A friend of mine asked me the other day what I think of this quote from the Economist of June 23:
‘The best way to tame the Islamists, as Turkey’s experience shows, is to deny them the moral high ground to which repression elevates them, and condemn them instead to the responsibilities and compromises of day-to-day government.’
For a while now, even reflecting on the situation in Palestine where the West helped overturn election results bringing Hamas to power, I have had sympathy with this viewpoint. But there are a few other nuances to highlight.
As concerns ‘condemned to rule’, we should not start by saying that governance is a curse. On the contrary, it is a privilege, a trust. That Islamists have this now is their opportunity, even if the thrust of the quote is true.
As concerns ‘tame’, it must be distinguished from another sentiment often lying underneath such analysis. Many would substitute subconsciously the word ‘defeat’.
The capriciousness of government will keep Islamists from extremism – this is how they are tamed. But it has also lessened their popularity, as they do lose the moral high ground. Many find the military has yielded power to Islamists first in parliament to give them opportunity to discredit themselves. That they now have the presidency is only further rope with which to hang themselves.
So if the author of the quote is quietly hoping for such an outcome, there is another sense in which being in power is not ‘condemnation’ – it is their opportunity to cement themselves in the system.
While on the one hand it is fine and good for Islamists to gain credibility as a political player, it is also widely suspected the Brotherhood will use its opportunity to infiltrate the system and get their people in every nook and cranny.
Then, even if ‘defeated’ at some stage in the political process, having been yielded governance even for a spell, it will have advanced their overall cause. I have no evidence other than anti-Brotherhood testimony this is their plan, but the testimony is ample and often specific.
Finally, taking Turkey as an example – the Islamists might just do well in terms of governance, and then they win.
This is a good outcome for Egypt, of course, as Turkey is example of improved economy and civil society. But Turkey is also not the best example. From what I understand, Turkey is among the worst nations in terms of freedom of the press.
While Islamists might keep winning free elections there, and by extension in Egypt, questions exist as to how they may be softly manipulating society. This is very different from the hard corruption of a dictator, but is less than free and open democracy in a transparent system.
Finally, it should be stated that Islamism is different from the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamism in general simply represents the idea that religion should play a definitive role in shaping the political system. The Brotherhood is an organization dedicated to this goal, which may or may not be acting honestly for the good of society independent of itself. It is quite possible to be an Islamist outside the structure of the Brotherhood.
In any case, these are more questions to explore than convictions I possess. As to the overall aptness of the quote above, if these points are taken into consideration, I think it is on the whole correct.
Jayson Casper also blogs regularly at A Sense of Belonging. Follow him on Twitter at @jnjcasper.