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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Hillary's speech on Islamists

On Monday night, Hilary Clinton gave the keynote address at the National Democratic Institute's 2011 Democracy Awards Dinner. Her speech has been much discussed since then.

Let's look at what she actually said:
How will America respond if and when democracy brings to power people and parties we disagree with?

We hear these questions most often when it comes to Islamist religious parties. Now, of course, I hasten to add that not all Islamists are alike. Turkey and Iran are both governed by parties with religious roots, but their models and behavior are radically different. There are plenty of political parties with religious affiliations—Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim—that respect the rules of democratic politics. The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous, and wrong. They do it in this country every day.

Now, reasonable people can disagree on a lot, but there are things that all parties, religious and secular, must get right—not just for us to trust them, but most importantly for the people of the region and of the countries themselves to trust them to protect their hard-won rights.

Parties committed to democracy must reject violence; they must abide by the rule of law and respect the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly; they must respect the rights of women and minorities; they must let go of power if defeated at the polls; and in a region with deep divisions within and between religions, they cannot be the spark that starts a conflagration. In other words, what parties call themselves is less important to us than what they actually do. We applaud NDI for its work to arrive at a model code of conduct for political parties across the political spectrum and around the globe. We need to reinforce these norms and to hold people accountable for following them.

In Tunisia, an Islamist party has just won a plurality of the votes in an open, competitive election. Its leaders have promised to embrace freedom of religion and full rights for women. To write a constitution and govern, they will have to persuade secular parties to work with them. And as they do, America will work with them, too, because we share the desire to see a Tunisian democracy emerge that delivers for its citizens and because America respects the right of the Tunisian people to choose their own leaders.

And so we move forward with clear convictions. Parties and candidates must respect the rules of democracy, to take part in elections, and hold elective office. And no one has the right to use the trappings of democracy to deny the rights and security of others. People throughout the region worry about this prospect, and so do we. Nobody wants another Iran. Nobody wants to see political parties with military wings and militant foreign policies gain influence. When members of any group seek to oppress their fellow citizens or undermine core democratic principles, we will stand on the side of the people who push back to defend their democracy.
Clinton seems to be watering down the definition of "Islamist." The term itself is somewhat controversial, but I believe that a pretty good starting point for a definition is the one Wikipedia uses for Islamism: A set of ideologies holding that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system.

Now, Islam itself no doubt is a political system. Islam is not a personal religion but an encompassing worldview. So a more accurate definition for Islamism would be "a set of ideologies demanding that Islam be the basis of a political system instead of a personal religion." Or, simply, political Islam.

Given this, Clinton's statement about "faithful Muslims" is a red herring. Muslims in a democracy who accept the fundamental tenets of personal freedoms and equal rights are, by definition, not practicing Islamism. And the analogy with Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism is silly, as no one is seriously threatened by any political versions of those religions taking over any countries.

So here is the problem. Clinton is saying that the US would only support "Islamist" parties who accept freedom of religion, respect the rules of democracy,support full rights for women and so on. But if they do that, they are not Islamist by definition!

However, Clinton said that the Ennahda party in Tunisia has promised to "embrace freedom of religion and full rights for women." How can that be?

Because it didn't win a majority of the votes!

Islamists are nothing if not strategists. They are quite willing to compromise on their core principles in order to form coaltions, they are willing to set aside their beliefs in order to obtain leadership positions. But those are tactical moves. Their overall strategy remains the same, to ultimately use Sharia law as the basis for all legislation in the country - not only for personal laws governing marriage, for example, but also for foreign policy, for national initiatives and for everyday circumstances. If Ennahda won a majority vote, you can be certain that women would be barred from many jobs by law.

This speech betrays a fundamental flaw in American thinking on foreign policy.

Chances are that Clinton doesn't even believe what she is saying but the desire to work with Islamist parties that are distasteful outweighs, in the opinion of the State Department, the option of marginalizing them.

It is worth looking at history though. Three times in recent decades have Islamist parties been democratically elected to leadership roles.

In Turkey, the Islamists have been slowly dismantling the aggressively secular government policies of their predecessors.

In the Palestinian Arab territories, Hamas has forcibly taken over Gaza and freedoms are almost non-existent. It is literally inconceivable that Hamas would voluntarily give up their power base in Gaza in any agreement with the PA or as a result of any election.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has been maintaining their own separate militia and are well on their way to destroying a vibrant multicultural society.

The track record of democratically elected Islamists is very, very bad.

And time is not on the side of liberal democrats who espouse freedoms.

(Barry Rubin is much less charitable than I am about this speech.)