Defining ‘Mildly Islamist’

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I came across a vexing phrase while reading The Economist this week. In an article about political skullduggery in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) of Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan was described as “mildly Islamist.”

Mildly Islamist. Not as Islamist as some? Promoting Islamic rule by stealth rather than overnight decree? More open minded?

Over the last decade we have become accustomed to the rather crude division of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims into “moderate” and “extremist” camps. While this distinction is designed to look cognizant of internal differences, the questionable assumption behind it is that Muslims are, and will always be, uniformly distrustful of western liberal values. Therefore, those Muslims who are prepared to reach an accommodation are the “moderates,” while those who advocate violent confrontation are the “extremists.”

Being the louder camp, the extremists get all the attention. Several western commentators now assert that most extremists are moderate in their extremism, while some, like the AK Party in Turkey, can even be called mild.

This seems to me less like logic, and more like prayer. If only we keep tightening the definition of who is an extremist, we’ll get more moderates. And moderates are people we can talk to.

The week before presenting Turkey’s rulers as the acceptable face of Islamism, The Economist published an editorial headlined “Dialogue is the best defense.” The editorial pointed out that the Islamist parties reaping the benefits of the last year’s convulsions in the Arab world share a point of origin in the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood. However, the paper counseled, we need not fear that each country where Islamists come to power will end up like Gaza under the brutal rule of Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Ikhwan.

To avoid a Gaza outcome, The Economist recommends more dialogue and more cooperation with those Islamists who eschew violence, and who recognize immediate economic and social priorities. “...[T]he answer is to help ensure that reform-minded Islamists will not turn more radical themselves,” the editorial stated. “Engagement makes that less likely, because it would reinforce the constitutional checks that cement a pluralist society.”

On display here is the common western habit of playing down the ideological moorings of the Ikhwan, with the associated implication that its anti-western and anti-Semitic rhetoric is a cry of frustration that will become less anguished once power has been accessed.

Now, no-one would deny that Islamists are the flavor of the hour in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and that they may well find themselves as the beneficiaries in Syria should the bloodstained menace that is Bashar al-Assad be overthrown. The challenge is how to approach them. Will western money, expertise and assistance combine to prevent the emergence of Sunni equivalents of Iran’s regime? Will the Ikhwan approach its western interlocutors as equals, or will it attempt to trick them with the double-speak for which it is famous?

One of the key flaws in the engagement strategy is that it accepts the self-image of the so-called moderate Islamists. A cleric like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the main theological influence behind the Ikhwan, is thus able to pass himself as a “moderate” because he says he rejects violence—except when it is directed against Israelis.

A further key flaw was recognized recently by a most unlikely source, in the form of the pro-Arab British journalist Robert Fisk. On a visit to Tunisia, one of Fisk’s friends, a prominent liberal, told him: “Do you know that of all the books now published in Tunisia, 92 per cent are Islamist? Don’t you think we should be worried?”

At the very moment of dialogue with the west, our interlocutors would be cracking down on women, minorities and freedom of expression at home. Even if we accept The Economist’s contention that full-blown Sharia law and confrontation with Israel are distant prospects for now, with each day of Islamist rule, we get one step closer.

For what really counts in this situation is the street—and in large swathes of the Arab world, the Islamists are in firm control, pushing a message that is distinctly unmoderate.

Jews know from their history that he who controls the street has the advantage. In the last months of 1932, right-wing politicians in Germany started reaching out to the Nazis, in the hope that Hitler would be moderated by the demands of high politics. But Hitler needed the street, where the only messages that counted were viscerally extreme ones, far more. Without this power behind him, he would never have been able to outwit Germany’s elder statesmen.

That’s just one historical example to bear in mind—should our leaders decide to show the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood some respect, let’s not be surprised if we don’t get the same favor in return.

Ben Cohen is a senior columnist for JointMedia News Service. The New York Post, Fox News, PJ Media, The Huffington Post and other prominent media outlets have also published his commentaries on international politics. Cohen is president of The Ladder Group, a communications consultancy based in New York City.

Posted on February 27, 2012 and filed under Opinion, World.