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Should the West Support Islamist Governments?

On June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsi became President of Egypt. He represents the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and social movement founded in 1928 by Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. After 84 years, Morsi is aiming to fulfil al-Banna's dream of a socially balanced, male dominated Islamic society independent of Western powers and their transnational companies.

Although the Brothers appear to have morphed from a religious order into a democratic party there can be no doubt that their overriding objective remains unchanged: to transform the mildly secular Egypt that existed from the days of the monarchy to the Mubarak decades into a pious Banna-Land which rejects and combats Western influence.

With its 78 million citizens, Egypt is the giant among Arab countries. As one of his first actions, Morsi condemned the Assad regime in Syria and expressed support for the insurgents whose large majority shares Morsi's Sunni religion. Morsi has not forgotten that Assad's father in 1982 mercilessly slaughtered some 20,000 to 40,000 followers of the Syrian Muslim Brothers.

What happens when a country is taken over by an Islamist party can be watched in Tunisia. Despite its early promises of pluralism and playing by the rules of democracy, the majority Ennahda party is gradually moving Tunisia toward a Sharia dominated Islamic state.

The way this happens is simple and effective: religious fanatics of the Salafist movement organize flash mobs to protest against allegedly un-Islamic activities or events. Burning embassies, killing ambassadors, disturbing TV programs, concerts or fashion shows, molesting unveiled women — there is always a reason to scare people with violence; to kidnap or kill foreigners.

All the dominating government party needs to do is wait and let things take their course. By not interfering with the flash mobs, the government allows the Salafists to do the dirty job of gradually pressing the country into an Islamic mold and whip up xenophobia. This is what is happening in Tunisia and, to a lesser degree, in Libya. This has already happened in Sudan and is likely to happen in post-Assad Syria.

This is also what is occurring in Egypt. The junior partner in goverment, the Islamist bloc of the Al-Nour Party can be relied on to do the dirty job for the Brothers. Morsi can relax and watch his country change.

Sometimes, small changes will yield huge results. If, for instance, the government decides to stop subsidizing contraceptive pills and give subsidies instead to producers of Viagra or its imitates — as is happening in Tunisia — the long term effects are obvious: the birth rate and the incidence of illegal abortions will shoot up. In already overpopulated countries suffering from high levels of youth unemployment, this strategy can be expected to perpetuate poverty, despair and unrest.

However, allowing the Salafists to run the show is a double-edged sword. It allows the ruling party to achieve change without dirtying its hands. But it strengthens the lunatic fringe which will challenge the majority party in the next elections. In order to prevent the Salafists from absorbing too much power, the majority party itself is forced to move toward the extreme in order to more effectively compete with the Salafists.

A textbook case of this development is currently offered by Turkey. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan started out with a moderate, pluralistic and vigorously pro-European attitude. Erdogan even tried to bring the restive Kurds back into the Turkish mainstream.

Under constant pressure from the powerful Islamist movement of Fethullah Gülen whose disciples make up a large share, if not the majority, of the members of Erdogan's Development and Justice Party AKP, Erdogan himself and his government slowly moved in radical directions.

Pluralism gave way to Islamic traditionalism and Ottoman style hegemonism. Critics and journalists were persecuted and, if possible, jailed. The pro-European drive has all but petered out. The Gülen movement can praise itself as a pillar and change agent of modern Turkey. The Gülen newspaper Zaman, one of the media owned by the movement, is considered close to the government.

Turkey experienced some seventy years of secular governments before the religious backlash of the AKP came. There are many reasons for this change, one being the abysmally low levels of education, especially of women.

Poor education favors resistance to change, especially if it comes in the shape of a revolution from above. Turkey was forced into the 20th century by the will of one single person: Kemal Pasha Atatürk. At roughly the same time, neighboring Iran was forcibly modernized by one single man: Reza Pahlevi. He ousted the pious ruling dynasty, the Qajjars.

A century earlier, Egypt was modernized by a powerful and cunning foreigner: Mohamed Aly Pasha. He killed all exponents of the former regime, the Mamluks.

