘a. You've now reduced the Shari‘a to hudud.
Fuller: That is not my reduction; to many of the more simplistic Islamists Islamism is indeed symbolically reduced to Shari'a and then the Shari'a reduced to the hudud. But most Islamists know that this hardly constitutes a serious political and social program.
MEQ: What does the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran tell us about this?
Esposito: It's been interesting to see Iranians in the last few years no longer just dismissing issues like secularism and democracy but now grappling with them. Even conservative clergy write papers on these kinds of issues. You can distinguish their position from the more liberal positions, but about half of them really want to grapple with Western ideas.
Kramer: I'm not especially impressed by the grappling within Iran, where Islamism is in power. Post-Islamism is predicated on the understanding that political power is out of reach. Islamists are more likely to reach less militant positions because of their exclusion from power.
Ghannushi, sitting in London, as far from power as he can be, is doing some reformulation by at least talking about a multi-party system. Fadlallah is in Lebanon, halfway on the road to power, as is the Hizbullah movement, which has some weight in Lebanese politics—and so they only allow a system of governance based on Islam. Muslim political parties are allowable, but not communist, secularist, nationalist, because they cannot imagine a legitimate political party that has as its objective the disenfranchisement of Islam. Turabi, who is in power, has made the most consistent rationalization for excluding all others from its exercise. That's a no-party system.
What is my point here? The common view, that power moderates Islamists, is wrong. Weakness moderates Islamists. It's distance and exclusion from power that have created the possibility for some new thinking. But, in power, Islamists could easily gravitate back to an exclusionist position. When you look at Islamist thinkers, you must conclude that it's actually distance from power that encourages reformulation. You'll look in vain to the Taliban in Afghanistan or Turabi in Sudan for a reformulation. Instead, you have to look far afield to people who are utterly remote from power to see even the beginnings of this process.
Esposito: The question will always be, when somebody's speaking in opposition, what will they be like in power? Context often changes people and leads many leaders to take on different roles and policy positions. It is naive to simply single out Islamist groups and say, "Even when we see changes, we're always going to say to you that ‘You're as good as your original position.'" I've been in meetings where people want to characterize the Jama‘at-i Islami in Pakistan, so they quote an early writing of Mawlana Mawdudi of thirty or forty years ago—when in fact the Jama‘at's position may have much changed since then.
Pipes: Where has that change shown up in a way that we can see it?
Fuller: The Turkish Islamists have changed considerably, and you can say it's in accordance with reality. In Jordan, the Muslim Brethren has taken major steps toward the question of whether women should even vote, and also whether women candidates can run. They now say it is acceptable to cooperate with non-religious parties, even leftist parties. Once you're brought into the system, you are forced to react to those realities. To me that's the good news.
Pipes: Are you confident that if Necmettin Erbakan were a prime minister [in Turkey] who was really in control, or if the Jordanian Brethren really had control, that they would still behave in like fashion?
Fuller: Political culture enters the picture here. I have a lot of confidence that Turkish
political culture today is such that Islamists are ready to enter and leave office by the ballot box. But if you ask me about Jordan or Algeria, I would say I have much less confidence in the political culture of those societies producing parties ready yet to play by the political rules of democracy. That applies to any party, not just to the Islamists.
Esposito: I agree with Graham about the importance of political culture. In many of the societies where Islamists are strong, the political culture is one in which authoritarianism has been prevalent. This means that the first question one should ask of a political leader or movement of any stripe is, "Are they going to be all that democratic?" When we debate, for example, what Ghannushi would do on coming to power in Tunisia, we also have to consider what Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben ‘Ali has proven to be like, and before him Habib Bourguiba. They are not exactly Jeffersonian democrats.
Kramer: Actually, the Turkish and Jordanian cases confirm what I argued earlier—that necessity drives Islamists to reach some kind of accommodation. Jordan is a monarchy and everybody knows that ultimate power is in the hands of the royal family, beyond the Islamists' reach. As soon as the Islamist party accepts this boundary, the prospect opens up for accommodation, co-optation. Turkey is similar; it doesn't have a monarchy but it has the Kemalist principles of a secular state, which are considered inviolable. Erbakan went one step too far in challenging them, which explains when and why he was shut down. The Islamists will be allowed to partake of some power provided they accept that the secular character of the state cannot be altered.
In places where this limiting factor exists, Islamists, who are rational people and who understand counterforce, adjust. And in places where there is no bar or it's poorly enforced, or those who would enforce it are weak, you see a reversion of many of these Islamists to the most radical forms of ideology.
