Wednesday, March 30, 2005

US Mideast Policies Prove a Boon to Religious Parties

Tuesday, 29, March, 2005 (18, Safar, 1426)

US Mideast Policies Prove a Boon to Religious Parties
Linda Heard, —

While it is common knowledge that the Bush administration is out to democratize the Middle East and back secular governments friendly to the US, just the opposite is happening.

Take Iraq, for example. Isn’t it the ultimate irony, from the neocon point of view, that an avowed secular, albeit brutal, regime was toppled only to be replaced by a Shiite-dominated coalition, to be headed by Ibrahim Jaafari, leader of the Islamic Dawa Party with links to America’s arch ideological enemy, Iran?

Perhaps, like most Iraqis, you are beginning to wonder why it has taken two months since elections were held at the end of January to produce a new prime minister, president and Cabinet. On the face of it Kurdish demands over autonomy, key Cabinet posts and control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk have been the main obstacles. But read between the lines and you find one of the key sticking points is Jaafari’s advocacy of Shariah law as the basis of the new constitution.

An article in Sunday Times reports caretaker Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as saying clerics must stay out of politics if he is to join a new governing coalition. Given that Allawi came a low third place in the vote, one wonders who desires his ongoing presence other than his masters in Washington, of course.

Allawi put this demand in a letter to the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish leaders, who have basically told him, “don’t call us, we’ll call you”.

Leader of the United Iraqi Alliance cleric Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim said: “As long as we’re alive and as long as Iraq and the believers are there, we will continue to work according to the directions and the advice of the religious authority.” That certainly won’t be music to Washington’s ears.

Moving on to Egypt’s new US-inspired democracy movement led by Ayman Noor, who has been cozying up to US Ambassador David Welch, America’s best laid plans there may be going awry as well.

On Sunday, pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in large numbers outside the Parliament building and in other parts of Cairo but definitely not the ones on the US wish list. These were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged by Hosni Mubarak’s promise to change the constitution so as to allow for multiparty elections. The result was a host of arrests and detentions.

The Muslim Brotherhood, having been outlawed since 1954, and considered responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat as well as the attempted assassination of Jamal Abdul Nasser, normally maintains a low profile in the country but claims a membership of 500,000 with a far greater ideological following. Today it forms the largest and best-organized opposition group.

It is worth recalling that Osama Bin Laden’s top lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri emerged from its ranks along with others labeled “terrorists” by the US. The omnipresent threat of the Brotherhood putting its head above the parapet may have been the reason Mubarak earlier referred to a pluralistic and open electoral system as “futile”.

It is certainly true that Ayman Noor’s pro-Western ‘kifayah’ or Enough Movement is perceived as refreshing wind of change among the Egyptian elite as well as some intellectuals, but for decades the Brotherhood has been courting the nation’s poorest with financial handouts as well as free or subsidized food in the same way the Lebanese militant Islamist group Hezbollah — now coalescing into a political force — has been doing.

Ah, but Lebanon is on the verge of independence and democracy now that Syria has begun to pull out, you might be forgiven for believing. And it’s all down to the US with a little help from France and other like-minded allies. But even before the celebratory fireworks are set to go off, they already are in the form of sectarian violence and bombs. The Lebanese may be united in cheering on Syria’s exit, but there are major ideological and religious divides, threatening to erupt.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Syrian Minister Bouthaina Shaaban outlines a statement by Condoleezza Rice on her vision of the new Middle East thus: “A different kind of broader Middle East that’s going to be stable and democratic, where our children will one day not have to worry about the kind of ideologies of hatred that led those people to fly those airplanes into those buildings on Sept. 11.”

Such irony isn’t lost on Ms. Shaaban either. While complaining about Rice’s description of the region as being riddled with “ideologies of hatred” Shaaban argues: “Syria’s secular heritage and its long-standing tradition of religious coexistence are being threatened...”

The fact is that the Bush administration’s policies concerning the region are badly conceived. They are based on simplistic goals set to increase Western power, influence and ideals while diluting traditional convictions inherent throughout the area. Instead, due to US aggression and “do as I say but not as I do” diktats, the reverse has come into play.

Religious, political and militant groups are using the rampant anti-Americanism prevalent in the region to gain supporters while privately thanking the US for opening up democratic channels through which they may legitimately gain power.

The bottom line is this: For the first time ever a fundamentalist power bloc is being formed from Iraq to Lebanon and, perhaps, even in Egypt courtesy of Uncle Sam, who may have shot himself in the foot.

The neocons may think they are clever but they have turned out to be fools. So-called Western “values” can’t be imposed on other parts of the world by force and threats. They will only be evaluated and accepted by people who admire their purveyors and who, over time, come to the conclusion that those values best serve their interests.

In the final analysis Western-style democracy must come from the bottom up just as it has done in various former Soviet republics. Ideally it should be a grass-roots movement, which works its way to the top, perhaps gently encouraged and supported by major global players rather than forcibly inserted on the back of a bomb. There will be many within the region and without who disagree with this analysis. They are the eternal optimists, who are desperate for change. Some genuinely believe the US and its policies are a force for good. I can only hope that they are right and those who think as I do are wrong. Time, as always, will tell.

— Linda Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback.