Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh

Is There a Difference Between “Moderate” and “Radical” Islamism?

Labels are always dangerous things. In the context of the U.S. policy debate, pundits attach labels to opponents in order to avoid debating issues or in order to construct straw man arguments. Seldom do people use labels with the precision they deserve. This is certainly the case when it comes to religion.

I use the term Islamism to depict the use of Islam as a political ideology and studiously avoid the term “Islamo-Fascism,” which is not accurate except, in very limited cases, to Hezbollah. (Several years ago, Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol falsely accused me of using the term; when I later saw him in Prague, he acknowledged his error, but neither he nor David Judson, his editor at the Turkish [now Hürriyet] Daily News, saw fit to correct their fabrication. To use labels precisely, it would be fair to call Akyol sloppy and, for failing to correct his error, lacking integrity).

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Labels are always dangerous things. In the context of the U.S. policy debate, pundits attach labels to opponents in order to avoid debating issues or in order to construct straw man arguments. Seldom do people use labels with the precision they deserve. This is certainly the case when it comes to religion.

I use the term Islamism to depict the use of Islam as a political ideology and studiously avoid the term “Islamo-Fascism,” which is not accurate except, in very limited cases, to Hezbollah. (Several years ago, Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol falsely accused me of using the term; when I later saw him in Prague, he acknowledged his error, but neither he nor David Judson, his editor at the Turkish [now Hürriyet] Daily News, saw fit to correct their fabrication. To use labels precisely, it would be fair to call Akyol sloppy and, for failing to correct his error, lacking integrity).

The debate about Islamism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or jihadism) and labels is complex, and few people who engage in it choose their words with care. Martin Kramer did an admirable job explaining the evolution of terms, here, and others have since followed suit.

If newspapers and wire services are going to discuss Islamism and then modify it with terms such as “moderate” and “radical,” it would behoove them to define in advance what is “moderate” and what is not. Take this story, regarding Egyptian presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, which described Abul Fotouh as follows:

A moderate Islamist with support from both hardline fundamentalists and liberals, Abul Fotouh refused to describe bin Laden as a terrorist, saying the term was used by the United States to “hit Muslim interests.”

I know many moderate Muslims – who put their lives on the line every day to preserve liberty and freedom of religious interpretation—and I am also friends with many moderate Islamists. I know not a single moderate, however, who defends bin Laden. Does Agence France Presse (and Yahoo) really believe moderates embrace bin Laden’s legacy? Wouldn’t it be more likely that a man who praises and defends bin Laden is actually somewhat radical? Other outlets which define Abul Fotouh as “moderate” include the BBC, Tablet Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and the Financial Times, among others. These outlets would do themselves and their readers a service if they would be so kind as to articulate the difference between “moderate” and “radical” Islamism. For that matter, it is never too early for the White House and the State Department to do likewise.

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Is Egypt Too Big to Fail?

Former Arab League Chairman Amr Moussa leads a field of 13 presidential candidates in Egypt, according to a survey by the Al-Ahram Political Studies Center. Moussa received 41.1 percent of the vote, compared to surging Islamist but ex-Muslim Brotherhood candidate Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who took 27.3 percent of the vote. The poll does not reflect the impact of the Salafist Nour Party and Salafist Scholar Shura Council’s endorsement of Abul-Fotouh.

It would be a mistake to get lost in the horse race among the candidates at this point, though. It may be tempting for many to embrace Amr Moussa because he is not an Islamist, but when it comes to any issues about which Western liberals and proponents of Middle East peace and tolerance care, Amr Moussa is little better than his Salafist opponents.

Rather, it’s time the United States look ahead to Egypt’s future. Each candidate has promised their constituents the world. The Muslim Brotherhood and an-Nour rose to victory in parliamentary elections not only on the back of Saudi and Qatari petrodollars, but also because their representatives could condemn corruption and promise the poor and dispossessed almost anything: Guaranteed jobs, housing, and higher education; good salaries; and set prices in the markets.

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Former Arab League Chairman Amr Moussa leads a field of 13 presidential candidates in Egypt, according to a survey by the Al-Ahram Political Studies Center. Moussa received 41.1 percent of the vote, compared to surging Islamist but ex-Muslim Brotherhood candidate Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who took 27.3 percent of the vote. The poll does not reflect the impact of the Salafist Nour Party and Salafist Scholar Shura Council’s endorsement of Abul-Fotouh.

It would be a mistake to get lost in the horse race among the candidates at this point, though. It may be tempting for many to embrace Amr Moussa because he is not an Islamist, but when it comes to any issues about which Western liberals and proponents of Middle East peace and tolerance care, Amr Moussa is little better than his Salafist opponents.

Rather, it’s time the United States look ahead to Egypt’s future. Each candidate has promised their constituents the world. The Muslim Brotherhood and an-Nour rose to victory in parliamentary elections not only on the back of Saudi and Qatari petrodollars, but also because their representatives could condemn corruption and promise the poor and dispossessed almost anything: Guaranteed jobs, housing, and higher education; good salaries; and set prices in the markets.

Of course, once they are in power, they will not be able to deliver but, by then, it will be too late for ordinary Egyptians. Here, Iran’s Islamic Revolution provides a good analogy. A full ten percent of Iranians took part in the 1979 revolution. They were united in their opposition to the Shah, and read into Ayatollah Khomeini what they wanted. “We were promised an Islamic democracy,” one of my Iranian tutors explained to me when I lived in Isfahan, “but what we got was neither Islamic nor a democracy. By the time we figured this out, though, it was too late and we were already embroiled in war.”

There will be a day of reckoning for the Egyptian government as the country’s tourism sector flatlines and its foreign reserves evaporate. Bread is subsidized in Egypt, and the government will no longer be able to provide. The question for the West at that point will be whether Egypt deserves even more debt forgiveness and aid. The new Egyptian government might be noxious, its management irresponsible, and its positions extreme, but would the world face either a far more extreme Egypt or a failed state if the Egyptian economy collapses?

With one-in-three Middle Eastern Arabs living in Egypt’s narrow Nile River valley, there is a real case to be made that the chaos of state collapse must be averted at any cost. But, while failure would not be pretty, it is time the White House and Congress consider whether U.S. foreign assistance is an entitlement or a privilege. The foreign aid community would differ, but simply put, U.S. foreign aid should never be an entitlement. Egyptians should realize they are accountable for their governments’ actions. If their government leads them down the path to disaster, so be it.

Perhaps rather than subsidizing an Amr Moussa or Abul-Fotouh slow-motion train wreck and rewarding anti-American and anti-Israel incitement, American policymakers would be better off considering how to advance the principles upon which America was founded: freedom, liberty, tolerance, and individual rights.

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