As democratic movements bring down autocratic regimes across the Middle East, Islamic parties are moving into the newly opened political space. Many Americans understandably find this development alarming because the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001 claimed to follow Islamic tenets.
People inside and outside the Middle East worry that women’s rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, and due process might be threatened if Islamic parties take power. (These worries multiply when people hear the phrase “Sharia Law.”) However, it would be wrong to confuse the 9/11 terrorists with religious parties in the region. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, for example, is Islamic and is also committed to democracy and the fight against terrorism as our NATO ally.
To understand what’s going on today in the Middle East, a little historical perspective is helpful.
Secular, nationalistic parties have ruled most Arab states since they gained independence after World War II. They were anti-colonial in nature and many pursued policy agendas based on social justice. Over time, however, their desire to maintain power superseded their ideals. They monopolized the political system, jailed opposition leaders and thrived on corruption.
With political debate severely limited, places of worship became an outlet for average citizens’ political expression and organizing. Now that these religious organizations can participate in the political process, their decade of organizing experience has given them an advantage. Everyone, however, is still learning how to operate in an open political system.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, recently held free and fair elections and Ennahda, an Islamist party, won a plurality of seats. In Egypt, the most populous Arab state, the Muslim Brotherhood is also expected to perform well in the upcoming election. And in Libya, days after Moammar Gaddafi’s death, the leader of the National Transitional Council announced that Islamic law would be the “basic source” of new legislation. These parties are learning that real politicking is different from simply opposing a regime, and that their words and actions have consequences. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on female tourist attire that it was forced to soften and clarify when the tourism union complained.
Now that these parties are entering the political process, how should the United States respond?
First, while we don’t have a firm idea about who these new leaders are, we know they are not the extremists who attacked us on 9/11. Every country goes through a process to determine the role religion will play in society, and these new democracies are in the midst of that process. We should not confuse faithfulness to a religion with support for violent extremism.
The United States should judge emerging leaders by how they govern, not by their religious identity. We will have every reason for concern if these parties support divisive policies that violate religious freedom or undermine the other creeds of true democracy. Drifting away from those principles and exchanging one type of tyranny for another would be tragic.
But let us be hopeful. Governing is hard work, and even hardliners may moderate their positions when faced with the practical realities of building new societies.
Finally, the United States must fully engage these new governments, be they religious or secular. No one knows how the Arab Spring will ultimately play out, but we can support American ideals and advance U.S. interests if we have a seat at the table.
Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District and co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.