Repression no cure for challenge of political Islam
July 2nd, 2014
12:28 PM ET

Repression no cure for challenge of political Islam

By Dalibor Rohac, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Dalibor Rohac is a policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. You can follow him @daliborrohac. The views expressed are his own.

The events in Iraq, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been mounting an offensive against the ill-prepared Iraqi army, raises important questions about political Islam and about the response to it by both Middle Eastern governments and the West.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the increased perception of political Islam as a major security threat led Western governments to boost support to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East as long as they were secular and therefore seen as superior to their theocratic alternatives. When the Egyptian military brought down President Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, there was a sense of relief among many observers in Washington.

Some of them may be willing to give Egypt's current military regime a pass even after its judiciary convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists for seven years for "aiding terrorists" – not to mention recently upholding death sentences for 183 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who allegedly organized an attack on a Cairo police station last year. Yet the repression of Islamic political movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, often backfires, with consequences that could be as dire as the current bloodbath in Iraq.

Instead of rushing to alarmist conclusions, we need a careful and dispassionate analysis of why Islamic political organizations succeed in some Middle Eastern countries. Somewhat surprisingly, this may have little to do with religion. In survey data from Muslim-majority countries, religious beliefs seem to be only weakly related to voting patterns or opinions about specific policy issues. Instead, the appeal of Islamists lies in the credibility with which they can make electoral promises, which itself has to do with their history and organization.

Before the coup, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was the prime example of the success of Islamic politics in the Middle East and North Africa. The group was originally founded in 1928, and over time created a loose network of Islamic parties throughout the region and a widely emulated model of organization combining political and religious activism with the provision of social services.

Secular Arab regimes typically allowed the Brotherhood and similar groups to run hospitals and schools and to provide assistance to the poor. In 2006, the Brotherhood was running hospitals and schools in every governorate in Egypt. Islamists were also among the first and most effective to provide relief during large-scale disasters, such as the earthquake in Algeria in 1989. In other locations, Islamists run sports clubs, collective weddings, or provide Sharia-friendly business loans.

As a result, Islamic political groups developed trustworthy brand names – a unique asset in a political environment where most voters saw politicians as crooks (often for good reason). The reality is that electoral promises in transitional countries are generally not worth much. But when a political organization can show a 70-year record of social service provision, people are more willing to listen.

So the success of religious parties can be seen as good news because political credibility and brand names are usually in short supply in transitional countries. But as I have noted previously, the fact that voters find such groups credible tells us little about policies they will really deliver – and those policies can be antithetical to freedom and democracy. Worse yet, as the examples of Hamas and Hezbollah show, organizations that can successfully provide public goods can also successfully organize political violence.

True, the advantage that Islamists currently enjoy in some Arab Spring countries can be expected to weaken – as has been the case in Indonesia – as other political groups establish their own brands and build reputation. But that requires open, competitive, democratic political arenas, in which Islamists can compete for votes alongside secular political groups.

If anything, the repression of Islamists creates incentives for them to turn to violence as an alternative way of advancing their agenda. The example of Iraq follows this logic. For years, the divisive politics and authoritarianism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki alienated the Sunni part of the population and provided fertile ground for the success of ISIS.

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if the Iraq scenario repeated itself elsewhere. Sadly, by continuing to provide political backing and financial aid to secular dictatorships in the region – for example, to the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt – we may be encouraging the very outcome we seek to avoid.


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Topics: Egypt • Iraq • Islam • Middle East • Syria

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    Tea Party Patriots refuse to go out in public without their size 34 floppy clown shoes. They say they feel naked without them.

    July 2, 2014 at 1:31 pm |
  2. Ferhat Balkan

    The problem is dictatorial rule and corruption. Political Islam can go either way. You can have a democratically elected government (Similar to the one established by Morsi) or you can have a dictatorial one (Such as Assad's or el-Sisi's). Personally, I believe in a democratic secular government, but there are places in this world where that model does not work. It takes time and a struggle to establish a true democracy. A foreign power invading another country and inserting a puppet government, or having a military coup is never the answer. The people of the land should ultimately decide the fate and direction. Who are we to judge what is best for them when we haven't worn their shoes?

    July 2, 2014 at 6:16 pm |
    • Bob

      The conclusions are all wrong. It would be a blessing should a giant Islamic Super State reach from Egypt to Syria to Iraq. Cast your net on the other side of the boat

      July 3, 2014 at 11:10 am |
  3. Gebs

    I guess the author did not live in Egypt and is writing from a mere theoretical and removed from reality point of view. The MB and Morsy were given a chance but failed because they never believed in democracy. Instead they tried to impose ideologies that most Egyptians including all minorities do not stand for. And, when you ridicule El Sisi's actions, you ridicule what most Egyptians stand for. After all they are the ones that revolted against Morsy and he was only an instrument to implement their just will. And the author must know, that all these Islamist organizations whether political or not share the same views and terrorism backgrounds, for example he mentioned Hamas as a terror group? They were founded by the MB, look it up.

    July 3, 2014 at 4:03 am |
  4. Bob

    It would not be an "unspeakable tragedy" if the events of Iraq were to spread to places like Egypt. It would be cause for jubilation. America keep your grubby paws off the ME

    July 3, 2014 at 11:13 am |
  5. rick

    Interesting that Bob would do a quote from a JEWISH man named Jesus. Since islamic beliefs REFUSE to acnowledge him as the actual son of GOD. And follow a illiterate man who was sought for murder of another and escaped. In a example of that barbaric idea they call sharia law. Sharia law is the most oppressive of anyone who is not muslim. Death for minor things like bearing a female child instead of a male as ORDERED TO?? As a simple example to those unknowing of its real meaning and intent. The truth is actualy leaking out from its iron grip.. In rivers of the ones who chose to believe as they wish. And live to tell the truth..

    July 3, 2014 at 4:49 pm |
  6. Lea

    Well, of course, this idea that if we repress the most repressive and violent political ideology, Islam, then we are to blame for the increased violence, is a false idea, since it seems the more leeway they receive the more emboldened and violent the political sharia islamist jihadist become, as we can see with them fulfilling the very reason that the Muslim Brotherhood was created, to instate a global Islamic caliphate, now in Iraq. Islam has used violence even while their profit from Arabia was alive, to spread its anti-human ideology. It is becoming more evident since the Arab Spring that there is only one way to respond to political Islam, and that is destroy it with violence. Much like the Egyptians have to do to stop these islamists from waging their war of genocide and terror on innocent people.

    July 4, 2014 at 1:34 am |
  7. raymond spada

    STOP playing on Satan's Chessboard (Middle East)- Unless you go with God, You'll LOSE !

    July 4, 2014 at 11:59 am |
  8. Neo

    Dalibor Rohac, please explain how can the world cure brain cancer ?

    July 4, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
  9. John Duffin

    Robert Spencer's

    July 5, 2014 at 3:10 pm |
  10. greg

    Repression of political Islam will only bring on even pain and resentment. The author here has it right.

    July 5, 2014 at 3:21 pm |
  11. j. von hettlingen

    It will take decades for the people in the region to wean themselves off the mentality of "zero-sum game". They only have trust in somebody who has absolute power. If they are well taken care of, they don't mind to be patronised. As soon as they feel disenfranchised or discriminated, they rise up. In the Gulf region – with the exception of Bahrain – people accept the top-down rule, because their rulers provide for them.

    July 6, 2014 at 11:37 am |

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