Esposito: But the Turkish state's response to the Kurds and the Islamists has been authoritarian, not just a defense of those inviolable foundations of their secular state. The transformation of political culture in the West from divine-right kingdoms to the modern nation state took time, and many bloody battles. In the Muslim world authoritarian systems still prevail. Take Afghanistan: none of us would predict that anyone coming to power in Afghanistan would be a democrat.
Kramer: Which returns me to the three actual examples of Islamism in power: Afghanistan, Iran, and Sudan. They display a considerable variation of political culture, yet it's remarkable how similar their experiences have been. None of them have produced anything we would recognize as democracy, or personal freedoms. Your optimism about Islamism rests upon hypothetical cases and what-ifs. But real-world experience compels pessimism.
Islamism and Democracy
MEQ: Is Islamism a democratizing movement?
Fuller: Islamism in much of the Muslim world fits the Marxist notion of being "objectively progressive." In other words, movements can serve to fulfill certain historical roles such as liberalization of the political system even if that is not always their intention. In much of the Muslim world, Islamist movements are actually serving to force the system open. Islamists support values such as democracy and human rights precisely because they are the primary victims of the absence of those values. I hold that if they preach long enough on democracy and human rights—even if it is self-serving—some of it will surely rub off. Iran, with its twenty years of Islamist experience, is now moving painfully towards genuine political evolution and liberalization. It is more open today than under the shah.
Kramer: I have to disagree on the impact of these movements. Let's leave aside what they themselves seek and look just at their impact in practice: what they usually do is force the middle classes to seek shelter with the existing regimes, no matter how repugnant, out of fear of the kind of society the Islamists will attempt to create. This happened in a number of states across the region, including Algeria and Egypt.
Had there been no Islamist movements, the 1990s would have been very different. We would now be in a position with a growing middle class, keen on opening Muslim societies to the wider world, and the Middle East far closer to a democratic transformation than is the case today. The Islamist movements impeded the move toward political participation by frightening the middle classes. Look at Algeria. Frustrated in their attempt to seize power, the Islamists decided to purge society. When they did, they didn't draw the line at the regime, but they included journalists, rock singers, intellectuals, and a wide range of people from precisely that class which is always the driving force behind democratization.
Esposito: But that was the GIA [Armed Islamic Groups], not all the Islamists. And you also had, on the other side, the hard-line wings in the military, the so-called eradicateurs, who committed similar actions.
Kramer: There was not a democratic discourse among any of Algeria's Islamists. A democratic discourse can't be shy of the word "democracy."
Fuller: The Islamists have accepted concepts of both democracy and pluralism. They recognize and willingly deal with non-Islamist parties, even leftists. They also realize that Islamists don't necessarily have all the answers, and that if they fail to introduce policies beneficial to the public and the state, they have to go back to the drawing boards and "deserve" to lose the election. Yes, this could all just be rhetoric, but there is real lively discussion about these issues in many parts of the Islamist spectrum.
Kramer: I see no resemblance between these limited discussions and democratic discourse.
Esposito: Many reject it, but it's there in the writings and policies of many others, for example Ghannoushi, ‘Azzam Tamimi, the Jama‘at-i Islami in South Asia, ABIM in Malaysia. There is no reason to assume that this discourse is just a short-term tactic.
Pipes: I'll muddy the waters by making an analogy. John referred earlier to differences in political culture, and it is a valid point. Political culture helps explains why the Communist party of Italy differed so much from its counterpart in Russia. Fair enough. Nevertheless, had the Communist party come to power in Italy, I believe it would not have willingly relinquished power. The democratic ideals that it had proclaimed for decades would have been abandoned for the sake of power. The methods would have been gentler than Stalin's, of course, but they still would have been anti-democratic.
I make the same argument for Turkey and Afghanistan. Yes, Islamists realize they must adapt to circumstances, to the prevailing political culture, but if their ultimate goal is utopian, as it is, then they have compelling reasons to look beyond these realities in the hope of establishing a totalitarian regime. How they get there varies, how it's actually implemented can significantly differ; but in the end it will be totalitarian.
Esposito: I view Islamism very much in terms of its development, the way I would talk about the development and potential of a religion. Religious expressions and interpretations are themselves forms of ideology. Until very recently, the Roman Catholic expectation was always that where Roman Catholics form a majority, a Roman Catholic state should ensue. Franco assumed that Roman Catholicism would be privileged during his rule in Spain.
Pipes: Catholicism does, I acknowledge, end with the letters "i-s-m" but that does not make it an "ism" in the sense of a modern political ideology like capitalism or Islamism. Martin correctly started us off by noting that Islam is comparable to Christianity and Judaism, but Islamism is comparable to socialism and liberalism and other "isms." So, I am reluctant to accept your parallel.
