Making Sense of the Cartoon Controversy

In this way, President Bush has unwittingly helped Islamists flex their political muscle and sow the seeds of a peaceful Islamic revolution, though not in the direction he envisioned. The secular political order imposed after World War I appears to be coming apart -- under the strains of oppression and socioeconomic decline -- but it is Islam, not liberal democracy, that is stepping into the breach.

Political Victories

In the last two years, Islamists scored impressive electoral victories in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, Kuwait and Turkey, as well as in the Palestinian-controlled territories. The United States would do well to listen to what Muslim voters are saying.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state, is a case in point. In parliamentary elections last November, the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated Islamist group, overcame the arrests of thousands of its supporters to win 20 percent of the seats, increasing its presence in parliament sixfold. Its performance is all the more impressive given that it contested barely a quarter of parliamentary seats. Secular opposition parties, meanwhile, won only a handful of seats.

Before the election, Brotherhood leaders assured the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, that they had no intention of trying to dislodge it from power. Yet the security forces prevented Brotherhood voters from casting their votes in many polling stations, according to international human rights and independent observers. If free and open elections were held today, the Brotherhood would win a comfortable majority, like that of Hamas, and the Shia and Sunni religious parties in Iraq. We should not be surprised that Muslim voters are empowering Islamists. Secular rulers have failed to deliver jobs, social services and education, and to defend the homeland against external threats. More and more Muslims view Islamists as the most effective alternative to the discredited ruling establishment.

For example, there is a widespread perception among Palestinians that Fatah, the governing party of President Mahmoud Abbas, is deeply corrupt and inept. Many also believe that Abbas has not been tough enough with Israel, and that America and Europe let him down. The election results show that 60 percent of Palestinians voted for Hamas because it promised to end corruption, reform their institutions and defend their rights against Israel. Half of those who voted for Hamas were neither loyal members nor part of its social base -- they punished Fatah primarily for abusing their trust.

'Throwing the Bums Out'

There are too few Islamic experiments in democracy to draw definite lessons and conclusions from the results in Palestinian territories, Egypt and elsewhere. In Turkey, the governing Islamist-based Justice and Development party, or AK, has strengthened the rule of law and respected the country's secular foundation. In Iran, on the other hand, the ruling mullahs have brutally suppressed political dissent.

Ideologically, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are closer to the Iranian mullahs than to the modernist Turkish Islamists. But they have come a long way in the last five years, thanks to their engagement in the political process. The performance of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood over the next few years will shed further light on the nature of their social agenda and foreign policy.

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