Thursday, November 22, 2012

Islamists can make...peace?

Children in Gaza celebrate the ceasfire
I'm not going to rehash the madness re: the violence in Gaza over the past week. There has been plenty written about it, much of it not particularly well. However, now that we have a ceasefire, there is one thing I wanted to bring up. Who helped broker this ceasefire? Well...looks like the big bad Egyptian government. You know, the country run by Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood guy. Yes. The Muslim Brotherhood. Remember all that talk after the Egyptian Revolution about how democratization in the Middle East was not cool because they'd elect people we didn't like...and people who'd cause more trouble? Yeah...funny how that worked out.

(Note: Islamists refer to political groups that use Islam as a major informer of their decisions. This is not a term I personally like, because it should really emphasize politics more than religion, but its a commonly used term, so I'll go with it here, reluctantly. These groups include the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nadl, the Islamic Action Front, Islah, the Party for Justice and Development, etc. This is not include al-Qaeda or other ideological groups that don't really have open ambitions to hold political office.) 

I'm not saying I'm supportive of Islamists groups like the Brotherhood. Many of them advocate very conservative and socially backwards policies. You know, like the far right religious extremists in America, many of whom make up the base of the Republican Party. In fact, I'm not that happy they won in Egypt. But....these groups will probably excel in the short-run because they have been around for a while, have institutional advantages as such, and know how to organize. As time passes, I'd expect more liberal groups, dominated by younger people, to start gaining more strength. But...yeah, for now, many of these Islamist groups will do okay in elections

Now, here's the thing. Even if they win, they probably won't win by a ton (despite all the fear-mongering that happens on U.S. media outlets about them, they're not incredibly popular among Muslims). And, more importantly, if they win, they actually have to govern. If they don't, they won't be re-elected. There is a reason Islamist groups that are allowed to participate in politics tend to moderate (sometimes rather substantially - some groups openly distance themselves from religion re: governance, while others purposely don't campaign too hard for fear of angering the regime in power to take away any limited political power they have). Indeed, the only thing that really explains the behaviour of Islamist groups is...incentives. When they have incentives to moderate (i.e. when they are allowed to legitimately participate in elections, even to a limited degree), they do so. When they are barred from elections, they become more extremist, as they have nothing to really lose. I've written about this topic in light of the uprisings in the Arab world and Gaza before. The take home message is: these groups should be allowed to participate in elections and governance. It does seem to moderate their views. The garbage does have to get picked up, and if they don't do it, they'll lose power. terms of the Gaza ceasefire, did the Egyptian government, run by those crazy Muslim Brotherhood people opt for anti-Semitic discourse against Israel? No. Did they start smuggling arms to Hamas? No. Did they start organizing Arab countries for a war with Israel? No. They helped stop the horrible bloodshed. They were the responsible adults (Israel and the U.S. certainly weren't, nor was Hamas) in the room. They weren't going to risk military destruction at the hands of Israel (which is armed to the teeth) to launch a war...because they would have probably lost badly, which would inevitably cost them at election time. They weren't going to risk losing U.S. aid by ending their peace treaty with Israel...because that would probably lead them to lose power. They would also have probably lost some IMF loans they crucially need to balance their debt, as their economy has been hammered by the global economic slowdown and rising food prices. They may have wanted to do things differently....but because of their constraints (political survival is the most important thing to political leaders, after all), they managed to bring the bloodshed to a halt. Obama leaned heavily on Morsi. Israel, which rarely gives up anything in these negotiations, actually seems to have done so this time.

I'm not trying to be too optimistic, because until Hamas is allowed to actually govern (enter constraints = moderation) and the occupation is ended, I'm not sure we'll see any tangible peace. However, the Islamists were the ones who managed to pull off the ceasefire. Scholars shouldn't be surprised by this. Journalists and pundits certainly are. Let's hope they try to learn that these groups rely on the same political calculations that politicians everywhere do - above all else, win elections. Those constraints almost certainly helped lead to this ceasefire. And...I'll reiterate this from my article above...democracy does not equal instability in the Middle East. Islamists who are allowed real political contestation will probably moderate their views and might end up helping bring about peace, like the Muslim Brotherhood this time. I'm not saying its great that they are in power. I'm just saying we should probably freak out a lot less about them being in power. Its the institutions, not ideology, that shape what Islamists do. Within Egypt, for instance, there are real concerns about domestic politics...not because the Brotherhood is who they are, but because their are serious institutional limitations being put in place on political contestation. In the end of the day, we need to see Islamist groups as political groups more than anything else. They are not crazy and irrational. They are interested in consolidating as much power as possible (see Morsi's actions in the past few days), and we need to be wary of them just like we should all political actors. But...not because they are Islamists, but because they are political groups.

Oh, and by the way, while I'm bashing cultural arguments, look at the celebrations in Gaza over the ceasefire. And I was told these people loved war and death, and were all about violence. Yeah...let's hopefully scratch that nonsense off the list as well. They want peace just like everyone else.

One more thing: if you want to read some good analysis of the events in the Middle East, I recommend (aside from a few news sources), Jadaliyya, an e-zine from a bunch of scholars and researchers who specialize in the Middle East. I know a handful of them - very smart folks with no ideological axes to grind.

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