Sunday, November 17, 2013

America, Islam and democracy: A cautionary tale


Obama had tried to turn a new leaf with Islamic countries out of sincere but misguided perceptions regarding the nature of Islam.

Obama speaks, June 25, 2013
Photo by: REUTERS
Islam is on the rise in the United States and in Europe and Jihadist organizations are fighting to impose Allah’s rule by force on the world at large. We are seeing today a resurgence of Islam as an unlikely result of the failure of modernism in Muslim countries and the deep feelings of frustration it entails.

Taught almost from the cradle the superiority of Islam, the last revealed religion and the only true one, with the universe fated to be Islamic from the oceans to space, young Muslims coming of age discover that they live in a world of poverty and social and scientific backwardness. This may explain the attraction of radical organizations such as al-Qaida which proclaim that only a return to living according to the Sharia as it was at the time of the Prophet can restore the glory of Islam.

US President Barack Obama has chosen not to take into consideration the strength of this world trend which has deep religious, political, economic and even psychological roots.
Immediately upon assuming office, he decided to try appeasement with Islam. Even though it has failed repeatedly, it is still at the core of his policy as is demonstrated by his efforts to reach an understanding with Iran concerning the nuclear program of that country.

In his inaugural speech in January 2009 he stressed Islam’s contribution to the development of the United States before touching on the contribution of Judaism. A few months later he went to Ankara and to Cairo to develop his vision to Islamic countries: “I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Unfortunately any Moslem will tell you that this is not true. Democracy and Islam are fundamentally opposed and lofty rhetoric cannot change that fact.

Democracy is rooted in free elections to a parliament where men make laws, while the Shari’a states unequivocally that Allah is the only lawmaker; it expressly forbids political parties vying for elections. The Muslim Brotherhood did not have a political party until the fall of Mubarak. It then formed one because it saw the opportunity of achieving power democratically.

A move which was condemned by Al-Qaida in the name of “the purity of Islam.” In Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries governed on the basis of Shari’a, there is no elected parliament but a Shura council, a consulting Islamic body appointed by the ruler. There are elected parliaments in some Arab countries following military coups, but they are no more than window dressing to present a democratic front to the West. The so-called Arab Spring saw the fall of several dictatorships and elections were held, bringing to power in Tunisia and in Egypt the Muslim Brothers, with the West hailing the move and dubbing pragmatic or moderate a movement which laid the foundations for the growth of radical Islam and gave birth to all Jihadist organizations; a movement which furthermore openly advocates the revival of the Caliphate.

IT IS hard to see the principles of “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” in Islam, a religion which proclaims its superiority over all others, sees women as inferiors, condemns to death Muslims converting to other religions and prescribes horrific corporal punishment such as cutting limbs. There have been some changes in recent years and the Sharia is no longer observed to the letter but the basic tenets of Islam remain and no one dares suggest a more lenient interpretation which would take into account the new reality. Indeed it was expressly forbidden in the 11th century after centuries of debate.

There was an important semantic aspect in the policy of appeasement of the new president. The use of expressions like “radical Islam, Islamic militants, Islamic or Jihadi terror” were banned in 2010. John Brennan, then Deputy National Security Advisor in charge of fighting terrorism (and today head of the CIA) said that one should no longer refer to enemies of the United States as Jihadists or Islamists “for jihad is a holy struggle, an effort to purify, for a legitimate purpose.” New manuals for the use of intelligence and counter-terrorism institutions were issued in accordance with the new guidelines.

Needless to say terrorist organizations kept on clamoring that they were acting in the name of Islam.

The American president then called for opening a dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan – perhaps the most extremist Jihadist organization. The movement, which brought ruin to the country, destroyed along the way the famed Buddha sculptures, representations of the human form being banned by the Sharia. The call for dialogue was regarded by most of the world and especially by the Afghanistan president as a show of weakness. The dialogue was doomed before it started even though Qatar had agreed to let the Taliban open an office in Doha (it did not take advantage of that offer).

