This might be a longer blog post than usual, but Hudson Institute Center for Eurasian Policy director Zeyno Baran has written something that clearly and succinctly distinguishes the ambitions of Islamists versus the rest of the Muslim world.
Baran was among the panelists last week at a forum sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust on America's role in promoting democracy abroad. The 100-minute discussion, moderated by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, featured a good exchange of ideas and an assessment of the challenges we now face. It can be seen here. But it is Baran's paper, "The Case for Liberal Democracy," that really merits attention.
America is losing ground in the global war of ideas, she argues, in large part because it has sought short-term successes over a longer term strategy of how to best promote democracy. The push for elections helped legitimize Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006. That wasn't what U.S. policy makers had in mind. Baran starts with a basic question:
"Why is Islamism such a threat to democracy? Because in Islamist ideology, Islamic law sharia regulates every aspect of an individual's life; since it is considered to be God's law, no compromises are possible. The holistic nature of Islamist ideology makes it fundamentally incompatible with the self-criticism and exercise of free will necessary for human beings to form truly liberal and democratic societies."
To Islamists, democratic elections are merely the mechanism to gain the power needed to implement sharia, which can fool naïve westerners who think elections by themselves are signs of progress in the Arab and Muslim world:
"There are Muslims who are democrats and who accept democratic rule of law, of course—I proudly count myself among them—but Islamists' understanding of these terms is very different. Islamists have not only hijacked traditional Islam but also concepts like democracy, freedom and justice. They are sincere when they use these terms, but for an Islamist, ‘justice' means ‘the full implementation of sharia law,' while ‘freedom' means ‘free to merge religion with the state.'"
The bottom line is that the U.S. does not understand what Islamism is. As Baran said during the December 10 forum, "Muslims can be democrats just like any other religious people can be. Islamists cannot and are not."
Participating in elections provides a veneer of moderation that cloaks a radical agenda, Baran argues in her paper. It is a concession that makes it possible to bring about "an uncompromising worldview." That is why the Muslim Brotherhood has advocates who say it is a moderate group despite its goal of making sharia the governing basis of society:
"It is true that most affiliates of this movement do not directly call for terrorist acts, are open to dialogue with the West, and participate in democratic elections. Yet this is not sufficient for them to qualify as "moderate," especially when their ideology is so extreme. Turning a blind eye to the Brotherhood and its ideological extremism—even if done for the sake of combating violent extremism and terrorism—is a direct threat to the democratic order."
True democratic reform requires a long term investment in political stability and education. Hungry people who live in fear won't embrace democracy. They need to learn critical thinking skills and feel confident in their ability to provide for their families. Such changes don't come quickly or cheap, Baran acknowledges. But:
"[C]ompared to how much US is spending on wars and military budget, the amount will be minimal with huge returns."
It's an important paper in understanding why Islamists, even when they embrace a path of democracy over violence, still harbor an agenda that is antithetical to a free society. Read the whole thing here.