MEQ: What causes Islamism to flourish?
Fuller: Many things, but especially bad social and economic conditions, incompetence and corruption of regimes, authoritarianism, close affiliation with Western power. Also, authoritarian rulers regularly create the circumstances for Islamism to flourish, for they eliminate all other potential challengers to the political order, leaving the field open to Islamists working through the mosque.
Pipes: I wonder. Do all these reasons you just gave apply to the United States? Clearly not—and yet Islamists dominate American Muslim institutions, publications, and mosques. For that matter, do your conditions apply to Lebanon or Saudi Arabia? I can find you plenty of cases of dictators without much Islamism, or democracies with Islamism. I can also find you poor states without it, rich states with it.
Kramer: I wouldn't so much speak of the authoritarian state as a paternalistic state. A paternalistic state is part of the historical and cultural legacy of the region. When the paternalistic state delivers, protest is rare; an efficient paternalistic state can last, as the Ottoman empire did, for hundreds of years. Yet, for many reasons having nothing to do with Islamism, the paternalistic state has faltered in recent years. Falling oil prices are one reason; rapidly expanding populations, which are a drag on economic growth, another. The unwillingness to open markets, largely because of old nationalist dogmas, has hurt growth, as has aping of the Soviet model of development. These elements have created a state that has ceased to be efficient enough to satisfy many of its beneficiaries, and they have responded by turning against it. Islamism is a leading expression of that discontent.
Pipes: I was brash enough in 1983 to publish a book, In the Path of God, that contained a thesis to explain the rise of Islamism that sixteen years later I cannot subscribe to. This taught me to be wary of over-arching theories. In this light, I'm not convinced by the idea that the failed state is the reason for a surge of Islamism. If that were the case, surely Iraq, where incomes have plummeted to something like 10 percent of their earlier heights, would have the most powerful movement—which it does not. Or Iran, which has also lost much ground, would now be a hotbed of radicalism, which it distinctly is not. Contrarily, Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Iran in the 1970s, which truly were incubators of today's movements, do not fit this criterion of a failed state.
I've come to the point, I confess, that while I cannot offer an overall theory for Islamism, I'm also unconvinced by any of those that others make.
Fuller: Let's look again at the countries you mentioned. Saudi Arabia never had a serious Islamist movement in the 1970s; it's only been quite recently that you've had an Islamist movement emerging out of Saudi culture, starting really with the Mecca mosque takeover in 1979. There has not been a mass Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia precisely because conditions have been pretty good—the paternalistic state with huge oil revenues has worked fairly well. In Iraq, conversely, there is quite a serious Islamist opposition movement but Saddam Husayn killed all of them who had not fled to exile.
Kramer: Islamism cannot flourish where a regime is absolutely determined to suppress it. Repression has worked again and again in Islamic history, and many protest movements were eradicated so thoroughly that we only know of their existence because their persecutors bothered to chronicle the work of destruction. I am thinking of such cases as the many branches of the early Shi'a. Contemporary Syria and Iraq fit this classic mold.
Many analysts overestimated the power of these movements and underestimated the power of the state. We looked too much at the shah as a precedent, but he was a weak,
Fuller: Islamism is today the primary vehicle for the advancement of change and the overthrow of despotic regimes. It hasn't gained this position due to its purely liberal aspirations but rather because these authoritarian regimes have driven all other challengers out of politics. I would love to see liberal democracy as the primary movement in the Muslim world today, but we look in vain for strong liberal movements. In part, the liberal concept is weakly developed and there's very little grassroots understanding or support for it. This is not altogether surprising; liberalism is often closely associated with the Westernized elites that go to Cannes or Disneyland for vacations, educate their kids in the States, and speak French or English at home. Whether we like it or not, it is the Islamists who are left to press the cause of change; they are the ones who represent the grassroots, close to the neighborhoods and to "the people."
Kramer: That was true in the early 1990s but today the Islamist movements are in retreat. They lost their chances to build bridges to other elements of society as a result of their own aloofness and intolerance. Most of them are retrenching and others have been suppressed or had their leaders forced into exile. A vacuum has been created, and because of your fixation with Islamism, you may not be seeing it.
Fuller: An awful lot of these rulers, like Mubarak in Egypt or Karimov in Uzbekistan, are very happy to force their populations to choose between the jihadists and themselves; they don't want there to be a middle choice. I'm deeply concerned by the lack of alternative, the absence of a reformist movement, leaving us only with Islamists who are indeed quite untested.
