That was a shocker. On Monday, Mitt Romney launched a blistering, if empty, assault on President Obama’s allegedly “passive” policy toward Muslim extremists and terrorists. The Republican presidential nominee accused the president of not being able to tackle “violent extremists,” some of whom stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama “passive” about extremists and terrorists? Actually, the president’s highly charged campaign against violent and many non-violent Muslim militants has been applauded more by jingoist Republicans than progressive Democrats. As I will argue, his — and Republicans’ — single-minded focus on extremists has left broad modernizing and democratizing Islamist movements in their blind spot.
Obama has eaten his 2008 campaign pledge and kept Gitmo open. He has continued the Bush-era Patriot Act, military tribunals, indefinite detentions and extraordinary renditions. And he has intensified and vastly expanded the drone war, killing hundreds of innocent children, women and men, while targeting terror suspects.
In reality, Muslim extremism has been declining steadily, which so far has eluded U.S. politicians and media. The Arab Spring is a glaring example. In the Middle East and North Africa, mainstream Islamists and other groups waged their democratic struggles peacefully. There were few anti-American slogans or burning of the American flag, even though America had long been supporting most of the repressive autocratic regimes they were tying to overthrow. Whatever violence has occurred between Arab protesters and their autocratic regimes was triggered by violent government crackdowns. Anti-American violence is being committed, as in the Benghazi case, mostly by fringe groups such as Al Qaeda, which have long been at odds with the U.S. Middle East policy.
The Islamist mainstreams’ transition to democracy has been facilitated by their growing popularity among the public, enabling them to pursue their agenda through the electoral process. During reporting trips in the Middle East and South Asia in the early 1970s, I found most Islamists espousing armed jihad against their secular autocratic regimes and foreign hegemons. Among them Matiur Rahman Nizami, the current head of the Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami party. In 1971 he and his Islamist party plunged into an armed struggle against the Bangladesh independence movement, fearing the secular nationalists would secularize Bangladeshi society and outlaw Islamist politics there.
Four years ago I dropped in to see Nizami, then the industries minister of a democratically elected Bangladeshi government, at his office in Dhaka, the country’s capital. I couldn’t believe my ears when he asserted that “democracy is the only way to serve Islam and Bangladesh.” His party had come to power (along with a secular party) through a peaceful democratic election. I have heard similar comments from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami ideologue Khurshid Ahmed and other Islamist or Islam-oriented leaders and activists.
The spread of Islamism through modern democracy has turned the old Western theory of modernization and secularization on its head. That theory said education, economic development and public participation in politics would, according to modernization theorist Daniel Lerner, lead to the “secular evolution of a participant society.” He added that “Islam is helpless” to resist the secularist tide. On the contrary, today’s modernizing Muslim societies are using the democratic process to Islamize.
Egypt’s dictatorships had persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood and banned it from politics for decades. Democracy has catapulted that Islamist organization to power, alongside a vibrant modernization process. Since 1980, Egypt’s national literacy rate has doubled to 71 percent. Especially encouraging is the literacy rate among young women aged 15-24, which is 82%, as UNICEF data show.
Democracy, too, has replaced Tunisia’s secular autocracy with the Islamist Ennahda party government. During the last three decades Tunisia’s literacy rate also has nearly doubled to 77 percent, with that of women 15-24 an enviable 96%.
As impressive is the pace of democratization and modernization in Turkey, which has replaced a military-dominated secularist regime with the democratic government of the Islam-oriented Justice and Development Party. Turkey’s literacy rate has jumped from 65% in 1980 to 94% this year, including 97% among women in the 15-24 age group.
Westerners who are rightly concerned about the backwardness of Muslim women mostly overlook today’s progressive and liberating trends. Large numbers of the young, educated Muslim women practice their faith and support Islamist movements.
Education and new winds of freedom have inspired Muslims with a deepening sense of self-worth and empowerment. They had been languishing under domestic autocratic suppression and foreign colonial subjugation for centuries. The awareness of self-worth has heightened their fervor and pride for their own religious and cultural heritage, which translate into pro-Islamist votes in the polling booths.
The United States should appreciate Islamism’s role in Muslim empowerment and the democratization of Muslim societies. It should broaden its mutually productive relations with Islamist governments. That would help neutralize Islamism’s extremist fringe, which has been feeding on the West’s hostility or disengagement with Islamist movements for freedom, dignity and democracy.
- Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He host the blog, Islam and the West: http://islam-and-west.com