In Tunisia, the local Beys enjoyed indipendence although nominally belonging to the Ottoman empire. After decades of engaging in piracy which caused retaliation by France and the U.S., Tunisia became a French colony in 1881. In 1958 it regained indipendence but the French style of modernization and secular rule continued under the governments of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In these four countries, a largely illiterate population was forced to accept moderrnization without understanding the need for it. The constant trickle of modernization was seen as an intrusion of Christian ideas and lifestyle questioning and undermining the simple ways of religious tradition.

Only after decades of Kemalism, the Turks dared to vote in Necmettin Erbakan, the first openly Islamist prime minister who was deposed but later followed by Erdogan.

In Iran, the people suffered modernization by Shah Reza Pahlevi and his son Mohammed Reza until Ayatollah Khomeiny and his clergy gave them a chance to return to the theocratic ways of the former Qajjars.

In Egypt, the population endured some 130 years of being governed by the Albanian dynasty founded by Mohamed Aly Pasha, first with nominal Ottoman overlords, later with Btitish colonial supervision. Then came the young officers from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, offering welcome nationalism but at the price of even more modernization.

Now there is the Muslim Brotherhood at the helm, finally leading the Egyptians back to where the Mamluks left off in 1811: to an indigenous political system proposing a life style based on the Quran and the Hadiths, rejecting modernity and foreign intervention. The friendly noises the Morsi government occasionally makes when using foreign language only serve to put the West at ease and retain financial support and favorable trade arrangements. Without Western subsidies and food donations, Egypt would be in deep trouble, a fact forcing the Brothers to bend their own rules, at least temporarily.

In Tunisia, Ben Ali copied Hosni Mubarak's policy of repression of Islamist groups and activities, driving their leaders into exile. In this way, he alienated large parts of the population, especially in rural areas. After Ben Ali's departure, the Islamist parties were voted into power.

Terrible civil wars in Algeria, Lebanon and Libya seem to have weakened the popular enthusiam for a return to the good old pre-modernization days. In Iraq it appears still undecided where the pendulum will swing because of the Sunni-Shia-Kurdish stalemate.

For the West the situation in the Middle East is far from easy. Basically, as President Obama pointed out, the new Islamist governments are neither friends nor foes. Iran has become an enemy because of its nuclear ambitions.

How will the West react if the Egyptian Brothers strive to obtain nuclear arms by copying the example of Iran? Sunni-Shia rivalry will induce the Brothers to balance Iran's attempts to gain nuclear hegemony over the region. Lack of oil is no guarantee that shortage of funds will prevent a country from developing the bomb, as poor North Korea taught the world. Saudi Arabia appears keen to have the bomb; it could team up with Morsi in a joint venture without funding problems.

The current state of Mideastern politics offers a few pleasant conclusions. First of all: it will be impossible for Western powers to befriend the Brothers and their siblings. The best the West can hope for is something between mutual disregard and low level conflict.

A fairly good way of dealing with a Mideastern theocracy was demonstrated by Germany in its relationship with Iran which prevailed prior to the current sanctions. This relation was characterized by intense trade but few and low level political contacts. Since 1984, no high level German politician has visited Iran and no Ayatollah ever came to Germany.

Applying this low key approach to relations with countries such as Egypt. Tunisia and perhaps even the AKP dominated Turkey would of course rule out any economic assistance. The US support of Egypt to the tune of $3 billion/year could not be maintained. Also, the EU would have to check if Tunisia still qualifies for funds from the Mediterranean development programs. With each year of Erdogan rule in Turkey, prospects of the country joining the EU are dimming. The recent hegemonial and Islamist policies of the AKP are clearly not palatable to European powers.

Sad as it is, the rift between the budding Islamic theocracies and the West is deepening. Yet there is reason to hope for change in a distant future. The elections in Libya and Algeria have shown Islamist parties surprisingly weak.

Generations are succeeding each other rapidly in the young populations of the Middle East. All the West can do is hope that a new generation will detach itself from their fathers' — and especially their mothers'— infatuation with the old religious ways of life.

The Brothers and their likes are the winners of the day. But time is working against them.

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—— Ihsan al-Tawil