Kramer: John makes much of the younger theoreticians of Islam but I would like to point to the younger entrepreneurs, people who are opening up to the world and beginning to take advantage of the opportunities offered by peace and economic reforms in the Middle East. These entrepreneurs, in league with a state interested in spurring growth, could bring about great and positive change. In other words, by focusing on Islamists, we might be looking completely in the wrong direction.
Esposito: We may be arguing over wording here. Part of what I would call Islamism, you (and Olivier Roy) call "post-Islamism." Put aside the terminology; we agree that Islamism is going in the direction of a less political and more societal emphasis, that it is a mainstream social movement.
I stick by my terms, not yours, because I don't want to say that Islamism includes only the militant, violent groups that are increasingly on the run, excluding those that are within the mainstream.
Pipes: What you're calling mainstream entails a huge shift from what was considered mainstream in much of the Muslim world as recently as thirty years ago. A profound Islamization is taking place, whether on the superficial level of women wearing hijab or on the more profound one of calling for an Islamic government. This suggests to me that there's an energy for applying the Shari‘a that will continue on the same trajectory for some time to come; that Islamism, whether in its more radical or less radical forms, is far from dead.
Fuller: We are talking about Islamism, after all, an exceptionally young phenomenon. It is only today—after centuries of colonialism, the Cold War straitjacket, and post-independence dictatorships—that we find Muslims for the first time in modern history in a position to advance their ideas in some political arenas. Much has changed in their thinking over the course of just a single generation. I am not surprised
Pipes: That mythical moderate Islamist regime that has never once been spotted, but is always around the next corner ...
Islamists in the West
MEQ: What about Islamists who live in the West?
Esposito: They show more change in attitudes and thinking because they have the freedom to think here, to be flexible. In a joint meeting not long ago of Muslim intellectuals from overseas and the United States, one of the main things to come out was that the freedoms found in Western Europe and America make changes possible. When you're functioning under siege and dealing with an authoritarian government, you are more likely to remain entrenched and militant.
Kramer: You're omitting an important detail, John—the fact that many of those who are engaged in this reformulation have been driven out not by the authoritarian regimes but by the Islamists. For example, there's Nasr Abu Zayd, sitting now in Leiden not because he was driven out by the Mubarak government but by the Islamists.
Pipes: I again note that the Muslim organizations and publications in the United States are overwhelming Islamist. I would have expected to see the conditions of freedom have the beneficial effect that John mentions, but instead it seems to offer license to the Saudi and Iranian regimes, among others, to sponsor Wahhabi and Khomeinist outfits; and for their acolytes to dominate the American scene.
Esposito: But when we look at Islam in America, we seem to presume (in contrast to our discussions of Jews and Christians) that all Muslims are religiously observant. In fact, religious loyalty is nominal for many, and more so all the time. There are plenty of secular Arab and South Asian organizations, for which Islam is a reference point for identity, not the driving idea. This explains why the religious organizations are oriented toward Islamism, why they seem to be more extreme, and why they seem to have more influence than is perhaps the case.
Fuller: Daniel's observation about the degree of extremism among some Muslim leaders in the United States is in many ways correct and I see several reasons for it . First, some Islamists are here precisely because they are extremists and they had to leave their countries of origin. Secondly, many of them are now fighting the Arab-Israeli conflict from here, so that the United States serves as a battleground that radicalizes them. Thirdly, it's the nature of many émigré or ethnic organizations to be more radical in their commitment than its community as a whole, to be more ideological, driving, and cutting-edge than their average followers.
MEQ: Should the U.S. government develop a policy toward Islamism or deal with each case—government, movement—differently?
Esposito: The U.S. government has general statements over the years on this subject enunciated by Edward Djerejian, Robert Pelletreau, and Ronald Neumann; these are perfectly adequate insofar as they articulate a policy towards Islam and Islamism, especially one that recognizes the right of Islamists to participate in the political process and the right to self-determination. That's important, for Islamic movements, like their secular counterparts, do have a right to self-determination so long as they don't engage in terrorism, etc. Other than this, case by case is the way to go in terms of a U.S. response.
Kramer: It is U.S. policy, and probably a wise one, not to develop a catch-all approach to Islamism, for this simply creates constraints. That said, the United States should treat Islamist movements with a great deal of suspicion because of these movements' basic ideological presuppositions. Let's go back to Tunisia: John pointed out that Ben ‘Ali is not a democrat and implied that Ghannushi won't be either. We can agree that in terms of democracy, neither of them live up to our standards. But that does not mean we should look at them similarly. In terms of U.S. interests, they are very different. You have to agree that the present regime is friendly and a regime led by Ghannushi would not be.
