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Learning to Live with Islamism

One of the most depressing aspects of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, along with of course to the tragic and horrific loss of innocent Palestinian life, is the very limited chances of Israel emerging from the violence with … Read More

By / January 14, 2009

One of the most depressing aspects of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, along with of course to the tragic and horrific loss of innocent Palestinian life, is the very limited chances of Israel emerging from the violence with a clear, beneficial, long-term result. But fighting battles with Islamism that don’t bring obvious, instant results, is something we in the West are going to have to get used to.

The only positive aspect of the operation so far has been the welcome destruction of Hamas operatives, munitions and structures and this, it should be stressed, is no minor matter. Despite the bluster in this Hamas statement , the Islamist terrorist group have received some real blows – the elimination of key personnel, the loss of many weapon stations and arms. It remains to be seen whether their ability to launch rocket attacks at Israel will have been completely eliminated by the end of the hostilities but it is hard to imagine how the IDF will be able to declare victory on that front. One rocket fired, maybe a few days after a ceasefire, would be enough for Hamas to crow that they are still in business and for the rest of the world to declare Israel’s efforts, and the loss of life, to have been futile.

Even removing Hamas from power would not stop them from operating, in their usual, thuggish. bandit style, under a new Palestinian authority in Gaza or even under a fresh occupation. Hamas are going to be around for some time yet.

The tragedy of Israel is that, it is going to face violent opposition to it’s existence for many, many years to come for the simple fact that a Jewish state surrounded by Jew-hating Muslim Arabs has little chance of living in peace. The phrase ‘two state solution’ is redundant. Don’t get me wrong — two states are necessary, just and right and Israel should act to make them happen, but they are not a solution to Israel’s security problem, merely a possible start. Gaza has already given us an indication what kind of ’solution’ an Islamist Palestinian state would be.

The only hope Israel has of ever being secure, ever being confident that it can just get on with life without facing suicide bombers and rocket attacks on kindergartens, is if Islamists depart from the political scene in the region and any objective observation of the politics in that region indicates that is not likely to be happening in the near future.

Islamism is clearly going to be around for sometime — so it is worth studying the ideology, the history and the structures. We better had do because there seems to be no sign that it is going to be definitively defeated in our lifetimes. It took over 70 years for the menace of Bolshevism to be totally finished off in Europe and while there are no iron rules in these matters, it is worth remembering that the first Islamist revolution came just 30 years ago.

Many on the ‘Eustonian’ left, myself included, held out a hope that a liberal, democratic, secular, alternative would emerge in the Middle East in opposition both to Arab dictatorships and Islamism. The first sign that we might have over-estimated the strength of democratic forces came in Iraq, a country with a strong secular tradition. The overthrow of Saddam resulted in a bitter and violent battle involving varying degrees of Islamist organisations, ranging from relatively moderate types willing to govern under occupation to the Mahdi Army through to the extreme of Al-Quada. There were few signs of liberal democrats enjoying real support and the socialist left, which had some history in the country, also turned out to enjoy only a pitiful level of support outside of the stronghold of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Throughout the region it is clear that the main opposition to dictatorships – in Egypt and Syria for example, comes not from enlightened liberals but from even worse Islamists. In the Palestinian territories, the Arab-nationalists of Fatah were defeated not by progressives but by genocide-seeking Islamist terrorists.

Inside the Muslim communities in Europe, the horrors of Islamist terrorism in previously unimaginable locations such as Madrid and London, have not resulted in an awakening of a new, progressive voice among Muslims to challenge the extremists but have instead seen the continued rise of Islamist groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Those honourable attempts to challenge the extreme-right, whether it be from ex-Islamists or from ex-Muslims turned secularists, welcome though they are, are tiny and insignificant compared to the street-mobilising ability of the MB affiliates.

Disgusting and treacherous though the far-left’s alliance with Islamism is, the ex-Marxists are at least right in their belief that Islamism is a growing movement which, like them, is opposed to western democracy. Those who dismissed the blast of Islamist noise after September 11 as something that could be dealt with by a combination of good police and intelligence work and some gentle political appeasing, have been proven to be woefully optimistic.

All the indications, in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, suggest that Islamism, in both terrorist and less violent agitational form, is in the early stages of a rise in fortunes. The question then, is what can be done about it?

The depressing conclusion I have reached is that, western governments are going to have to start thinking of strategies to deal with Islamists in power given that there is no sign that radical Islam is going to fade away. This is going to have to involve a degree of pragmatism in the short term and some smart subversion in the longer term.

There is clearly a temporary, tactical need for western governments to continue giving limited support to strategically important non-democratic governments, such as Egypt’s, so as to avoid the nightmare scenario of a pro-Hamas state on Israel’s border at a time like this, for example. Likewise, unsavoury elements in Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s current governments are preferable to Taliban-AQ elements taking control of such a sensitive region. In short, the cold-war ‘our son of a bitch’ approach, is, on occasions, a short-term necessity. The neo-conservative, liberal internationalist hope of a democratic revolution in the Middle East and wider Muslim world, remains a hope, but nothing more.

Longer term though, how can the position and strength of Islamist forces be weakened in Muslim majority countries? Support for liberals and reformists is important but it should be clear by now that it is not enough given their weakness. There clearly needs to be a massive change in the cultures in those countries to weaken the appeal of political Islam – that is going to take several generations and some intelligence from the west as we contaminate their cultures with some of the fruits of freedom, the temptations offered by liberty, which the Islamists, enemies of modernity, fear so much. There needs to be some imaginative thinking on this front.

Perhaps the only cause for optimism is the case of Iran where, 30 years after the revolution, many young people in Tehran are clearly bored with and sick of the Islamist state. It took such a short space of time for a generation to emerge which prefers freedom to the slavery of political Islam but it remains to be seen how long it takes for them to carry out a democratic transition in that country. Perhaps that is going to be the model, if there is to be one, of change in the Muslim-populated world – the Islamists come to power, prove to be brutal and repressive but ultimately useless in delivering to the needs of the population who gradually lose faith in them. The key will be to effectively deter the Islamist states from expansionist or nihilistic violence while fostering and nurturing the internal opposition. Which sounds, I have to admit, a rather similar strategy to the cold war.

The best case scenario would obviously be for these societies to leap the Islamist stage and go straight from dictatorship to democracy but there are few indication that is likely to happen.

Israel’s struggle, whatever you think of the tactical rights or wrongs of this particular battle, is our struggle because we cannot allow Islamists to defeat a liberal-democracy. Even if there are limitations on what we can do to defeat Islamists within non-democratic Muslim societies, we have to draw a clear line when they try to take our side on. There is also, clearly, an anti-fascist responsibility to stand by Jews when they face murderous Jew-haters.

But while Israel is fated to face the brunt of Islamist hatred for years to come, it won’t only be Israel that has to learn, in the absence of choice, to reluctantly to live with, deter and cleverly try to subvert Islamism until that wretched, inhuman creed follows its totalitarian cousins fascism and communism into the historical dustbin.

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