So smart people, many of them with experience "handling" Islamists, have been wrong about them time and again. They have told us they know how to talk to Islamists, how to channel them away from violence, how to find common ground. And leaders, governments, and everyday people have paid the price for their errors. It has been the worst precisely in places where Islamists were given the most space to organize, preach, plan, and operate. So when old intelligence hands tell us that they have a bright idea on how to engage Islamists, we should first ask them to give us an accounting for errors past, and tell us the lessons, if any, they've learned.
One of the lessons we have learned these last 25 years is that there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of Islamism. Way back when I wrote Political Islam, many people feared that a tsunami of Islamist revolution might sweep the region. But the progress of Islamism has been erratic. It has been most potent in places that have been subject to war and occupation, and where the state is weak: Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. Where states are stronger, regimes have kept Islamists in check or at bay. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria–all of them have faced Islamist challenges, which they have turned back. Islamism has faltered in these settings for two reasons: first, Arab rulers were more resolute and ruthless than the Shah; and second, the Islamists were less adept at forging alliances than Khomeini.
They have been less adept at forging alliances because they have been unwilling to compromise on their core values or their insistence that they dominate any system in which they participate. To put it in a word, they are intolerant, and so they stir deep misgivings among other opposition groups and potential sympathizers in the West.
Monday, October 24, 2005
In a rebuttal to those who would have America work Islamists, Martin Kramer points out Islamism can be defeated by its own fundamental intolerance: