Where are the Islamists?

Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood would win a general election in Egypt – or perhaps not. But Egyptians should be allowed to make that choice, in part because denying it to them would almost certainly make things worse, possibly leading to precisely the kind of religious extremism that many people rightly fear.

NEW YORK – Sometime in the 1980’s, when the communist regime in Poland was facing serious challenges from disaffected masses, the regime’s official spokesman, Jerzy Urban, remarked to a foreign journalist that there were only two choices in Poland: communism or domination by the Catholic Church. “It’s either us,” he said, “or the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.”

Similar warnings have been repeated over and over by oppressive rulers in the Middle East, not least by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak: either the secular police state or the Islamists; either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood. This message was persuasive enough for Western governments, especially the United States, to continue to lavish money and arms on Mubarak and other Arab “allies.”

For those who advocate the spread of democracy in the world, this has posed an awkward dilemma. Islam, many say, is a threat to democracy. The West is said to be “at war with Islam,” to quote the Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But does that mean that should we give up on democracy if Islamist parties have a chance of winning elections?

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