America’s foreign-policy is, to put it mildly, in turmoil. But just some reflection will allow us to think coolly and calmly about our relationships to the Muslim and Arab worlds. I’d argue that America, in need of friends and partners in a time of economic change and global realignment, can find a tremendous ally in the popular uprisings in the Middle East. But it will take bold, decisive leadership, clear-headed vision, and a willingness to work with partners, not simply talk down to them. If President Obama takes strong steps, he can ensure that things move more peacefully; indecision, or worse still backing the wrong side, might only produce a cycle of ugly violence and retaliation, much like what gripped Iran in the late 1970’s.
1. Egypt’s not Iran: Talk of Islamic revolution is seriously premature. In Iran, there were a lot of different forces fighting the Shah, secularists, communists, socialists, Islamists, and all of them were of course nationalists. Some believed in armed protest, some believed in clerical rule, some believe in peaceful transitions of power. Unfortunately, a cycle of escalating violence, often centered around funeral processions for “martyred” protestors–something we’re apparently starting to see in Cairo right now–created a critical mass of people who refused anything less than the overthrow of the detested Shah Pahlavi.
Ayatollah Khomeini became the figurehead of the revolution, but even when he returned to the country in triumph, it wasn’t clear that Iran would become a theocratic Islamic Republic. That was the product of a number of decisions within and without the country, which were fueled by paranoia, suspicion and grievous misunderstanding. Iranians were rightly furious about our assistance in overthrowing their democratically elected government in 1953 – remember that whenever anyone says democracies don’t attack democracies – and suspected that we might try the same thing again.
So we got the hostage crisis, additionally fueled by Iranian anger over the CIA’s assistance for the Shah’s regime, and especially its brutal security services. We, on the other hand, were afraid that Iran was going to try to export its revolution (violently), and Iranian rhetoric indicated a fierce desire to overthrow American allies across the region. We threw our support behind Saddam Hussein and his invasion, and the result has been years of mutual animosity, suspicion and even violence. Egypt doesn’t have to go that way. And there’s no reason to suspect it will – but a big part of that depends on how we react, stage by stage.
2. Iran’s Not Egypt: The difference between popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand and Iran’s 2009 protests is this: in the former cases, the regime is symbolized by a single person, who rules at whim, and has no real ideology that resonates with the people. Iran’s government had democratic credentials, albeit of an imperfect sort, and even after the 2009 elections, a significant minority of Iranians have a stake in the Islamic Republic and many do find the regime’s ideology compelling at some level.
Third World nations generally push in one of three sometimes overlapping directions: they emphasize popular, often social democracy, they emphasize economic growth at the expense of popular participation, or they construct a narrative of resistance, of us against the world (in addition to Iran, we can think of Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea in this league of revolutionary gentlemen). Such resistance narratives are harder to fight against, because they do echo a deeply felt sense of national pride.
Iranians find it harder to fight the regime because they are not just fighting a figurehead, they are also fighting an idea: revolution for Iran’s true independence after decades of colonial and capitalist humiliation. As a storyline, it’s not easy to push back against, especially because Iran did experience a century of manipulation by foreign powers. In Egypt, the dictator has no real ideology. In Tunisia, it was the same. People were behind Ben Ali (and Mubarak) out of a mix of fear and bribery, until they weren’t.
3. Presidents Like Pharaohs: While I’m obviously not a fan of authoritarian governments, distinctions do need to be made. In the Arab world, there are republics and then there are monarchies. Surprisingly, the monarchies tend to be more durable and more stable than republics. Republics have often featured messy transitions of power, exceptional brutality (Assad in Syria and Saddam in Iraq take that prize), and strange ideological proclivities (Qaddafi says it all) that have only recently exhausted themselves. Nasser was also a dictator, but he certainly stood for something.
The most recent round of republican dictators, in which we include Egypt and Tunisia are boring, uninspiring, and with no vision for their societies. In Arab monarchies like Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf countries, the rulers have many family and patronage ties to their populations, creating reciprocal relationships. They also tend to be more creative with their wealth (again, compare oil-rich Algeria and Libya to Kuwait and Dubai). Thus we shouldn’t confuse what is happening in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, for what might happen in other Arab states.
4. Think Democratic Caliphate: The shift towards more democratic politics in many Muslim countries is to be applauded, appreciated, and acted on. In countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, and even Pakistan and Bangladesh, despite all their imperfections, democratic policies and procedures are taking root. There is a long way to go in some of these countries, and nobody’s saying that the way is perfect or even secure in all these countries.
But now that the Arab world is joining along, the push towards democracy could unleash serious economic growth of a meaningful kind. (As well as a huge change in how Islam is practiced, how Islamic institutions develop and how Muslims conceive of their interfaith and intrafaith identities.)
These are generally very young countries, with rapidly growing populations, and could become tremendous engines of economic growth. This is the real opportunity for the United States, and we can only find it if we shift out of a mindset that approaches Arabs and Islam primarily and even exclusively through a security lens.
5. Where Does Israel Fit In? Israel has had a pretty tough previous several years. Of course, over three decades ago, Israel lost a close ally in Iran. In the last few years, Israel has gone to war inconclusively with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is now in control of Lebanon, to a greater degree than ever before, and has significantly upgraded its arsenal. The Palestinian Authority is weak and being discredited as you read this, in part through the Palestine papers Al Jazeera has released. Israel has lost the closeness of its relationship with Turkey, and is now in danger of losing its close alliance with Egypt (after Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt are by far the most military powerful countries in the Middle East). But if Israel’s leadership can see it, democratic governments will be better for its security. What other option is there?
With destabilizing protests in Yemen, a country that seems to be ever on the verge of splitting up, popular discontent throughout the region could turn ugly, or at least strongly unfavorable for Israel and for us. We need to rethink who we are working with in the region, what our short term goals are, and what our long-term vision is for the Middle East. Our desire to create democracy, an explanation only introduced after the fact of war, didn’t do very much for Iraq. While there is a coalition government in Iraq, it came at the expense of massive violence and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Conversely, governments we are allied with and supported have been overthrown in the past, popularly and indigenously, and it seems the same is happening in Egypt right now, another ally of ours, and another defeat for our policy. The new Middle East we thought would come from Iraq and Lebanon is instead coming from North Africa.
6. We’re Still a World Power. It’s Time to Take Advantage of That: In short, we lost the initiative, and local forces are now shaping realities on the ground in place of our behind-the-scenes diplomacy and authoritarian allies. When Arab and Muslim states go democratic, they will become much more assertive, but also much more responsible — and thus better partners for us. With real mandates and popular governments, they are able to make difficult decisions on peace and progress, and they are also able to stand up and tell us when we are moving in an unwise direction. You can take the Turkish parliament’s 2003 refusal to endorse our invasion of Iraq as one example of that.
If we are willing to listen to the people, we will find for ourselves tremendous allies. course, means a lot of rethinking on both sides, but there is no reason why America and the Muslim world cannot be friends. With a president whose very name is derived from the same root as that of the dictator of Egypt (b-r-k, implying blessing, hence Barack and Mubarak), we are not the country we were even a decade ago. And there are many cultural, religious, social and civilizational similarities between Islam and the West. If we can intelligently capitalize on those, we can find a renewed energy and viable partnerships.
7. The American Option: Who else are the people of the Muslim world going to turn to in friendship? They clearly want democracy, by the tens of thousands, so why would they choose to ally themselves with authoritarian states like China and Russia? They only turn in those directions out of assumptions of incompatibility, and histories that need to be positively and responsibly transcended. This is America’s undeniable chance to seize the initiative, to show real global leadership, and to build partnerships that will allow us to help shape the world in a positively democratic direction.
But that will not be a unilateral project, and it will be all the better, for us and for the rest of the planet, as the product of real consensus. And I do believe, that despite his missteps, President Obama is able to see that and can point us in the right direction. The first step is to get out of the mindset that sees religious Muslims as antithetical to democracy, and that demands a conflict between Islam and progress. Muslims in the Muslim-majority world are already way beyond these stereotypes — it’s time we get past them, too.
Here’s to courage and vision. We’ll need it, or otherwise things could become much more anarchic, much more violent, and much more horrible for the region.
Haroon Moghul is Executive Director of The Maydan Institute, a consulting and communications project devoted to enhancing understanding between Muslims and the West. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He graduated from NYU with a B.A. in Philosophy and Middle Eastern Studies, and he holds an M.A. and M.Phil. from Columbia University in Middle East, South Asian and African Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia, focusing on Islamist political theory in colonial India.