Joshua Muravchik -- On the Streets of Iran, Radical Islam is Dying

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By Joshua Muravchik
Saturday, June 27, 2009; 7:41 PM

Is history ending yet again?

Much as the hammers that leveled the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of the Cold War, so might the protests rocking Iran signal the death of radical Islam and the challenges it poses to the West.

No, that doesn't mean we'll be removing the metal detectors from our airports anytime soon. Al-Qaeda and its ilk, even diminished in strength, will retain the ability to stage terrorist strikes. But the danger brought home on Sept. 11, 2001, was always greater than the possibility of murderous attacks. It was the threat that a hostile ideology might come to dominate large swaths of the Muslim world.

Not all versions of this ideology -- variously called Islamism or radical Islam -- are violent. But at the core of even the peaceful ones, such as that espoused by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, is the idea that the Islamic world has been victimized by the West and must defend itself. Even before the United States invaded Iraq, stoking rage, polls in Muslim countries revealed support for Osama bin Laden and for al-Qaeda's aims, if not its methods. If such thinking were to triumph in major Muslim countries beyond Iran -- say, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- violent extremists would command vast new stores of personnel, explosives and funds.

This is precisely the nightmare scenario that is now receding. Even if the Iranian regime succeeds in suppressing the protests and imposes the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by force of bullets, mass arrests and hired thugs, it will have forfeited its legitimacy, which has always rested on an element of consent as well as coercion. Most Iranians revered Ayatollah Khomeini, but when his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared the election results settled, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets, deriding his anointed candidate with chants of "Death to the dictator!"

"Even if they manage to hang on for a month or a couple of years, they've shed the blood of their people," says Egyptian publisher and columnist Hisham Kassem. "It's over."

The downfall or discrediting of the regime in Tehran would deal a body blow to global Islamism which, despite its deep intellectual roots, first achieved real influence politically with the Iranian revolution of 1979. And it would also represent just the most recent -- and most dramatic -- in a string of setbacks for radical Islam. Election outcomes over the past two years have completely undone the momentum that Islamists had achieved with their strong showing at the polls in Egypt in 2005 and Palestine in 2006.

This countertrend began in Morocco in 2007. The Justice and Development Party (PJD), a moderate Islamist group that had registered big gains five years before, was expected to win parliamentary elections. But it carried only 14 percent of the vote, finishing second to a conservative party aligned with the royal palace. And in municipal elections earlier this month, the PJD's vote sank to 7 percent.

Jordanians also went to the polls in 2007 and handed the Islamic Action Front "one of its worst election defeats since Jordan's monarchy restored parliament in 1989," as The Washington Post reported. The party won only six of the 22 seats it contested in the parliamentary vote -- a precipitous drop from the 17 seats it had held in the outgoing legislature.

Forged from diverse ethnic groups linked only by Islam, Pakistan would seem fertile soil for radical Islamism. Nonetheless, Islamist parties had not done well until 2002, when -- with military strongman Pervez Musharraf suppressing mainstream political forces -- Islamists won 11 percent of the popular vote and 63 seats in parliament. But in a vote last year, on a more level field, the Islamists' tally sank to 2 percent and six out of 270 elected seats. Moreover, they were turned out of power in the North West Frontier Province, previously their stronghold.

In April, Indonesian Islamist parties that had emerged four years earlier to capture 39 percent of the vote lost ground in parliamentary elections this time around, falling to below 30 percent. "You can't pray away a bad economy, unemployment, poverty and crime," one voter, a 45-year old shop assistant, told Agence France Press.

Then in May came parliamentary elections in Kuwait, where women had won the right to vote and hold office in 2005 but had never yet won office. Even though the Islamic Salafi Alliance issued a fatwa against voting for female candidates, four captured seats in parliament. Adding insult to injury for the Islamists, their representation fell from 21 seats to 11. "There is a new mindset here in Kuwait," the al-Jazeera network reported, "and it's definitely going to reverberate across the Gulf region."


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