How the West should react

The message of this paper is that the West should not be too shocked by political Islam. It should certainly be careful that it does not over-react to whatever threat it sees, because that would only cause a counter-reaction and strengthen militant influences. Middle Eastern and other Muslim societies feel insecure in their dealings with the outside world. They are very liable to persuade themselves that foreigners are conspiring against them.

One can see signs of over-reaction, or potential over-reaction. An example is the French alarm over Muslim girls wearing hijab in French schools. Others are America’s unbendingly hostile attitude towards Iran, and its uncritical support of Israel, which is now more obsessed with a pan-Islamist threat to its existence than with the old Arab/Palestinian threat. A current potential instance of over-reaction in the United States concerns the proposal of some Christian fundamentalist elements that Congress legislates to prevent US companies doing business in countries that are deemed to be discriminating against Christians. Such countries could include Saudi Arabia, which allows no freedom of worship for non-Muslims, and Egypt and Palestine, where Christian communities feel themselves to be under political and social pressure. Legislation against these countries, as opposed to a tactful diplomatic word in the ears of the governments, would undoubtedly provoke an angry response.

What the Western world might do, in a positive sense, to counter militant Islam would be to work to eradicate its causes.

First among these is the unresolved Arab-Israeli dispute. The Israelis cannot accept that they are a prime cause of the instability of the Middle East, and American administrations try to persuade themselves likewise, but when the Arabs - who should know - discuss the causes of their problems they invariably start with their conflict with Israel. Effective pressure on the Israeli government to implement the Oslo peace accords would not only weaken Hamas in Palestine, it would remove one of the issues that feeds Islamic militancy, and authoritarian government, in other Arab countries.

Secondly, the Western world should encourage reluctant Arab governments, notably those in Egypt and Tunisia, to resume the process of liberalisation and political reform. They should not be afraid, later on, if elections lead to Islamists winning a significant presence in parliaments and being able to demand cabinet seats in coalition governments. One often hears it mentioned in the Arab world - and not just in Jordan - that the tenure in office of five Islamist ministers in the Jordanian government of 1989-91 was much more effective in weakening the Islamists in that country than repression would have been.

Lastly, Europe and America should try to help the development of the poor Arab countries, not with aid, but through encouraging bolder free market reforms, and opening their own markets to the countries’ exports. If Arab economies can be made to grow faster - and at present they are performing as badly as those of sub-Saharan Africa - they will be less fertile breeding grounds for political militancy of any sort, even if their governments remain undemocratic. If the poor Arab countries remain miserably poor they may become part of a divided world, based not on a clash of civilisations but on a huge gap in wealth between North and South.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

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