With the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, one is almost forced to question whether the global Islamist movement has been dealt a mortal blow.
The notion that the era of Islamism has come to an end is not as outlandish as it seems. While the faith of Islam crystallized in Arabia 15 centuries ago, the ideology of Islamism—which aims to place the imperatives of sharia law at the heart of a coercive and all-powerful state—is a product of the last century.
Like its totalitarian cousins—fascism, communism and national socialism—Islamism’s point of departure is a visceral loathing of the political liberties that are integral to liberal democracies. All these monstrous political systems were convinced that, once empowered, they would stay empowered.
Hitler, for example, spoke of a “thousand-year Reich.” At the height of the purges in the Soviet Union, Stalin told the writer H. G. Wells that, “socialist society alone can firmly safeguard the interests of the individual.” But the Nazi Reich perished in the ashes of Berlin in 1945, while the communist paradise of the Soviet Union went out of business in 1991.
Will 2013 go down as an equivalent year of defeat for Islamism? In answering that question, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the current turmoil in Egypt. After all, Egypt was where the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1928. It is the cradle of Islamism, and it is the country that gave the Islamist movement a pronounced taste of bitter struggle as far back as the 1950s, when the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser crushed the Brotherhood.
Yet Egypt is not the only Middle Eastern country where the Brotherhood’s insistence that “Islam is the solution” is being sorely tested. In Gaza, where Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been in power since 2006, the Egyptian crisis has exacerbated an already febrile situation. Infighting among its leadership, as well as worsening relations with its one-time allies, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, is leading many ordinary Palestinians to question the competence of Hamas. In turn, Hamas is discovering that thundering slogans and terrorist assaults on Israel cannot feed, clothe, educate and employ a population in Gaza, or anywhere else for that matter.
In Turkey, a country that is light years away from Gaza in terms of its economic development, the Islamist government of Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan has faced angry demonstrations at home and severe censure abroad. Here, too, the citizenry is beginning to realize that the Islamists cannot deliver when in government—corruption, nepotism and contempt for free speech are all hallmarks of Erdogan’s regime, and its talk of Islamic values seems increasingly hollow against that context.
It’s a similar story for Islamist parties and governments elsewhere in the region. In Tunisia, the secular political parties in coalition with the Islamist Ennahda party have been alienated by Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s support for Morsi in Egypt. In Sudan, the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, remains embroiled in conflict with South Sudan, a largely Christian and African state that declared independence exactly two years ago. Meanwhile, Qatar, the oil-drenched monarchy deemed by Forbes magazine to be the richest country in the world, is rethinking its disastrous policy of supporting and financing Muslim Brotherhood affiliates around the Middle East.
Ironically, among some western policy analysts, there’s a widely held view that the current tribulations of the Muslim Brotherhood amount to bad news for democracy in the region. The military’s removal of the Brotherhood in Egypt, they say, will turn Islamists against the democratic process, just as it did when a similar scenario arose in Algeria in 1991.
But the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was committed to democracy in the first place is arrant nonsense. In certain countries, the Brotherhood has made a tactical compromise by participating in elections; in those cases, like Egypt, where the movement has won, autocratic and unconstitutional measures have quickly followed.
Moreover, what this debate ignores is the critical point that democracy is about much more than voting. Elections in countries where the press is muzzled, where opposition parties are intimidated, and where the military plays an explicitly political role, are a farce. Platitudes about respecting the cultural differences of the Muslim world only cement the absence of those liberties that are integral to a healthy democracy.
A related argument asserts that election-friendly Islamists will, as a result of the Egyptian experience, now be pushed into the arms of violent jihadi groups. There’s a certain degree of truth to that claim; western dithering in Syria has strengthened the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, and boosted the likelihood of a new war between secular nationalists and Islamists in the event that Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime is removed.
But that line gives the Muslim Brotherhood far more credit than it deserves. Under Morsi’s rule, Egypt was as ugly and intolerant as it has ever been; any member of the Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population, will confirm that. Having endured discrimination and pogrom-style violence during Morsi’s tenure, the Copts know only too well that the Brotherhood’s message to non-Muslims is simply this: convert or die.
Hence, there are many reasons to be both relieved and pleased that Islamism is now in marked retreat. Even so, we shouldn’t conclude that the triumph of liberal democracy will inevitably follow. In my estimation, it’s more probable that the Middle East will reflect the experience of Russia after 1991—anti-western, anti-democratic, and dominated by the military and the intelligence services—than of Germany after 1945, where a constitutional, stable democracy took root as a direct result of the Allied occupation. That is why, while the Islamists may be down at the moment, they are certainly not out.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.