Sep 25, 2006

An Expert's View on Political Islam

From Harpers:

Dr. Emile A. Nakhleh served in the CIA for 15 years and retired on June 30, 2006, as the Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, the intelligence community's premier group dedicated to the issue of political Islam. His research has focused on political Islam, political and educational reform, regime stability, and governance in the greater Middle East. Nakhleh was awarded several senior intelligence commendation medals, including the Director's Medal and the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. While at the CIA, Nakhleh briefed the "highest policymakers" -- he is not allowed to identify them by name -- on issues related to the war on terrorism.

What should the United States do in Iraq now?

I have come to believe that our presence is part of the problem and that we should begin to seriously devise an exit strategy. There's a civil war in Iraq and our presence is contributing to the violence. We've become a lightning rod -- we're not restricting the violence, we're contributing to it. Iraq has galvanized jihadists; our presence is what is attracting them. We need to get out of there. The idea of Iraq being a model for the region has also been tossed out the window. Now the only question is whether Iraq will become a haven for sectarianism, or follow either the Iranian model or the standard Arab authoritarian model. It's only three years old, but the once-touted model of a secular, democratic Iraq is all but forgotten. This casts a dark shadow on American efforts to spread democracy in the region.

What is the likely political fallout from the Iraqi debacle and from the failures of the "war on terrorism"?

We've lost a generation of goodwill in the Muslim world. The President's democratization and reform program for the Middle East has all but disappeared, except for official rhetoric. That was the centerpiece of the President's policies for the region, and now no one is talking about it. We have lost credibility across the Islamic world regarding "democracy" and "representative government" and "justice." We are devising new rules and regulations for holding people without charge. The FBI has been at Guantanamo for years, and no charges have been brought against anyone. The Islamic world says "you talk about human rights, but you're holding people without charging them." The Islamic world has always viewed the war on terror as a war on Islam and we have not been able to disabuse them of that notion. Because of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other abuses we have lost on the concepts of justice, fairness and the rule of law, and that's the heart of the American idea. That's very serious, and that's where I see the danger in the years ahead.

Is there an inherent threat to Western democracies from the Islamic world?

No, there's only a threat from those who use Islam for ideological reasons and who are willing to employ violence. There are 1.4 billion people in the Islamic world and only a tiny minority, maybe 2 or 3 percent, are politically active. Just like Jews and Christians, most have kids to raise and bills to pay. Most view Islam as a personal and societal force, not a political one, and only a tiny minority becomes terrorists. There are hundreds of political parties in the Muslim world, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen, Pakistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Those parties and their supporters have participated in many elections, and some times they have won and some times they have lost, but they have largely recognized the results. Not all are necessarily interested in creating Sharia societies. Even Hamas highlighted its opposition to Israel and service to society, not religious issues. Political Islam is not a threat -- the threat is if people become disenchanted with the political process and democracy, and opt for violence. There is a real danger from a few terrorists and we should go after them, but the longer-term threat is that people opt out of the system. We need to not only speak out in favor of democracy and political reform, but also act on that as well.

Iran is another major conundrum for policymakers. How should the United States proceed in formulating an Iran policy?

The conflict in post-Saddam Iraq, the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, and the Shiite empowerment and revival across the region have clearly demonstrated Iran's standing as a regional power with influence beyond its borders. Whether we like it or not, we would do well to begin to explore creative ways to engage Iran and bring Iran and Shiite politics to the forefront of our policy in the region. For decades, the US has based its policy and interests in the greater Middle region on close relations with Sunni Arab, authoritarian regimes in the name of fighting Communism during the cold war and terrorism since 9/11. We coddled many of those regimes for the sake of regional stability and catered to their "fears" about the Shiites. Iran is a large country with a vibrant civil society, rich history and culture, and well-established political traditions. I think it would be detrimental to our long-term interests to ignore the Iranian reality and let ourselves be blinded by our dislike for the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Shiite revival is evident across the region, from Azerbaijan to Pakistan. We should go beyond the Sunni concerns about the "arc of Shiite revival" and devise ways to engage Shiite political, religious, and social leaders, including state and non-state actors. The growing influence of Hezbollah, and its leader Hasan Nasrallah, across the region and within the Sunni street, and the growing regional influence and reach of Iran, are two new realities that we should recognize and engage. Iran's nuclear issue is as much a failure of the nonproliferation approach as it is one of belligerence. Here too, I think, creative policies of engagement are called for and are possible.

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