Monday, May 16, 2005

The West's Next Mistake?

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
As pluralist politics makes inroads in the greater Middle East, the outside world would have to look for new interlocutors there. Under the traditional despotic systems, all an outsider had to do was clinch a deal with the big cheese, bribe his entourage and browbeat his rivals. But with the breakup of the status quo under the double impact of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that cozy system is crumbling fast.

Many in the West are already looking for new partners and friends. The most fashionable idea, expressed in a number of op-eds and lectures in recent weeks, is that the Western democracies should seek a strategic alliance with Islamist parties. Some even specify an alliance with Shiites from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.

This is bad, even perilous, advice. READ MORE

To be sure, the advent of pluralism has so far benefited the Shiites — who have a share in power in Afghanistan for the first time ever, are the dominant power in Iraq's new government and perceive new vistas in post-occupation Lebanon.

So people who had been denied a fair share of power solely because of their religious beliefs now have a chance to be treated as full citizens of their homelands. This doesn't mean that the once-excluded should now be regarded as exclusive allies of the West. There is no more justification for "positive discrimination" for Shiites than in any other case. What other democracies should insist upon are level political and social playing fields, in which no one is excluded on grounds of faith and/or ethnic background. ...

Those who claim that the alternative to despotism is Islamist rule need to learn more about the history of the Middle East. ...

The Islamist parties owe their very existence to despotic regimes that either encouraged their creation or helped it by crushing other, non-religious, parties and movements. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Iran, Islamist parties came into being after those in power had shut the door to all other political movements. In Iran in 1979, for example, the Islamists walked through a door the shah had opened for them by banning all forms of political dissent.

Wherever and whenever other forces have been allowed to function more or less normally, the Islamists have failed to dominate. This is borne out by dozens of more or less free elections held in several Muslim countries.

Malaysia: The Islamists have never won more than 13 percent of the vote.

Indonesia: Always below 17 percent.

Pakistan: The Islamists have never won power except in partnership with military rulers.

Algeria: In the latest presidential election, the firebrand Islamist candidate ended up with 1 percent of the vote.

Jordan: The Islamists have managed to draw 25 percent of the shares in successive elections.

Afghanistan: A dozen or so Islamist parties scored a miserable 3.2 percent in the nation's first-ever presidential election.

Gaza and the West Bank: Hamas, the militant Islamist outfit, won some 33 percent of the votes in this month's municipal elections, far behind the secular Fatah movement's 60 percent.

Iraq: The United Iraqi Alliance should not be regarded as an Islamist outfit. Although its key components are Islamist groups, the manifesto on which it won 42 percent of the vote was in no way Islamist. The next Iraqi general election, to be contested by parties under their separate banners, will reveal the true strength of both Shiite and Sunni Islamist outfits. My guess is that, together, they will not draw more than 25 percent.

Iran: Elections there are no barometer: Only candidates pre-approved by the Islamist authorities are allowed to stand. A recent poll of voters by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) showed that the leading Islamist presidential candidate Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attracted only 13.8 percent support. It is clear that a credible anti-regime candidate could, if allowed to stand, win the presidency hands down in next month's elections.

Turkey represents a special case. So long as they stood on a clearly religious platform, its Islamist forces never managed to win more than 13 percent in successive elections over decades. In 2003, however, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a patchwork of Islamist and other populist groups, gained 34 percent of the vote and captured the government. But the AKP has gone out of its way to appear and act as a secular right-of-center conservative party, not an Islamist movement seeking a radical transformation of society. Even then, Turkey's proudly secular parties together won 66 percent of the vote. Had they not gone to battle divided, the AKP would not be in power.

Within the second term of President Bush, all countries in the Middle East region, except Libya and Saudi Arabia, will be holding elections. Who should the United States and other major democracies pick as allies?

No one in particular.

All that the West needs to do is to insist on free and fair elections — and then accept the verdict of the people. The experience of the AKP shows that America and other major democracies can and must work with whichever party has won power through legal and democratic channels in a Muslim country.

The idea of an alliance with Islamists against others has already been tested by the Shah in Iran, Anwar Sadat in Egypt and the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia, among many other Muslim countries, with results that we all know. The dumbest thing for the United States to do would be to repeat that fatal error in the name of realpoltik.

It is, of course, possible that some of the emerging democratic regimes might be tempted to play anti-Bush, if not actually anti-American tunes to heighten their own profile — just as do Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder.

All that does not matter in the long run. What matters is that democratic regimes will not allow terrorist groups to use their territory and resources for operations against the West. The spread of democracy is the only reliable measure of success in the war on terrorism.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.