In his State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush characterized radical Islam as "one of the main sources of reaction and opposition" to freedom. He went on to note that "the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder... They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder." True. True.
Unfortunately, one such radical Islamist terrorist organization recently received democratic legitimacy -- with U.S. help. On January 25, the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, won elections in the Palestinian territories. It was clear to many observers - American, Israeli and Palestinian, that Hamas was going to score big. But the Administration had given its blessing to Palestinian parliamentary elections. It disregarded history of totalitarians winning elections, from the Algerian Islamist FIS movement in 1992, to the Nazi victory in Germany in 1933. However, there are normative standards that should apply to any potential participant in a democratic process.
Numerous signals from the Palestinian Authority -- which wanted to postpone elections -- were ignored. Meanwhile, the U.S. steamrolled Israel, which protested Hamas' participation in the elections despite the clear demand in the Quartet's Road Map for all participants to disarm and renounce violence.
Attempts to impose such substantive criteria on political actors in the Middle East now, after the fact, are like closing the doors of the barn after the horse has escaped. While democratic processes, including elections, are important, procedure cannot trump substance. Policy influence by democracy crusaders in Washington has already contributed to a victory by Islamist forces in Iraq, a stellar electoral performance of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah joining the government in Lebanon without disarming. The Hamas victory should be a catastrophic event that forces reassessment of policy in the Middle East.
When promoting democracy, U.S. foreign policy practitioners should always keep in mind the following criteria which need to be applied to potential political actors.
First, participants in the political process should be pluralistic, democratic and non-violent. They should recognize full minority rights, women's rights, and, where relevant, the right of Israel to exist in secure borders. While a political party can be Islamic and democratic, such as the ruling AK Party in Turkey, the U.S. cannot tolerate ? party that preaches violence or denies the rights of significant parts of the population (Christians, Jews, women, etc.). Totalitarian Islamist movements should be allowed to run only when it is clear that they do not radically change the political equation and cannot capture power.
Furthermore, support of democracy should serve long-term U.S. national interests in the region, including international security, advances in fighting terrorism, access to energy resources and strategic waterways, and support of allies. When election outcomes jeopardize such vital American interests, the support of democracy needs to be weighed against other U.S. concerns.
Civil society, rule of law, protection of minority rights, freedom of speech and worship, and other individual rights are all part of democracy. Legal norms and political culture influence the recognition and exercise of these rights. While President Bush is correct in saying that democracy in the Middle East will not resemble ours, one needs to recognize the length of time it took Western, and especially Anglo-Saxon, societies to develop thriving democracies -- from the Magna Carta to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement. One cannot expect democracy in the Middle East to spring like a jinni from the bottle. Democracy development takes time.
Finally, terror and institutionalized hatred should annul popular ?nd international legitimacy gained at a ballot box. An examination of the charters and other literature of Hamas, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood, a survey of the transcripts of their imams' sermons and statements by their leaders amply demonstrate that these are totalitarian entities which aim to deny the basic civil rights of even their own supporters. In fact, following Sayyed Qutb, the Moslem Brotherhood chief ideologist and Sheikh Nabhani, the founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir, they deny democracy as a Western invention, while taking full advantage of it, just like the Nazis and communists did.
Radical Islamists' raison d'etre is to wage jihad ("holy" war) against "infidels", especially the United States, and other "non-believers". They advocate reducing the status of these "non-believers", including the imposition of a special head tax, jizyah, on Christians and Jews, and forced conversions for Hindus and others, as well as the subjugation of women. They exploit children as young as five to brainwash them into becoming homicide bombers. Their goal is the establishment of a state based on Shari'a law leading to a global Califate (world-wide Islamist religious dictatorship).
President Bush is right to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East and around the world. However, the U.S. needs to do so realistically, taking into account its own national interests, as well as the complexity of foreign political cultures and traditions. Demonstrating a healthy respect for the limits of its own power and for the history, religions and politics of the Middle East can only do America good.
The U.S. and its allies should not be dealing with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority or other popularly elected jihadi entities, and should not provide them with diplomatic recognition, direct or indirect economic assistance, or other forms of international legitimacy. The U.S. and the West should lead the fight against radical Islamists and support Israel in any self-defense measures she may be forced to take to protect herself against Hamas' terrorism.
Ariel Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in TCS Daily