Sunday, April 16, 2006

Political participation

Another reminder that a big part of what drives extremism in general and al-Qaida in particular is political marginalization comes from an article in yesterday's Washington Post. It provides a stark reminder as to why Israel and the international community should cautiously work with groups like Hamas in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, rather than try to hound them out existence.

Let's be clear: Hamas and the MB have social and political programs that are often very conservative. I would hate to see either gain control of their respective governments. They would likely use the power of the state to slowly and gradually enforce a religious conservatism on their societies that majorities would reject. Many people in the Arab world are religiously conservative. But that doesn't mean they want religion shoved down their throats or would chose to shove it down other people's throats.

Two countries best show what happens when religous movements who want to impose religion through the state become powerful or major partners in political life. The first is Iran and the second is Hizbollah in Lebanon. In Iran, you have a government that imposes a particular interpretation of religion on the country, and the people hate it. For example, it's one thing to believe that a Muslim woman should cover her hair and that male/female relationships outside of marriage should be restricted, and it's another thing to have the government enforcing such social mores. It's one thing to think that people shouldn't drink alcohol, and another thing to have the state prohibit and punish those who choose to do so. It's one thing to rant about the evils of capitalism, another thing to punish small businesses that have to operate by the basic laws of supply and demand. You get the idea.

The other example is in Lebanon, where Hizbollah started off as a movement talking about establishing an Islamic state, but now recognizes that such a goal in a multi-confessional state is not possible. Hizbollah participates in the political system, it airs the greivences and concerns of its supporters, but it has to accomodate the many different views that exist in Lebanon. They've stopped trying to create an Islamic state because they've had to deal with real world politics, not some utopian fantasy world that they think they can impose through religion. Would I want to live in Hizbollah controlled territory? No way..and when enough Lebanese decide they don't either the movement will lose political power. Threatening to take its weapons away, on the other hand, only makes them stronger.

Even Jordan offers a good example. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan participates in the political system, so people there know its good and bad points. In an open and free election, the Jordanian MB is not likely to take a majority, but maybe only 15-20% of the vote.

But where these movements are isolated, oppressed, hounded and harrassed, especially in autocratic countries like Egypt, they are strengthened and have greater credibility with people. They are also free from the kind of scrutiny that comes from open political participation. The MB and other Islamic political movements use the slogan "Islam is the solution." If they are prevented from showing what they actually mean by that they can continue to sit on the sidelines and complain without ever having to show what it is they would do or how disaterous their policies, like interest-free banking, would be on thier respective countries.

So if you want to diminish Hamas' or the MB's popularity, let it participate as a true competitor in the political system. Let there be a full public discussion of what their politicies would be, what the possible impacts are, and make it have to be accountable for the policies it wants to apply, rather than letting them stand on the side and claim without proof that all things would be better if they were just free to apply Sharia.

Much of the craziness of the religious right in America comes from exactly the same marginalization and isolation that Islamic parties experience in the Arab world, although for American religious conservatives it was self-imposed. They withdrew from politics near the beginning of the century, built up parallel insitutions and value systems that saw everything in the political and cultural estabishment as immoral and destructive. Now that they've returned to power they have ideas of imposing their own religious values on society, and using government to enforce their morals on the rest of the country. By coming to power, and having to share their ideas and suffer the consequencces for their policies, they are being discredited, even among their supporters. For example, conservatives recently complained about the liberals' "war on Christmas", and the majorty of people saw how absolutely nuts they are. Shine some light on these freaks and let people recognize them for what they are.

So you want to weaken the religious parties? Let them participate, let their own societies reward their good ideas and punish their bad ones. This is what is happening now to the Christian right in the US. Yeah, we suffer some bad policies for a while, but it at least shows the reality of the crazy ideas they've been cooking up for the past decades. People are slowly wising up and will likely punish them in the polls this Fall. Stop letting religious conservatives have a free ride and harbor their stupid ideologies behind rhetoric. Make them accountable, then they will be responsible.


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