Tarek Masoud on Politics in the Middle East

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on April 10, 2009

Many of the world’s greatest challenges – from securing our energy future to combating nuclear proliferation and terrorism – have their roots in the internal politics of the countries of the Middle East. The region is home to a wide variety of political systems – from Iran’s theocratic regime, to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, to the soft-autocracies of countries like Egypt and Yemen, to the fledgling democracy of Iraq – but in all of them, religion plays a powerful political role.

Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy, studies the politics of religion in the Islamic world, and particularly the ways in which Islamist movements and political parties shape, and are shaped by, their political environments. Masoud was recently named a 2009 Carnegie Scholar.

Q: Religion remains a critical component in the political dynamic in many Middle East countries. Is this a permanent condition or is there any evidence to show that dynamic may be changing?

Masoud:Obviously religion plays an important role in the daily lives of the people of the Middle East. The question is what role it plays in the region’s politics. If we look at the outcomes of the limited elections that are held in several Middle Eastern countries, we see that Islamist opposition parties – which want to refashion political and social institutions in accordance with their idea of God’s law – all seem to do very well, especially in comparison to secular opposition parties. Now, this might lead us to think that there is a great popular desire for religion to govern political life. In fact, many scholars have argued precisely that. We often hear that Islam by its very nature demands theocracy. The great historian Bernard Lewis, for example, argues that the example of the prophet Mohammed, who was not only a prophet, but also the political leader of the early Islamic community, causes Muslims to believe that you must fuse politics and religion in order to have a just society. This is thought to explain the success of Islamist parties—Muslims vote for them because this is what their religion tells them to do.
But I don’t think this is right. We have to remember that Middle Eastern voters are generally faced with a very limited range of political choices. In most countries of the region, secular opposition parties are thoroughly managed by the regime. They are so hemmed in that they are unable to compete freely for votes. My research suggests that people may choose religious parties not because they want a more pious politics, but because a vote for Islamists is the best way to express discontent with repressive, underperforming governments. It is likely that if voters were allowed a wider array of credible choices – from liberal parties to leftist parties – the share of seats captured by Islamists would diminish considerably.
Q: How are specific Islamist movements affecting the political environments in various Middle Eastern countries?
Masoud:The thing we are most concerned about in the Middle East is how to get and keep democracy there. The countries that I study – like Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Morocco – all have the trappings of democracies, and yet are fundamentally autocratic. They have limited, often rigged elections for seats in generally powerless legislatures. And yet Islamist parties participate in these elections. In fact, Islamist parties are among the most vocal proponents of free and fair elections in that part of the world.
This is a pretty big change. To get a sense of how important this change is, we need to think back to one of the most influential Islamist theorists of the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was executed in Egypt in 1966 for plotting jihad against that country’s regime. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the founding thinkers of the radical, revolutionary strain of political Islam that now motivates people like Osama bin Laden. In his famous book, “Milestones,” he declared that democracy and Western forms of government were actually forms of tyranny because they subject people to the rule of man. In his view, the only true freedom could be had by subjecting people solely to the rule of God, which is at odds with our notion of what freedom means.
But if you listen to Islamists now, they explicitly reject this formulation of Sayyid Qutb’s. For example, the current leader of the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly declared that the organization believes in free and fair elections, in turnovers of power, in term limits for the executive. So this is a really radical shift – or an important shift at least – in the ideology of one of the world’s principal Islamist movements.
So to the extent that Islamists are being shaped by their political environments, the evidence seems to be that they are becoming at least more democratic. Now, are they becoming more liberal? Are they more willing to accept an equal role for women and non-Muslim minorities in politics? That’s a more difficult question and, in fact, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. But there’s no question that Islamists appear to be increasingly committed to democratic procedures.
Of course, you might argue that Islamists only want to use elections to come to power, after which they will dismantle all trappings of democracy. The irony, however, is that the ones dismantling the trappings of democracy are the regimes of the region. In fact, it’s a strange fact of life in the Middle East that the more actively Islamists participate in the region’s semi-democratic arenas, the less likely democracy becomes. After all, what better way to get the United States and local liberal activists to back off of their demands for more democracy than by pointing to the possibility that truly free and fair elections will bring to power a theocratic Islamist government?
Q: How are the Islamic movements affecting terrorism threats in the region?
Masoud: The Muslim Brotherhood, which I mentioned earlier, is the flagship Islamic movement in the Middle East. It was founded in Egypt in 1928, and almost every Islamist political party in the Muslim world has its roots in the Brotherhood.
In its early days, particularly in the 1940s, the Brotherhood had established its own militia, called the “secret” or “special” apparatus. In 1948, the secret apparatus was implicated in the assassination of one of Egypt’s prime ministers. So there is certainly an early relationship between violence and political Islam. Moreover, as we saw, the Muslim Brotherhood spawned the theorist Sayyid Qutb, who argued that the states of the Middle East were un-Islamic and had to be fought in a sort of Holy War. Of course, there have always been other, nonviolent strains within the Brotherhood. But it is unquestionable that many of the ideas that motivate so-called Islamist terrorists today emerged from the bosom of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the point is, since the 1970s, as the Muslim Brotherhood has been incorporated into political life – not just in Egypt but throughout the Muslim world– its political program has been geared much more towards participation in peaceful politics and competing in elections rather than engaging in violence. Indeed, violent groups like al-Qaeda criticize the Muslim Brotherhood for selling out, for abandoning jihad and running in elections instead.
So I think there is a real divide between the violent Islamic groups and the more moderate or peaceful groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in terms of their approach to participating in politics. The question is, is there a real difference between them in their vision of the kind of society that they want to erect? And even there I would say yes. For example, though the Muslim Brotherhood is still not where we in the West are on issues like women’s rights or minority rights, it nevertheless pays great lip service to recognizing these groups’ full citizenship in the community. The Brotherhood still holds some deeply troubling views – for example, on child marriage and female genital mutilation – but for the most part they are worlds away from where the violent Islamist groups are.
I’ve argued that there is little connection between Islamist parties and violent Islamists, but my view is actually contradicted by Islamist parties themselves. Parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood frequently argue that when regimes crack down on them, this just causes their followers or potential followers to decide that participating in peaceful politics is hopeless, and to instead turn to violence. So, in fact, they are themselves positing a link between Islamist parties and terrorist groups. It’s not clear to me that they are right – the evidence I have managed to collect so far suggests that the average Muslim Brotherhood voter is very different from the average Islamic terrorist. But it may be a useful fiction for Islamist parties to cultivate as they try to carve out more political space for themselves.
Q: Now there’s a new U.S. administration with a new approach to the Middle East, how does that impact the dynamic we’ve been discussing?
Masoud: I think that the essential question really is whether or not we in the United States are going to support democratization in the Middle East. I think what really concerns us in the policy community and the scholarly community is whether or not greater political openings in the Middle East will simply serve as a kind of delivery system for Islamist governments. We saw in 2006 that free and fair elections in the Palestinian Territories brought an Islamist movement, Hamas, to power. So it is a real question whether or not greater political openings will result in more of the same.
The important thing for us to recognize is that political life in these countries is very complex. If you look at Egypt for example today, we find that even in areas where the Muslim Brotherhood actually wins seats, many more people vote against the Muslim Brotherhood--for local notables, clan leaders, business leaders--than they do for the Muslim brotherhood. So there’s a kind of variety of political affiliations, allegiances and preferences in these societies that I think would express themselves in any kind of democratic opening.
My sense is that we may have very little to fear in the long term from democracy in the Middle East.

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