Taking on the Ideology of Islamicism

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May 1, 2002
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By David Makovsky

I consider Stephen P. Cohen to be a good friend, and deeply admire his life-long devotion to Middle East peace. His commitment is rooted in deep concern for the future of Israel and its neighbors, and is matched only by his well-lit, analytical mind. My understanding of Steve’s core thesis is that American Jews should avoid the “clash of civilizations” confrontationalist school of thought, and recognize that clashes exist within civilizations. Since the United States, Israel, and American Jews have a direct interest in the outcome of that internal battle waged between Moslem moderates and extremists, the actions taken in Jerusalem, Washington, and New York need to be guided with this uppermost in mind.

While I basically agree with this, it is important to be modest about the role of external factors in shaping such a largely internal, monumental, historic debate within Islam – one that has to be fully waged. I tend to believe that external factors are at the margins while the bulk of the effort comes from within. I want to emphasize this should not exempt any and all of us from acting judiciously.

There is no doubt that, for purposes of survival, several Moslem and in particular Arab regimes have, often ruthlessly, crushed people wanting to foment revolution in the name of political Islam. While the state has taken on this people known as Islamicists, rarely have they taken on the ideology known as Islamicism (not to be confused with mere practitioners of Islam). The reasons for this vary from country to country: viewing the ideology as enhancing the legitimacy of these nondemocratic regimes; deflecting attention from their own shortcomings; tapping into the frustrations in the Moslem world as it watches the ascendance of the West and centuries of economic and technological Moslem decline; and, of course, anger at American and Israeli policies that they find objectionable.

Not taking on the ideology of Islamicism has disastrous consequences. Religious intolerance does not enable countries to adequately educate their next generation, create democracies, and grow their economies, as Pakistan’s leader Pervez Musharraf has said. While it should be noted that Musharraf has yet to be elected, he has demonstrated remarkable courage. He represents a rarity among Moslem leaders, understanding that the real war is a cultural war from within the Moslem countries. Leaders need to say why Islamicism is a disaster. According to Musharraf, Moslems represent a quarter of the world but their economic output equals only half that of Germany. It is not enough to denounce the problems of Islamicism. Their peoples need to be confronted with an alternative vision of good governance, economic growth, pluralism, and tolerance; otherwise, terrorism will continue to reappear.

I am not arguing that every Moslem country should have its own “Altelena” (Hagana firing on the Irgun ship in 1948) and face the prospect of civil war. The cultural war that I am suggesting must be multipronged and, hopefully, peaceful. But, at its core, it must have a commitment to pluralism of ideas and religions, coexistence with the West, and governance by way of an evolutionary (not revolutionary) political and economic reform. In key countries, that would include more women in education and the workforce. Otherwise, Islamicism wins amid economic desperation, rampant corruption, and a general lack of hope for a better future – amid countries with an extraordinary demographic youth bulge about to enter the job market. (U.S. officials say more than 70 percent of Saudi Arabia is under fifteen years of age.)

In other words, this problem runs far deeper than settlements in the West Bank or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. Even though they are clearly irritants, each for very different reasons, both need to be addressed seriously and, in the case of settlements, most will need to be dismantled; U.S. bases will most probably be phased out at a later date. Yet, this is cold comfort to those concerned with peace in the Middle East who have never heard Yasser Arafat say, sounding like Musharraf talking to his clerics as he did three months before September 11, “it is intolerance that holds our society in its grip.”

While a resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians requires a different essay, it is fair to say that it seems impossible for peace to seriously take hold, or for a resolution to Jerusalem and the holy sites, without a historic and religious dialogue between Moslems and Jews. Admittedly, this will not be easy. Unlike the relatively successful dialogue between Jews and the Vatican, Moslems have no central ecclesiastical address, no guilt over the Holocaust, and no a priori Western orientation. The famed Maimonides, who served as a royal physician to the Sultan in Egypt, even wrote that such ties between Jews and Moslems may be harder than with Christians because Moslems believe that Jews forged the biblical story.

Any dialogue involving Jewish and Moslem clerics could be held on the basis of the Alexandria Declaration. The good part of that event is that it brought together prominent Moslem, Jewish, and Christian religious figures declaring that terrorism was antithetical to religion and voiced prayer for reconciliation in Jerusalem. Its definition of terrorism, however, was rather vague and thus open to interpretation. Moreover, there seems little doubt that the event was only possible because world attention was turned toward Islam in the wake of the September 11 tragedy. Nonetheless, this declaration should be the foundation of future dialogue between leading religious figures.

Yet, as arduous as such a dialogue may be and as relatively minor as it may be in the context of a broader cultural war within the Moslem world that must be waged, it is an imperative that it be tried. There is still a lot at stake.

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David Makovsky, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is former Executive Editor of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent of Ha'aretz. He is currently working on his second book on the Middle East peace process.

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