For decades, Arab regimes have used scare tactics to encourage the United States and Europe to support their repressive measures toward Islamist movements by invoking the image of anti-Western fanatics taking power through the ballot box. However, today’s moderate Islamists no longer match this nightmare.
In the last few years, Arab liberals have been gradually reaching out to moderate Islamists and engaging them in campaigns calling for reforms. These are steps in the right direction and the U.S. and Europe should learn from this example. The cause of political transformation in the region is best served by bringing in Islamist movements and their popular constituencies.
Drawing on the insights of some twenty-five leading Western and Middle Eastern scholars, Islam and Democracy in the Middle East highlights the dualistic and often contradictory nature of political liberalization. Political liberalization—as managed by the state—not only opens new spaces for debate and criticism, but is also used as a deliberate tactic to avoid genuine democratization.
Despite predictions that the American march into Baghdad would unleash either a wave of democratization or a plague of repression throughout the region, in reality most Middle Eastern states are too preoccupied with domestic problems to be moved profoundly by events in Iraq. Iraq will have a political impact on the region, but changes are likely to come in smaller steps than commonly predicted.
Before the United States can determine whether its gradualist approach to democratic reform in the Middle East is the best remedy, we must first understand how Arab autocracies actually work. In particular, we must understand how the "liberalized autocracies" of the region endure despite frequent prediction of their imminent death.
It is important to have partners in the war on terrorism, Carnegie's Robert Kagan writes, but a unilateral determination to act invariably precedes a policy of effective multilateralism.