An extra word muddled the point of a sentence in a March 23 Outlook article on how the Iraq war might affect democracy in the region. It should have read, "In surveys over the past two years, Arabs and Muslims describe the Palestinian issue as very important, indeed central to their antagonistic attitude toward the United States." (Published 3/25/03)
There were two striking results in an opinion survey conducted earlier this month by Zogby International in six Arab countries -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
One was that a huge majority of people in those countries said that, if given the choice, they would like their Islamic clergy to play roles bigger than the subservient ones currently prescribed by most Arab governments.
Equally impressive, less than 6 percent of those polled believed that the United States was waging its campaign in Iraq to create a more democratic Arab or Muslim world. Close to 95 percent were convinced that the United States was after control of Arab oil and the subjugation of the Palestinians to Israel's will. The survey, commissioned by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, also showed that overwhelming margins said that terrorism was going to increase, rather than decrease, as a result of the U.S.-led invasion.
President Bush has said that the invasion of Iraq, and the establishment of a new government there, would be a "catalyst" for change in the region. But what kind of change? Rather than leading to liberal, pro-Western democracy, as Bush suggests, the war in Iraq is likely to bring only more radical Islamic fundamentalism. After all, the Islamic fundamentalist parties, grouped under the big tent of the Muslim Brotherhood, are the only forces with the organization, capability and ambition to take power if democracy were to become an option in the Arab world.
Arab leaders are plainly worried by this prospect. A few weeks ago in Cairo, during a fact-finding trip for the Council on Foreign Relations, I had a three-hour private conversation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the politics of the region, the coming war in Iraq and U.S. policy. Though closely allied with the United States, Egypt has been pressed by the Bush administration to undertake democratic reforms.
Mubarak recounted an episode to illustrate the degree to which radical Islam has infiltrated Egypt, the most populous Arab country. When Mustafa Mashhour, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, died in the middle of the night last November, Mubarak ordered his domestic intelligence and security services to go on high alert and block tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers from flocking to Cairo from all over the country to take part in the funeral. As in Judaism, Islamic burials have to be carried out a day after death. The adherents had no more than a few hours and word of mouth to get word of the funeral out through their vast secret network.
Yet the Muslim Brotherhood is, to use a Saddam Hussein euphemism, the mother of all Islamic militant organizations. Founded in Egypt in the 1930s, it has helped give birth to every Muslim radical movement, from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda to Palestinians' Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Lebanon's Hezbollah. Its tight structure helped spread the word of the funeral quickly.
"I had security people block all the entry points and exits of Cairo," Mubarak said, speaking of the Egyptian metropolis of 16 million people. "It was a massive security operation and our services are among the best at it," he said, gesturing to make his point. By all accounts, tens of thousands were turned away. Hundreds of buses were searched. Well-known militants were arrested or sent home.
"Yet, you know what," Mubarak said, raising his eyebrows. "When the funeral took place, there were over 80,000 Muslim Brothers there." The president paused, and jabbing his finger at me, said, "When your Americans talk about democracy in the Middle East, who do they think is going to take over? Democrats?" It will be the Muslim Brotherhood's pawns in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Palestine, Mubarak asserted.
Mubarak has reason to be concerned. Given sentiments in the Arab world today, democracy could lead to one-time elections and the triumph of radical Islam. It happened in Algeria in 1992, forcing the army there to void the election results and resume its rotten dictatorial rule. Civil war there has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Everywhere you look in the Middle East and the Muslim world, including places such as Pakistan and Indonesia, fundamentalism is rising, thanks to the social services, medical care and religious education that Islamic groups provide as an alternative to the failed services of failed states.
Yet Islamic fundamentalism appeals not only to the poor. Most leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are graduates of engineering and medical schools, people one might consider less inclined to blindly embrace religion. Bin Laden is an engineer. Ayman Zawahiri, his number two, was a successful physician. Mohammad Atta, who led the attack on the World Trade Center, was a multilingual architect.
While the radicals are gaining strength, alienation is spreading among the ruling elites, business class, academic and artistic circles, and moderate religious leaders -- America's natural friends, who could provide liberal alternatives. Take the sheik of Egypt's prominent Al-Azhar University, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, who is renowned as both a scholar and a moderate. Over the past two years, with considerable difficulty, Sheik Tantawi has ousted radical preachers from his university. Yet last week, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he said people should wage jihad against the United States.
Anger emerges in popular culture, too. The most popular singer in Egypt is Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, an illiterate man whose tape "I hate Israel" has sold more than 5 million copies. One of the most successful plays, "Mama America," a virulently anti-American piece by well-known artist Mohammed Sobhi, has been running for months.
Around the region, the story is similar. In Jordan, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have bonded with Palestinian Islamic movements, hoping to arouse the Palestinians, who make up 70 percent of Jordan's population, to rise in support of their brethren in the Israeli-occupied territories next door. In Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi preachers are thriving still, the bin Laden message continues to resonate. Despite denials from the Saudi royal family, the population knows that U.S. forces are using Saudi bases to operate against Iraq.
Even Syria, despite its fearsome reputation for crushing dissent, is struggling to contain the radical Islamic threat. Alarmed by the spread of Islamic influence in medical school classrooms, Syrian President Bashar Assad has made several speeches recently attempting to disconnect science from Islam. People close to him say that Assad, a physician himself, has argued that science should encourage the questioning of beliefs, not the blind embrace of them.
The rising power of radical Islam is driven by two forces. One is anger that the bankrupt states of the Muslim and Arab world have offered nothing better than the sort of repression Assad's father, Hafez Assad, delivered for years. The other is deep mistrust of U.S. intentions and policies toward Palestinians, Iraqis and Muslims in general -- before and, more so, after Sept. 11. In surveys conducted over the past two years, Arabs and Muslims describe the Palestinian issue as very important, indeed not central to their antagonistic attitude toward the United States.
There is little question Arab and Muslim regimes are contributing to what I believe will be their ultimate demise by running on empty. While Islamic militants have no genuine social program -- except the empty slogan of "Islam is the solution" -- the governments repressing them don't have programs either. Instead the governments have tolerated corruption and grave social neglect. Democracy is the last thing on the minds of either side. Radical fundamentalists believe it is positively anti-Islamic. Present governments are not prepared to depart.
Above all, hardly anyone in the Middle East believes the Bush administration gives a hoot about it either. I recall a dinner last spring given by a senior Saudi prince at the plush Globe restaurant in Riyadh on top of the Faisaliyah towers, just after Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "a man of peace." My host, a graduate of UCLA, looked at me and asked, "Is that how your American pals are planning to make friends in this region?" He was speaking of his American pals, too.