However it is in Egypt that the failure of Obama’s policy is most evident. The United States had made an all out effort to support the Brotherhood. According to a New York Times report dated February 4, 2011, that is a few days before the fall of Mubarak, the White House expected that the new government to emerge from the crisis would include Muslim Brothers. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, declared on June 30 of the same year that “We welcome dialogue with those Muslim Brotherhood members who wish to talk with us,” while officials said that the U.S government had decided to expand contacts with the Brotherhood.

These were not their first contacts. There had been an interesting episode in the fifties: the CIA had tried to recruit the Brotherhood to fight “infidel” Soviet Union; President Eisenhower received in his office a delegation led by Said Ramadan, who had been the secretary of the founder of the movement Hassan el Banna.

In 2009 Nicole Champion, head of the Egyptian desk in the State department declared to Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that “the United States carries out a dialogue with the Muslim Brothers” but refused to reveal the content of that dialogue. It is likely that there were talks from time to time but it was not a serious dialogue. What is beyond dispute is that after the fall of Mubarak the American president gambled on the Brotherhood, either because he was convinced that it was the only significant political force in the Egyptian arena or because of his wish to turn a new leaf in the relations between his country and Islam. The fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had close relations with the movement may have been a contributing factor.

In any case the contacts were in the open after Clinton’s declaration. Egyptian media talked at length of the political and even financial support America was granting the movement. Following Morsi’s election to the presidency Anne Paterson, then American Ambassador in Cairo, expressed her support for him in a number of occasions. This angered many Egyptians and when Hillary Clinton visited Egypt in July 2012 her car was pelted with tomatoes while protesters waved banners condemning the US position. Militants in the revolutionary movements which had brought down Mubarak refused to meet with her. The American administration did not falter in its support when Morsi took steps to enforce an Islamic dictatorship in spite of the growing opposition to his moves.

A few days before the mass demonstrations of June 30, 2013, and the arrest of Morsi, Anne Peterson was still talking derisively about that opposition.

America lost no time in showing its displeasure with the arrest but stopped short of calling it a military coup, which would have entailed cutting off all aid to Egypt. A few weeks later Obama decided nevertheless on a half measure and withheld “temporarily” part of the military assistance badly needed by Egypt to fight Islamic terror in Sinai as well as armed attacks by partisans of the deposed President. Egyptians saw this an insult and a blow to a country which for decades had been a faithful ally of the United States. Anti-American feelings rose to an all-time high while the new regime had to turn to Saudi Arabia and to the Gulf Emirates to get some financial relief and is now turning to Russia to acquire military equipment. A move eagerly welcomed by Moscow. A Russian warship is already present in Alexandria and both Foreign and Defense Ministers are visiting Cairo this week.

ONE WOULD say that America shot itself in the foot.

The new regime is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood which represents radical Islam – something that is in the American interest. It is also keen to establish close relations with the West – but gets the cold shoulder.

This is detrimental to the stability of the Middle East, as other allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States don’t understand what America is trying to achieve. Obama shifting policies on Syria did not help. Kerry’s trip to the area last week was a long overdue effort at fence-mending.

There is every reason to believe that the next step in the policy of appeasement towards Islam will be some precarious deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program which won’t stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons at a later stage. Such a deal would not satisfy Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; not even Turkey and Egypt. It would in all likelihood lead to a race for nuclear armament in the Middle East which would ultimately endanger not only the region but the whole world.

Obama had tried to turn a new leaf with Islamic countries out of sincere but misguided perceptions regarding the nature of Islam. The move was doomed from the start and had catastrophic results. Anti-American feelings in the region are growing; long time allies are worried. Why did it happen? Is America tired of fighting after Iraq and Afghanistan? Did the president truly believe that a compromise with radical Islam was possible? Or is it that the Middle East no longer matters now that the United States is producing enough oil thanks to the new fracking techniques and is no longer dependent on a regular supply from the region?

 The writer is former ambassador to Egypt.

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