By John Kmiecik
In American foreign policy regarding the Middle East, a trend has developed into a paramount issue. The concern over what is the role of Islam in national governments.
The past decade spent in Iraq and Afghanistan has made this even more obvious. The rise in “Islamophobia” in America following September 11 has only reinforced this misconception. In the wake of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, there exists an opportunity for a watershed moment in working towards stability in the Middle East but the possibility of which is diminished by this tendency.
The larger part of this issue concerns America’s crusade to spread democracy in the region. The problem is that one of the founding principles of Western democracy is the separation of church and state. The reasoning behind this it to protect ethnic and religious minorities rights against the rule of any single majority. However, the hysteria that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center has entrenched the misconception in the America populace that governments whose laws are partially based on the Islamic religion are fundamentally uncivilized and instable. This mistake continues to result in policy decisions that are not only haphazard to America interests, but also global security.
At the heart of this dilemma is the modern conception of civilization. The idea of television, the internet, cell phones, and pop culture has become anonymous with the American perception of civilization.
Many Americans fail to understand that the West has not always been the civilized place they call home. A millennium ago when Europe was still in the thralls of Dark Ages, the Middle East was the host of intellectually and technological innovation. The Renaissance would not have been made possible if Islamic scholars had not preserved and developed Greek and Roman knowledge.
Far from being an agent of barbarism, Islam preserved civilization when Europe was caught in the dissolution of the Roman Empire for a thousand years.
At this time, Christianity was concerned about the development of spirituality not the progression of the material world. As a religion, Islam’s institutions were concerned with not only the hereafter but also all the elements of the physical world.
The spread of Islam across the world cannot be written off as a regressive element of society but as a developing agent of civilization. Classical Islamic jurisprudence has a plethora of writing on issues ranging from minority rights to welfare, a set of laws guaranteeing basic human rights a thousand years before any Western concept of constitution being developed. In the modern context, Islam is often branched into a belief system that concerns religious extremism or fundamentalism. However, this description does not fit the mold of the larger Muslim world. In Afghanistan and Iraq, America officials attempted to forge a “beacon of democracy” for the Middle East. However, in helping to form the transitional governments they ignored the distinct cultural and social differences that separate the West from the Islamic world. The major concern is that the concept of separation of church and state is foreign to Islam. The phenomenon of “Islamophobia” has resulted in this assertion largely being ignored by America officials, with horrendous consequences.
Following the Arab Spring, this misconception continues to haunt American policy in the Middle East. Washington has kept the resulting events at arm’s length at best in that it has not committed any sizeable resources. However, as interim governments are formed and elections occur many of the parties coming to power are being labeled as Islamic fundamentalists because part of their political platform is based on Islamic law. The concern is that the American public and some officials associate fundamentalists solely with Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.
At the heart of the Arab Spring is the desire for fair elections, transparent governments, human rights, economic development, and democracy. All these elements are in line with what American foreign policy claims it pursues. As these countries are experiencing social upheaval, Washington has largely left the region to its own devices, besides Libya. However, elections are occurring in several countries. In Tunisia, the Islamic Ennahda Party won and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood found victory. Both of these parties are considered to be based on Islamic fundamentalism.
However, their victory should not be considered as a step towards insecurity but a move towards a traditional and stable form of rule for these countries. The important point is that these governments were democratically elected and the future remains to be written what path they take their perspective countries. To regard this as a backwards movement in the development of stability in the Middle East is a grave mistake. While this does not establish a definite trend in the Middle East, it should not be disregarded as a unique phenomenon.
The biggest challenge for democracy in the Middle East is finding Islam’s place in it. This is a challenge that external powers cannot answer. The recent social movements in the Middle East demonstrate that Muslims are ready to find a solution external of American foreign policy.
John Kmiecik is currently an adjunct professor with Lone Star College System. John’s primary interest of research is diplomatic, economic, and military history and his particular area of expertise is in modern Chinese, European, and Middle Eastern history.