LESS than a decade ago Islamist parties were an irresistible force in the Middle East. As dictators quaked in the Arab uprisings of 2011, these groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, gained influence and seized control. The mosque and the ballot box seemed to have replaced the palace, the barracks and the secret police as a source of power.
But in the wreckage of the Arab world today, many act as if the idea that Islamists can play a useful democratic role is broken, too. They are being repressed anew by reactionary regimes, challenged by violent jihadists and looked upon with suspicion by voters whom they failed. Many are in jail or exile (see article). Their main bankroller, Qatar, is being subjected to diplomatic and economic ostracism by its Arab neighbours, with the backing of President Donald Trump. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are urging Western governments to brand the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists.
When jihadists kill—as they did again in Spain last week—it is indeed tempting to treat those who seek power in the name of Islam as a menace. Yet the blanket repression of all Islamists is the worst possible response. In the end, it will lead only to more resentment, more turmoil and more terrorism.
Islamist groups come in many forms, from Ennahda, the Tunisians who call themselves “Muslim democrats”, to Hamas, the Palestinians who dispatched suicide-bombers to Israel. Those who would suppress them all make three errors: they claim Islamists are all the same; they say they are fundamentally undemocratic; and they think the solution lies with strongmen.
Start with the conflation. Critics charge that political Islamists differ little from jihadists like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, since both sorts of groups seek to re-create an Islamic caliphate under sharia and disagree only over timing and means; worse, political Islam is often a gateway to violent jihad.
The Brotherhood is itself partly to blame for the blurring of distinctions. Its leaders have a habit of preaching non-violence in English while, as over Palestine and Syria, talking up resistance and even jihad in Arabic. Likewise, some of the violence against the Egyptian government appears to be the work of Brotherhood radicals. Prominent global jihadists include ex-Brothers, among them Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader.
But to lump all these groups together is simplistic. Violent jihadists draw on many sources to justify their gory deeds, not least the puritanical Salafism of Saudi Arabia, which competes with the Brothers. The jihadists loathe more moderate Islamists for focusing on piety, social services and elections. They think man-made laws are an affront to divine ones. To treat all Islamists as jihadists is a bit like saying social democrats are just like Italy’s Red Brigades because they all read Karl Marx.
What of democracy? The worry is that even non-violent Islamists treat elections as a tactic: one man, one vote, one time. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, was once a model Islamist, easy on religiosity and big on liberal reforms. These days, as he purges real and imagined foes, he is almost as awful as the Arab dictators he once denounced (he keeps winning elections, though). In Egypt the short-lived Islamist president, Muhammad Morsi, seemed to govern for the Brotherhood alone. He installed Brothers throughout the bureaucracy and declared himself to be above the (dubious) judiciary. He alienated other parties, provoking mass protests.
Critics assume that Mr Erdogan and Mr Morsi are flawed because they are Islamist. But there is another explanation: that they have mimicked the power-grabbing tactics of Turkish and Egyptian strongmen to pre-empt efforts by the “security state” to seize back power—for Mr Morsi, unsuccessfully.
A more hopeful example is Tunisia, where the Arab spring started. It has avoided both the chaos of civil war in Libya, and the chokehold of the secret policemen in Egypt and Algeria. Ennahda has had the good sense to share power with more secular groups, and even to yield to them. It knows that a fragile democratic transition requires broad consensus. In Morocco the king has ceded some power to the parliament and allowed an Islamist prime minister to lead a broad coalition.
The third error is to think that states can deal with the shortcomings of political Islam by relying on absolute monarchs and presidents-for-life. Their record is dire. From the Shah’s iron rule in Iran that led to revolution in 1979, through Saddam Hussein’s terror in Iraq, to the coup that reversed the electoral wins of Islamists in Algeria in 1992 and the crushing of protests by Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2011, repression produces at best a brittle stability and at worst civil war. Unlike former autocrats in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, most of the Middle Eastern ones have failed to create durable prosperity.
Neither Sisi nor ISIS
Four years after the overthrow of Mr Morsi, it is hard to claim that he would have been worse than Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the general who ousted him. Mr Sisi, now president, carried out the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history, killing hundreds of Mr Morsi’s supporters in Cairo in 2013. The country is more repressive than it was under Hosni Mubarak. Yet a jihadist insurgency rages in Sinai. And Mr Sisi has little idea of how to create jobs for Egypt’s surging population of youngsters.
Oppression and misrule set the scene for the Arab world’s crisis; they will not soon be eradicated. However, autocracy is a dead end. Amid the bad choices, the only way out is the gradual opening of Arab economies and polities. That means letting ideologies compete, as long as they abjure violence and respect democratic norms. Competition must include Islamists, because Islam is so central to Middle Eastern society.
Often illiberal on everything from the place of God in politics to the role of women, political Islamists are hardly the Christian Democrats of the Arab world. Yet they can be pragmatic and they cannot be ignored. Rather than trying to crush them all, which would only unite and radicalise them, the aim should be to work with moderates, demand that the obnoxious reform, and fight the most dangerous. In this way Islamists might serve as a roadblock to jihadism, not a path to it.