I would begin by giving the benefit of the doubt to those regimes amenable to the United States and to its interests in the region (forwarding the peace process, security in the Gulf, prevention of terrorism), and I would most definitely withhold the benefit of doubt from those regimes, Islamist or not, openly declaring themselves opposed to these interests.
Esposito: But look at the track record of Ben ‘Ali's government—from the way he came to power through a coup d'état to the fact that he wins an election by 99.91 percent of the vote, to his closing down human rights organizations before the election and then arresting his opposition. This has to be considered when defining U.S. interests. We have to be careful of the extreme kind of Cold War tendency to say that as long as somebody goes along with us on matters we consider important, we accept almost any human rights violations. For long-term U.S. interests, that creates too many problems.
Fuller: Every case has to be treated in its own right, but I would like to see the United States make some particular effort to show that it is not necessarily at war with Islamism.
Fuller: Rather than signaling that any time Islamists appear we will do our best to throttle that movement in the cradle, we should open-mindedly view its potential to influence political and economic reform positively. We pay a high price for a knee-jerk response to Islamism. As John notes, we can stifle change in the short run but not in the long term, for the Middle East desperately needs change—of regime, of society, and of nearly everything else. American policy today, by and large, has been strongly on the side of preserving an undesirable status quo at all costs, which means that we're leaning towards an explosion rather than an evolution.
Kramer: I'm not so sure that it's change that the Middle East needs at this point; it needs stability. From that stability, evolution can take place. I'm not sure dramatic change in government, social order, or international alignments will produce the desired evolution. It might well produce chaos and misery.
Esposito: But we've had stability, and it's the perpetual excuse for accepting the status quo with regard to a whole group of undemocratic regimes.
Kramer: You're forgetting the fact that the United States has interests, and any government's first obligation is to pursue its interests. Now, if on the margins of the pursuit of those interests it can also make advances in the areas that you've outlined—human rights, democratization—very well. But you cannot abdicate the pursuit of national interests, and cut yourself off from the powers that be, in order to pursue a dubious experiment in political engineering.
Esposito: But then don't write an article ten years from now that asks why authoritarianism remains endemic to the region; you've already given the answer to that.
Pipes: There seems to be a consensus here about a lack of U.S. policy toward Islamism that I would like to contest. John has named a bevy of officials who have declaimed on this subject and I hold that in the aggregate, they have articulated a cohesive and quite consistent statement on Islamism and Islam.
Kramer: But it's not been a guide to actual U.S. policy.
Pipes: I think it has been. The basic thesis concerns a distinction between extremists and moderates, with extremists defined as those Islamists who engage in violence and moderates those not doing so. This is U.S. policy: to take two extreme cases, Usama bin Ladin and Necmettin Erbakan, they clearly are dealt with in very distinct ways.
MEQ: Any concluding thoughts?
Fuller: First, Islam as a force in politics will be with us for a very long time—whether or not Islamists actually come to power. That's because the vocabulary of Islamic culture will remain the mainstream vehicle of political discourse in Muslim countries. Second, Islamism being here to stay, we have to deal with it. We should try to affect it, change it, help its evolution. The opposite approach, of repressing it, simply radicalizes it. Third, it is imperative that we work to open up Middle East political orders rather than support the closed systems that now exist—the chief source of most of the problems we see in the region today.
Pipes: Islamism presents the only ideologically vibrant challenge today to the reigning liberal outlook. Although seemingly only a minor irritant at this point, it has the capacity to cause enormous mischief. Those of us who appreciate individualism, democracy, and the free market must be ready to confront this totalitarian impulse, and to do so sooner rather than later.
Esposito: Islamism reflects a global phenomenon found today among many faiths. It includes a critique of the excesses of modernity, of authoritarian governments, and socioeconomic inequities; a call for greater political participation; and a reassertion of religion in private and public life. Islamism's causes are religio-cultural as well as political and economic. American foreign policy should discriminate between terrorist organizations that must be contained and repressed and those legitimate reform or opposition movements that have a legitimate right to participate in their countries' political systems.
Kramer: The late Elie Kedourie once wrote of Middle Eastern experts: "The prevalent fashion has been to proclaim the latest revolution as the herald of a new day, and the newest turbulence as the necessary and beneficent prelude to an epoch of orderliness and justice." This is how many Western observers of an earlier generation reacted to Arabism and Nasser; and this has been the almost automatic response among many Western observers to Islamism. Fortunately, the peoples of the Middle East are turning their backs on Islamism, for they have seen and lived its faults. The irony is that, for a certain kind of Western academic, Islam has indeed become the solution. One cannot predict the future fortunes of Islamism with any certainty. But one can be sure that it will still have adherents among the experts, long after it has lost its appeal among the believers.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes