Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah; photo by Anton Nossik via FlickrSince 9/11, political Islam has built itself into an extremely viable force in the Middle East. In an area where autocracy reigns supreme, political Islam has become the de facto opposition movement for millions who wish to change, democratize, and improve their societies. The only exception might be Tunisia, where a largely secular uprising recently ousted President Ben Ali from his post after 23 years in power. In today’s Middle East, the groups most associated with Islamic radicalism are the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, al-Qaeda, and the Shia Islamic government of Iran.

Unfortunately, when western governments focus on political Islam, the debate gravitates toward the national security domain. Western governments and policy analysts routinely portray the role of Islam within Arab political life as a danger to western interests.

In reality, Islam is an integral component of contemporary Muslim politics. With some innovative thinking, the United States and its western allies can use the power of Islam to their advantage as well as the advantage of people in the region.

Three organizations in the Muslim world today – Hezbollah, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)- serve as test cases. Despite their different political objectives and the violent past of some, all three parties demonstrate that political Islam and democracy are not mutually antagonistic.

Hezbollah’s Transition

For many westerners, Hezbollah is linked to terrorism and sectarian violence. Hezbollah is indeed responsible for numerous terrorist attacks over the past three decades, including the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing that killed over 240 marines and small-scale operations that killed hundreds of Israeli soldiers (primarily during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon). As such, the U.S. government considers Hezbollah one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations operating today.

But despite its violent past, the organization has witnessed a remarkable transition in the last decade. Whereas Hezbollah operatives deemed terrorism necessary in the 1980s and 1990s, engaging in the political process is now a considered a central priority with the organization’s current leadership. Granted, Hezbollah has not abandoned violence entirely. It still boasts an impressive and dangerous stockpile of weapons. But the group has not orchestrated an attack on a foreign entity (including Israel) for close to four years, a tacit sign that Hezbollah understands the responsibilities that come with political participation.

Hassan Nasrallah, the top leader of the movement, has repeatedly stressed the need for political involvement in Lebanon’s affairs. Indeed, Nasrallah’s commitment to the political process only strengthened after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. The absence of Israeli tanks and soldiers provided the movement with a unique opportunity to win the hearts and minds of Shias, most of whom lost their livelihoods, homes, and families after years of tit-for-tat fighting. Hezbollah’s success in rebuffing Israel’s 2006 invasion of southern Beirut only served to heighten its reputation, both inside Lebanon and within the broader Arab world.

Today, Hezbollah serves as not only a fully armed militia, but also the primary political organization that cares for the needs of Lebanese Shia. What the Lebanese government in Beirut cannot provide, Hezbollah fills the void with social services and reconstruction; particularly for the residents of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.

The United States may still be leery of Hezbollah’s influence. But although Hezbollah has the potential to play a disruptive role in Lebanon, it has abandoned its earlier goal of establishing an Islamic state. The Hezbollah leadership has also adjusted the techniques it uses in order to both pressure the Lebanese Government and achieve its political objectives. In light of this, Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the parliament a week ago is a step forward, indeed a far cry from the violent siege the group launched in Beirut only two and a half years ago.

The Pragmatic Brotherhood

No movement in the Middle East today represents political Islam better than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Much like Hezbollah, the Brotherhood originally started as a movement that advocated violence in order to serve political objectives. In the early decades of its existence (the movement was founded in 1928), Brotherhood members actively carried out terrorist attacks against the Egyptian government in the hopes of bringing it down. This violent phase culminated in 1948 when the Muslim Brotherhood managed to assassinate Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi, the Egyptian prime minister. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser survived three assassination attempts himself. And of course, many credit the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood for the infamous assassination of Anwar Sadat.

But, similar to Hezbollah’s transformation, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has begun to distance itself from its violent past. In the 1970s, the Brotherhood decided to disavow violence. Since then, the organization has been one of the most powerful and widespread Islamist groups in the world. Branches have been established in 70 countries, and those disenchanted with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule have gravitated to the Brotherhood in droves. The group became so influential in Egyptian politics that its members won 76 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

This year, however, the Brotherhood suffered a major setback in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, a contest that was highly fraudulent, even by Egyptian standards. Yet the Brothers remain a formidable presence within Egyptian society, and the highly tainted 2010 elections may only end up further legitimizing the Islamist opposition.

The majority of the Brotherhood no longer embraces a violent agenda, nor does it directly threaten American interests. Rather, it is a popular social movement that addresses the grievances of millions of Egyptian citizens unable to access benefits from the government in Cairo. Much like Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood contributes to stability by caring for the poor. More importantly, the movement continues to work for reforms that the United States should applaud: liberalizing Egypt’s political rules, eliminating Egypt’s emergency law, preventing torture, and giving more power to the legislature.

AKP: A Modern Case

Of all of the political parties in the Middle East today, the youngest movement with the most impact has been Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Headed up by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has initiated a number of reforms in Turkish society that range from greater civilian control of the government to market-based economic reforms. Just last September, the Turkish government held a successful referendum that called for the military’s hold on Turkish politics, the expansion of parliamentary powers during the court nomination process, increased privacy rights, and greater rights for women and children.

In addition to political reform, Turkey’s economy has thrived under the leadership of the AKP. Ten years ago, the country was close to full economic collapse. Yet now, Turkey boasts one of the most innovative economies in the developing world. The CIA ranks Turkey as the 17th largest economy in the world, with a per-capita income of $11,400, quite high for a non-oil producing Middle Eastern country.

The United States and the European Union (EU) are both starting to take notice. The EU congratulated Erdogan for his latest reform victory, and President Barack Obama called Erdogan personally to stress his support for the successful outcome. Yet other policymakers, despite Istanbul’s modernization, remain concerned that Turkey is drifting away from Europe and toward countries deemed hostile to the United States. Over the last year, the AKP government has expanded diplomatic and military ties with Iran and Syria, two states high on Washington’s sanctions-radar. But these diplomatic initiatives have more to do with Turkey’s strategic calculations in its immediate neighborhood than an ideological desire to “Islamize” society.

The AKP has only been in existence for a decade, so judging the party’s future is difficult. But if the AKP’s short past is any indication, Washington would be wise to continue supporting the party’s presence in Turkish politics.

Islam as an American Tool

The examples of Hezbollah, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey’s AKP highlight the enormous contributions that political Islam has to offer. The growing significance of Islam within Middle Eastern politics is also an opportunity that the United States can use to improve its image in the Muslim World.

To date, Washington’s unconditional support for authoritarian regimes in the region has resulted in more hostility from mainstream Muslims who want an alternative to the status quo. Forging and maintaining alliances with autocratic governments may be securing U.S. security interests in the short term. But the arrangement has done nothing to “win the hearts and minds” of the Arab and Muslim citizenry, an enterprise that is far more important for the U.S. national interest.

To reverse this trend, Washington must actively encourage all factions within the region to participate in the democratic system, both behind the scenes and within the formal channels. Islamists who wish to enter the voting booths need to understand that the United States is firmly committed to a fair electoral system. In addition, Arab regimes need to recognize that the integrity of the state is best preserved through a peaceful outlet.

Western leaders must understand that Tunisia is an exception in the region, and the best chance for democratization in the Arab World rests with the Islamist opposition. Some, like Daniel Pipes, continue to cast non-violent Islamists as wolves in sheep’s clothing who are just waiting for their chance to establish Islamic states and, ultimately, reestablish a world caliphate. But politically engaged Islamic parties have been participating in the electoral process in Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon, and elsewhere for some time now, and the dire predictions of the pessimists have yet to substantially hinder U.S. interests.

The United States has a real opportunity to encourage Islamists to express their frustrations through peaceful means. Doing so would serve a number of purposes. It would push the jihadist appeal further to the margins of Arab political life. It would demonstrate American sincerity in supporting democracy in the Middle East. And it may just usher in a new era of genuine reform in a region badly in need of meaningful political and social change.

Daniel R. DePetris is an M.A. student in the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, an associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He blogs at the Atlantic Sentinel.

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