Reuel Gerecht is someone whose work I admire - he is an insightful and prolific writer on matters Middle Eastern, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard. In 1997, I called his book, Know Thine Enemy (written under the pseudonym, Edward Shirley) a "quite brilliant spy's report."
But Gerecht has lately become the most prominent voice of the responsible right to advocate welcoming radical Islam's coming to power. Toward this end, he offers aphorisms such as "Bin Laden-ism can only be gutted by fundamentalists" and "Moderate Muslims are not the answer. Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists are our salvation from future 9/11s."
In a short book, The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists and the Coming of Arab Democracy, Mr. Gerecht lays out his views. Unlike the appeasers and the woolly-minded, he neither pre-empts nor deludes himself. His analysis is hardheaded, even clever. But his conclusion is fundamentally flawed.
How should Washington address radical Islam's continuing rise among Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims? Mr. Gerecht's reply emerges from the contrasting histories of Iran and Algeria.
In Iran, the Islamists have ruled the country since 1979, prompting a widespread disaffection from radical Islam that has even reached the upper ranks of the religious hierarchy. Time magazine recently quoted one young Iranian calling his society "an utter catastrophe" and explaining that the youth there try to act as though the Islamic republic does not even exist. In Gerecht's words, "Twenty-six years after the fall of the shah, Iran's jihadist culture is finished."
Islamism has turned out to be its own best antidote. (Not coincidentally, so was communism.)
In Algeria, however, Mr. Gerecht finds that the repression of radical Islam led to disaster. As Islamists were on their way to an electoral victory in 1992, the military stepped in and aborted the voting, leading to years of civil war. Washington acceded to this coup d'état because of what Mr. Gerecht calls a belief that "the dictatorial regimes we supported, no matter how unpleasant, were more likely to evolve politically in a direction we wanted than elected fundamentalists who did not really believe in democracy."
Looking back, Mr. Gerecht deems the Algeria policy a mistake. An Islamist electoral victory in 1992 "might have diverted the passion and energies" of those many Algerians who took up violence. As in Iran, Islamism in power would likely have stimulated a rejection of the simplistic ideology that Islam has all the answers.
He concludes that Washington should put aside its misgivings and encourage Sunni Islamists to compete in elections. Let them come to power, discredit themselves, alienate their subject populations, and then be thrown into the dustbin of history.
To my slogan, "Radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution," Mr. Gerecht replies, "Moderate Muslims are not the answer." His view can be summarized as "Radical Islam is both the problem and the solution." This homeopathic approach, admittedly, has a certain logic. Socially, Iran is in better shape than Algeria.
But the Islamist grip on power in Iran has exacted an immense human and strategic toll. Tehran engaged in six years (1982-88) of offensive military operations against Iraq and currently is intensely aspiring to deploy nuclear weaponry. Algiers poses no comparable problems. Had Islamists taken power in Algeria, the negative repercussions would have been similarly devastating.
In accepting the horrors of Islamist rule, Gerecht is unnecessarily defeatist. Rather than passively reconcile itself to decades of totalitarian rule, Washington should actively help Muslim countries navigate from autocracy to democracy without passing through an Islamist phase.
This is indeed achievable. As I wrote a decade ago in response to the Algerian crisis, instead of focusing on quick elections, which almost always benefit the Islamists, the American government should shift its efforts to slower and deeper goals: "political participation, the rule of law (including an independent judiciary), freedom of speech and religion, property rights, minority rights, and the right to form voluntary organizations (especially political parties)." Elections should only follow on the achievement of these steps. Realistically, they could well take decades to achieve.
Elections should culminate the democratic process, not start it. They ought to celebrate civil society successfully achieved. Once such a civil society exists (as it does in Iran but not in Algeria), voters are unlikely to vote Islamists into power.
Oct. 26, 2005 update: For coverage of my debate with Reuel Gerecht at the Nixon Center, see Ali H. Aslan, "Debates Flare over 'Shall we Rely on Islamists for Democracy?'"
Oct. 5, 2012 update: For coverage of my next debate with Reuel Gercht, this one at Intelligence Squared in New York, see "Audience Does Not Agree 'Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators'."