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Existential Threat – Radicalism in the Arab World

February 10, 2011

West Asia and Northern Africa are interlinked culturally and politically. What has happened in Tunisia and is now happening in Egypt is something that no one had expected. People have come on the streets and while the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali has fled, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is clutching on the last straws of his regime. The army is standing by him and that is why the man has still not been removed. More and more Egyptians are coming out openly against the Hosni Mubarak regime, and many of them are public figures and celebrities.

None can condemn a movement that gives power to the people. Neither the United States or Israel or the rest of the world can condemn a perceptible movement for democracy. But the question is, why is West so worried about this people’s movement. It must be remembered here that the Islamic or the Arab world has a very poor record as far as democratic institutions are concerned.  Turkey and Indonesia are two of the countries that have some kind of democracy. Pakistan can be quoted as another example but that cannot be considered a democracy in the real sense. Even Turkey and Indonesia cannot claim to be democratic in the western sense of the term.

The Jewish state of Israel is encircled by Arab states from all sides. The anti-Israel feeling in all these Arab states is profound. It will be a real effort to find anyone at all who is favorably disposed towards Israel. The US has been supporting Israel in all manners – politically, economically and most importantly strategically. The fundamental question that the west and the free world needs to answer is – does Israel has a right to exist? If the answer is yes, then we need to address the anti-Israel sentiment in West Asia and across the Arab world.

It is often said that solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem is at the heart of the anti-Israel sentiment. There is no doubt that there is a feeling of brotherhood among Muslims in general and Arabs in particular. Palestinians are seen as victims of Jewish hegemony and that is disliked by the people in the region. But this is as much a mirage as is the ‘solution’ to the Palestinian problem. For the simple reason that there has been a propensity of upping the ante once things are moving towards a settlement. There is always a feeling of a chance of extracting more from the other. Even if for a moment one argues that there is a ‘solution’ in place and a two state arrangement is accepted, does anyone really believe that the Arab world will then become favorably disposed towards Israel?Democracy in Islamic world is a mirage. There is no reference point for such a political system and even if democracy does take roots, it will be sometime till institutions are in place. There is no doubt that people’s voice should be heard and for all practical purposes that is surely the best way forward. For a moment let us assume that there are democratic governments in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and the UAE, what will such a development portend? There is another fact that is a reality – there is only one political/social organization that has a presence in all these countries and that is the Muslim Brotherhood. While most people believe that Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate organization, there is no evidence to the fact that any such political or ideological moderation is part of the discourse within the Muslim Brotherhood.  What Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutb have said surely does not point towards any kind of moderation.

Muslim Brotherhood Emblem

There are people who believe that Muslim Brotherhood does not have a following and that in a democratic setup they will be defeated by secular and liberal forces. This is hypothetical. There are hardly any political outfits in the Islamic world and the only pan-Arab organization of note is the Muslim Brotherhood. If at all the countries of the region decide to go in for democracy then a known organization that has been suppressed by most nations should come out stronger.

Let us for a moment concede  for the sake of argument that people will reject hardliners like the Muslim Brotherhood, can any political outfit survive in the Arab world that has a purported agenda of peace with Israel? If there is democracy, the one thing that will be on the agenda of all political parties will be an increased sense of animosity with the only Jewish non-Islamic state in the region.  The fact of the matter is that anti-Jewish sentiments will be at the heart of any political outfit. That will be a non-negotiable axiom for all political parties. The most liberal of political parties will have an avowed stance of belligerent anti-Israel agenda without which they cannot hope to have any presence.

The fall of Mubarak and subsequent uprisings in other Arab nations is therefore not the best news for the West and Israel. Does this mean an existential threat to Israel? While the situation is not quite to the liking of Tel Aviv, it will be foolhardy to believe that all is lost for Israel. Let us assume that there are democratic institutions in place and democracy does take root, then in all likelihood it is the liberals that will call the shots. Extremists of any kind will not tolerate democracy. Even if they are elected democratically, they will veer to a position of some kind of totalitarian regime. In that Iran may feel that they have come victorious as of now but the inherent contradictions between the Shiite and Sunnite states is something that is likely to surface sooner rather than later.

If there is a totalitarian regime that take over from the existing setup, then again the US and Israel know how to make them come around. There is too much at stake for anyone in power in the region to ignore the West and survive. The economic stakes are so high that they will have to come around to the western point of view. If Saudi Arabia, Syria and other nations of the Middle East do see a regime change this will be a setback for the West but may not be the end of the road for them.  It is easy to sloganeer from the sidelines but it is when one is in power that the reality of the situation makes them pragmatic.

What Israel and the West are really concerned about is a situation where there is this common strand of Muslim Brotherhood leadership coming to power in all the Arab states and they unite under one banner and create a war like situation in the Middle East. This is the worst case scenario and this sure is alarming. Then even the West and the other parts of the world may not be able to do much. But it must be understood that even the Arab world is far from being a homogeneous whole. There are contradictions and they do not see eye to eye with each other on many fundamental issues. The Arab League could now become more relevant if there is unanimity of thought and purpose under the leadership of Muslim Brotherhood and their hatred for Israel could be one rallying point under which they may come together as one. That is the worst nightmare for the West.

One can hope that if there is democracy then there will be a liberal government in these countries. And if there is a totalitarian structure, then of course the West and their allies know how to make them come around to their point of view. Radical Islam and democracy are inherently contradictory. One cannot aspire for both.

It is true that the developments in Islamic world demand a close watch as also some maneuvering but it is not a hopeless situation. Perhaps the Arab world is evolving for the better. In the short run, things will be difficult but this may not be a situation where all is lost. As for Iranian postures as the victors in this tug of war, well Tehran has a propensity to gloat. There is yet a lot of water to flow in the Euphrates and the Tigris and the Nile.

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