More than a decade ago, a Gulf state’s ambassador to the United Kingdom told me that he had asked a senior official in the British Foreign Office, “What do you want us to give you more than we already do? Our money is in your banks. Our children study at your universities. Our governments are at your disposal. What do you want?” Such political naivety was not answered with the reality that the West does not know what it wants from Arabs and Muslims.
It would have been easier to ask what the West does not want from the Muslims. It is easy to look at Western policy towards the Arab and Muslim states since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and come to the conclusion that the West’s worst nightmare is Arab and Muslim unity.
Perhaps this is why Britain, arguably the most cunning Western country, established the Arab League, shying away from any Islamic unity. On 29 May 1941, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, called Arab countries to join together in such a league. Mr. Eden told the House of Commons on 24 February 1943, that the British government “shows sympathetic consideration to all action between the Arabs that aims to achieve their economic, cultural and political unity”. It is no secret that the British government’s attention to this matter in the middle of World War Two indicates how important such an organisation was and is to the West; the foundation of the Arab League predated that of the United Nations.
As the West holds its breath looking across the Middle East and North Africa and tries to figure out how to prevent Islamist takeovers of once-client states, it is time for the US and Europe to undertake some serious analysis. The Islamist bogey is being used to plant in people’s minds that a monstrous Islam is lurking behind every revolutionary.
In fact, Western states have played a role in the increasing popularity of “Islamists”. The people of the region have been trying to return to their faith, Islam, through the ballot box, but governments didn’t respect their wishes. When it has seemed certain that Islamists might win elections, the results have been cancelled, with the complicity of the West.
Even in cases in which Islamists won “free and fair” elections, the West took steps to ensure that the results were rejected; this happened in Algeria in 1992 and again in Palestine in 2006. Unwittingly, the West actually gave the Islamists precious gifts; in Algeria, they saved the Islamists from undergoing their first experience of government which could have had serious negative consequences. In rejecting the results of Palestinian democracy, the West has created a huge wave of sympathy for the Islamic Resistance Movement.
Thus, strategic errors by the West have created widespread popularity for the Islamists. By supporting dictatorial regimes and ignoring human rights abuses, the West has created disillusionment amongst the Arab and Muslim masses, who have taken to the streets. If for no other reasons than to upset Western governments, the people may well vote Islamists into power across the Middle East.
Egypt is the strongest country in the Arab world in which political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood were formed, spreading to the rest of the body of the region. Egypt witnessed the first military coup against a monarchy, inspiring others in the Middle East to do the same with incorrectly-named “Arab revolutions”. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with the Zionist state of Israel; that too spread to other Arab countries. Thus, the West must be prepared to deal with the “Al Jazeera generation” and the “WikiLeaks generation” which will spread from Tunisia and Egypt. We may well be witnessing the birth of a new “Arab world” where the people return to Islam.
If so, will the West learn from or repeat previous mistakes? Some commentators argue that the interests of the Islamic parties are inconsistent with the interests of the West, thus warning that Islamists are a danger to democracy. This fools nobody. There is no precedent for any Islamist group going against the democratic wishes of the people. On the contrary, it is secular parties in Turkey, Algeria and Palestine which have overturned the results of free and fair elections, with direct and indirect support from the West.
Although some Western politicians and journalists warn about a repeat of the Iranian revolution they forget the general doctrinal differences between the Iranians and the Arabs. They also overlook the fact that despite the regime in Tehran, Western countries were able to do deals with it as and when it suited them to do so; economic interests overruled ideological problems. Think “Great Satan” and the Iran-Contra Affair, and Iran’s conspiring with Washington in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The fact is that an “Islamist future” should not be a problem for the West, if only Western intellectuals, politicians and opinion-formers can put aside their hatred for the faith. It is no exaggeration to say that Islamists can be more rational than the West in international political affairs. Political Islam in Turkey has given the Turks what decades of Ataturk-inspired secularism could not achieve, without compromising any of the foundations of secularism or the highest political interests of the West. Even so, Turkey’s enthusiasm for joining the ERU is not reciprocated in European capitals.
Another example of such rationality was demonstrated when the newly-elected Hamas government in Palestine announced in 2006 that it would not oppose the agreement signed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but would not surrender its principles regarding the recognition of the Zionist state. That was a hugely significant gesture which has been largely ignored.
Islam is not a threat to the West and if the Islamists do come to power in Egypt or elsewhere they will almost certainly be willing to coexist in order to achieve common goals. All that will be asked in return is for Western states to treat the Islamic world with the same respect and justice that they expect to receive themselves. The big question is: will the West be ready to coexist with Islam?
Accept the situation rationally, and the hand of friendship will be extended by Arab and Muslim governments and their people. Impose double standards, however, and there will be a hostile reception.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it’s time for the West to know that it can use some of the Muslims for some of the time, but may not be able to take advantage of all of the Muslims for all of the time. The message for the West from Tunisia and Egypt is clear: there may be hard times ahead but the time for puppet regimes is over; honesty is taking over.
*The author is a professor of international law at King Faisal University, Saudi Arabia
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.