Making Sense of the Cartoon Controversy

Feb. 8, 2006 — -- World leaders were caught off guard by Muslim outrage over 12 cartoons that negatively depicted the Prophet Mohammed in the European press. A torrent of anger and protest has rocked Muslim countries from Indonesia to tiny Lebanon, at times turning violent.

World leaders were also surprised by the spectacular victory of Hamas (official name: the Islamic Resistance Movement) in Palestinian parliamentary elections last month. The militant group swept the governing Fatah party from power, winning 74 of 132 seats; Fatah won 45. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "I've asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."

But Muslim protests and Hamas' triumph are neither surprising nor isolated developments. They are an expression of Islamic identity under siege -- an extreme response by people who sense internal and external danger. They are part of a trend that is transforming the political landscape of Muslim societies.

Mainstream Islamists, whose goal is to establish governments based on shariah, or Koranic law, are increasingly seen as the real defenders of the ummah, Muslim community, against foreign encroachments, be it military or cultural invasion. When the cartoons that depicted Mohammed were first published by Denmark's largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, on Sept. 30, there was hardly any public outcry for three weeks.

Islamic activists waged an intense media campaign to publicize the matter and criticized the religious and ruling establishment for not taking a more vocal stand. They led the way, and their mobilization efforts paid off handsomely.

Stoking the Fire

Ordinary Muslims responded to the Islamists message because they were genuinely offended by the public depiction of their prophet in a hostile light. There is also a widespread perception among Muslims that the West is waging a real war -- under the cover of the war on terror -- against Islam and Muslims. Public opinion surveys show for many Muslims who believe that their deepest spiritual values -- their Islamic identity -- are being targeted, the cartoon controversy is seen as another battle in the wider Western onslaught against Islam. Thus, the cartoons touched a raw nerve and poured fuel on a simmering cultural fire. All Islamic activists had to do was stoke the fire.

Muslims are also impressed by what they see as Islamists' incorruptibility and ability to build an effective social infrastructure that exposes the incompetency and failure of secular regimes. Hamas, for instance, helps the widows of suicide attackers and offers assistance to poor people, including day care, health care, kindergarten and preschool.

Ironically, the Bush administration's championing of democracy propelled Islamic activists to the top of the political chart. To many Muslims, who are deeply suspicious of American efforts to export democracy into their lands, a vote for Islamists is a vote against America's foreign policy and its local allies.

A recent public opinion survey conducted jointly by Zogby International and the University of Maryland showed that 75 percent of Arab respondents do not believe that democracy is the real objective of American efforts to promote political reform and change in the region; instead, three out of every four respondents believe that the main motives of U.S. policies in the Middle East are "oil, protecting Israel, dominating the region and weakening the Muslim world."

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.

But one thing is clear: Islamists will meet a fate similar to their secular precursors if they do not deliver the social goods, or if they entrap their people in costly military adventures against their real or imagined enemies. The electorate would disown them as surely as it is turning away from today's leaders.

In other words, the Muslim electorate is not itself Islamist in a radical or fundamentalist way; rather, it is disaffected and fed up with oppression, corruption and incompetence, and is "throwing the bums out" -- akin to voting out Republicans in favor of Democrats, or vice versa -- doing something "normal" in a democratic society. This fear must torment Hamas' leaders as they try to govern a society under occupation that is in the throes of socioeconomic and political turmoil and whose economic survival depends on foreign assistance.

The Bush administration must realize that the Islamists' electoral victory represents the beginning of the democratic process, not its end. More, not less, democracy is a key to overcoming the existential crisis in Muslim societies.

Fawaz A. Gerges, who holds the Christian Johnson Chair in Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of the recently published "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global" (Cambridge University Press). Gerges is a senior analyst for ABC News.