Islamists Are Not the Problem, Accountability Is


Listening to the news recently, it would seem that radical Islamic groups are behind every uprising in the Middle East, either benefitting from every uprising or trying to start new uprisings. The use of Islamic radical movements as a catch-all phrase for any opposition to an authoritarian government is rife. This threat conjures up fears in the West of something far more sinister than governments that already breed radicalism through continual human rights abuses.

This straw man must be rejected to focus on the real issue — governments that are not accountable to their own people.

The use of Islamic radical groups as the bogeyman has wide play everywhere. The commonality is striking between Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s claims that the rebels he faces are led by Al-Qaeda, the Syrian ambassador to the U.S.’s contention that Syria’s uprising is led by Islamic radicals associated with Al-Qaeda, or Hosni Mubarak’s blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the effort that ultimately unseated him. Radical Islamists are everywhere, having apparently seized control of the U.S.-Muslim community while they plot their takeover of Europe.

Islamic radical groups do exist, but chief among the damages they do is give authoritarian governments an excuse for their abuses. This argument, that so-called security measures are needed to protect against Islamist threats, has been so effective that Western governments have not focused on how these authoritarian governments act. Instead, they are more concerned with how “Islamic” a group, an uprising, or a future government is. Thus, by focusing on the growing influence of Islamists in the Libyan uprising, Islamists’ winning an election in Tunisia, or the constant battles in the American press about whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is moderate or not, the West is completely missing the point.

A perfect example of this is seen in the relations between the U.S. and the current military government of Egypt, which happily receives $1.3 billion in aid a year in military funding but is attacking plans to give $65 million to pro-democracy groups, because it is “foreign intervention.” Instead of worrying about abuses by the current military regime, many in the West focus solely on the Muslim Brotherhood and how to contain it. As Anwar Sadat’s assassination and Mubarak’s rise to power should prove, heavy repression of all Islamic groups is surprisingly not a recipe for peace.

What the Obama administration and European leaders should do is nudge governments and pro-democracy movements to prove their transparency credentials. Forcing these groups and movements to proclaim their adherence to “moderate Islam” is pointless. The fact is that many of these movements, such as the Libyan rebels or some of the Egyptian revolutionaries, do have an Islamic identity and wish their government to have one as well. As such, it should be up to the people to decide through a transparent process or vote that ensures it is accountable to its people.

Radical Islamic groups would not pass this litmus test for transparency in any event. While the debate over the Muslim Brotherhood’s moderation rages, its inability to listen to its youth has already led to a split. Other groups that are clearly radical would also fare badly when faced with an electorate — and scrutinized by an independent press — that demanded similar transparency and accountability of its members and leaders.

If the U.S. and European governments continue with their insistence for “moderate-Islamic governments” instead of accountable ones, they could find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of explaining their support of another authoritarian regime to exasperated Egyptians in another 30 years time.

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