Commentary Magazine


Moderate Islamists and Soccer Fundamentalists

If you believe the papers, today’s Muslim world is a funny place. The Islamists are reform-minded democrats and the soccer fans are murderous fundamentalists.

A flurry of reports describe a wave of tolerance sweeping up Islamists everywhere–from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the Afghan Taliban to Tunisia’s Ennhada party to Libya’s “relative moderates,” as Reuters puts it, “who prefer a civil state simply inspired by sharia.” Hey, they said relative.

Somehow it doesn’t quite feel like moderation is tempering Middle Eastern Islamism, does it? Perhaps that’s because Middle Eastern Soccerism is becoming such a deadly menace. Egyptian soccer fans known as “Ultras” killed 73 people at Wednesday night’s game in Port Said. Ultras also led the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo last September. For a better look at the horror of Soccerism, watch this video of a packed Egyptian stadium chanting for another Holocaust.

The tradition of moderate soccer fandom has given way to a radical and unrepresentative strain that seeks to pervert a proud and glorious pastime. Hopefully the moderates will reclaim the game before 2022, when the World Cup comes to Qatar—whose Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani recently recommended the West embrace, you got it, “moderate Islamists.”

Okay, Soccerism is a cheap joke. But it’s more respectable than the official line on the so-called Arab Spring and moderate Islamists. Only used-foreign-policy salesmen could look at the mess in Egypt and beyond and sell it as a triumph for democracy. And only the most craven among them would throw compassionate Islamism into the deal for no additional cost.

If the Egyptian military can’t prevent mass-casualties at a sporting event, it can’t govern. If thousands of Egyptian citizens can’t get together without calling for the annihilation of Jews, moderation has a long way to go. And if every country of the Arab Spring has put radicals in government, the near-term prospects for Middle East democracy are slim. The Islamists and the soccer Ultras are parts of the same toxic stew that comes boiling out when you rip the lid off of Middle East autocracy. They are the rubbish that realists sweep under the rug of stability.

But pretending that Islamism is moderate and unrest is democratic is a win-win deal for springtime Islamists and Obama administration declinists. The former get the West off their backs and the latter get to retreat from an unraveling world order.  If we buy into the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic “progress” we can skip the hard work of real democracy promotion. If we take the Taliban’s claims of moderation at face value we can surrender—yes, surrender—in Afghanistan and call it victory.

It was only 2008 when John McCain said of Americans, “We don’t hide from history. We make history.” But it might as well have been 1908. The administration has missed so much history during the last three years, the next president is sure to face some brutal make-up classes. We sat out a regional metamorphosis, turned our backs on hard-won Iraq victory, and washed our hands of a winnable war in Afghanistan.

Barack Obama believed if America just got out of the way, the rest of the world would sort itself out. It mattered not at all that the full expanse of human history stood as evidence against that contention. With no democratic superpower to play the imposing role of world police, we’d at last get to see the friendly nature of long-demonized adversaries.

But absolutely nothing is better for America having sat on the sidelines. It’s becoming clear that the difference between a democratic revolt and a senseless riot is at the discretion of the headline writer. The only hope for shaping these eruptions into something recognizably democratic lies with the United States. Which means, at the moment, there is little hope at all.

Listen closely to Brotherhood members or Taliban spokesmen prattle on about representative governance, women’s rights, and pluralism. They sound like incarcerated murderers who explain their rampages in Freudian language provided them by jailhouse social workers. Serial killers have become more expert at explaining denial, projection, and sublimation than college psychology professors. If you think that means they’re cured, go ahead and release them.

It’s likely moderate Islamism will turn out to be uncannily similar to the less moderate version we’re still allowed to worry about. It will just be dressed up in a guise we can more easily ignore. But by the time that news breaks, the United States will have dealt itself out of the region, and the game, completely. Watch the soccer Ultras, not the moderation peddlers, if you want to see where things are headed.

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