On the anniversary of the September 11th 2001 attacks, and against the backdrop of overwhelming rage at a trivial, defamatory film about the Prophet Mohammed, masses flocked to the US embassy in Cairo, setting fire to the American flag and raising the black banner of al-Qaeda in its place. At the same time, a terrorist group set fire to the American consulate in Benghazi, killing the US Ambassador and some embassy staff.
At one point, the US was heavily involved in Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo, encouraging the angry youths who were calling for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Following the success of these protests, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton toured Tahrir Square to celebrate the launch of a new era, as well as the US administration’s new approach and policies in the region. This new approach believes that the era of military rule in the Arab republics is over with these regimes no longer serving a useful purpose, and that their overthrow will mark the end of despotism. The Americans now see political Islam as an alternative that deserves to be put to the test, and now is the time to do so. For the US, the rise of Islamic rule could potentially exterminate al-Qaeda as well as all violent Islamic currents in the Islamic world.
This approach seems imperfect and unrealistic from more than one aspect. The US, which today denounces military rule, has been a staunch supporter of Arab military governments ever since the 1950s, when it supported Gamal Abdul Nasser’s stance against what was then termed as the Tripartite Aggression. The US established close relations with President Anwar Sadat and later on with President Hosni Mubarak. Now the US administration is repeating the same scenario but this time by inaugurating a new era of political Islam, in the conviction that modern ruling systems will be democratic, adopt peaceful transfers of power, and refrain from autocracy.
Yet the US administration has maintained a stony silence with regards to the Islamists’ extensive attempts to dominate all aspects of the [Arab Spring] states, powers, and active institutions such as the media and traditional religious and judicial establishments, and so on. These practices have even prompted the partners of such political Islam movements, more so than their opponents, to complain and bluntly warn against the dangers of these trends. Yet America’s silence and negligence will lead to a price that must be paid by the current and future US administration.
Despotism has never been restricted to one shape and one guise. Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi often argued that civil despotism would in fact be more merciful than its religious equivalent. The discourse of political Islam may be against autocracy as exhibited by others, yet it legitimizes another form of autocracy that it utilizes as a tool necessary for governance and for deciding how justice should be done. As for the argument that political Islam is yet to be put to the test as a ruling system, this is also untrue, for Islamist movements have come to power in more than one country, as is the case in Sudan and Gaza. Furthermore, the US in the past was initially pleased with the overthrow of the Shah regime in Iran, and with the leader of Shiite political Islam, Ruhollah Khomeini, coming to power in Tehran, but this is a stance that the US has continually paid a price for over the past 30 years.
Although there are obvious differences between these two scenes, the 1979 protests in Iran began with the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran, with its personnel being held hostage for several months, whereas in Cairo, a radical mob attacked the US embassy and even more violent extremists struck the US consulate in Benghazi. Occurrences as such disprove the idea that political Islam coming to power will eliminate religious violence, extremists and terrorists. Yet still Hilary Clinton insists on wondering: “Today, many Americans are asking – indeed, I asked myself – how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate?”
The wrong policies always stem from the wrong ideas, and wrong ideas are built upon misconceptions. Confining the understanding of violent religious groups and the nature of individual terrorists to political and economic circumstances (despite their importance) alone is a misconception. Violent religious groups are an ideological problem first and foremost. Unless we take this fully into consideration, the scene becomes complicated and the very essence is lost, which causes visions to become distorted and decisions to be issued haphazardly.
The US is a great country on most scientific, civil, human and political levels. However, this does not mean that it is immune from mistakes and sins when it comes to its political administration. To this effect, we can compare what is currently happening to what previously happened in Iraq, where the country was handed over to Shiite political Islam currents through “democratic elections”. As a result, the entire country is now in the hands of Iran, and the performance of the new leadership after coming to power demonstrates a new example of autocracy and dictatorship. This is clear in Iraq’s abhorrent sectarian prosecutions, the intimidation of opponents through bombings and assassinations, and finally, the exploitation of the judiciary there. In fact, the death sentence issued against Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is just one example of this.
There are numerous indicators that what happened yesterday may happen again today and tomorrow even if the countries or circumstances differ. The two cases [of Libya and Iraq] were both under US patronage. In the case of Iraq, the mistakes committed by the former administration began to appear through news leaks, memorandums and political dialogues that exposed much of what was once concealed and deemed a secret. As for the current US administration’s mistakes, we must keep a watchful eye and observe, monitor, compare and analyze, and when the truth fully emerges we can describe the scene in a more accurate manner.
Why does the US administration commit mistakes with some of its policies towards the region? It is a big question, but perhaps part of the answer lies in the scientific and academic bias that is spread widely within American universities and some research centers that conduct studies on the region’s culture, history and struggles. Mistakes are further compounded by the current emphasis on US domestic policies and America’s continual reluctance to get involved in the situation in Syria. The US, by allowing Russia and China to take international center stage at its expense, is committing a grave mistake.
Warnings have been issued in this regard by several US intellectuals and politicians who have contributed a great service to US interests in the past, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. Today, these two men have a considerable standing owing to their rich history, whether in political and strategic theorization or in the important state positions they held.
The US perception of new developments in the Middle East is riddled with mistakes. Politicians currently participating in these events will come out at a later stage to reveal such errors and explain these mistakes. However, by that time, the wisdom or opinions offered will be useless.
Finally, if it true that it is a mistake to continue to commit the same mistakes, then it is even worse to commit the same mistake and think that the result will be different.