Islamists Ride Wave of Freedom

Times Staff Writers

When Iraqis swarmed to the polls last week to cast ballots in parliamentary elections, the Bush administration hailed a democratic victory in a region creaking under the weight of corruption, cronyism and dictatorship.

But the outcome may not be what the administration had in mind when U.S. forces swept President Saddam Hussein from power more than 2 1/2 years ago. Iraq’s elections were dominated by Islamic clerics, and the incoming parliament is likely to include a large proportion of Islamist legislators, many of whom have ties to the mullahs of Iran.

In recent elections across Iraq and other countries in the region, Islamist parties have capitalized skillfully on new political freedoms to gain clout and legitimacy unprecedented in the modern Middle East. The growing strength of the religion-based parties is the single most unpredictable element in the Bush administration’s grand vision to replace despots with democracy.


Whether it’s the Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Palestinian group Hamas or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist parties have benefited from the administration’s promotion of democracy in the Arab world. But the Islamists also have gained strength from widespread opposition to U.S. policy, which has convinced some Muslims that their religion is under attack.

“U.S. foreign policy has helped directly in the rise of the Islamists,” said Gamal Banna, a liberal Egyptian writer and brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The intervention in Iraq and the support for Israel’s policies are creating so much anger in the region. The Islamists are benefiting from that anger.”

Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that they are concerned about the level of anti-Americanism and the power it has given Islamic-based parties at the ballot box, but they insist that the danger of extremist ideology can be contained.

Barry F. Lowenkron, an assistant secretary of State, referred to the risks that extremist governments -- Islamic-based or not -- might come to power as “bumps in the road.” In an interview last week, he listed steps needed to encourage competition from secular parties in the Arab world, including the lifting of emergency laws, expansion of press freedom, allowing the right of assembly and other measures to ensure that diverse voices can be heard.

He also pointed out that there was a difference between what he called “extremists” and Islamic parties.

Still, Islamic groups present a dilemma for the United States. Although Washington historically has kept Islamists at arm’s length, the widespread popular support for religious parties is difficult for any advocate of democracy to ignore.


Across the region, Islamist parties have proved themselves best poised to gain from any democratic opening. They enjoy easy access to mosques, which are virtually the only spaces where politics are publicly discussed in many Arab countries. Their slogans tap into deep religious feelings, and their legacy of social and welfare work gives them easy credibility on the street.

And Islamists have been clever in recasting themselves to suit the current mood. Many religious politicians stopped talking about Islamic republics and became unabashed democracy cheerleaders.

“We believe in democracy. The ballot box has the final say in whether you’ll be ruling or not. We don’t believe in any other means of taking power,” Mahdi Akef, the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, said in a recent interview. “How would I be a Muslim and abolish freedom at the same time? This is nonsense.”

But many Islamic groups remain carefully ambiguous about how they plan to wield their newfound power. Some analysts believe that if Islamists felt strong enough, they would seek to curb the rights of non-Muslims and women; downgrade relations with the United States and Israel; or impose a harsh Islamic law, or Sharia. Hamas and Hezbollah, for their part, have been labeled terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

In short, there is a real fear that Islamists will exploit democratic openings to rise gradually to power, only to dismantle those liberties once they’ve taken control.

“I’m sure the Brothers still want to apply an old-fashioned version of Sharia, treat [Coptic Christians] as second-class citizens and stay in power forever when they form the government,” said Emad Gad, an Israel expert at Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “They are coming up with all these moderate slogans so as not to frighten anyone, especially the West.”


Other analysts say Islamists are not to be feared. They argue that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which shook Egypt by winning nearly 20% of the seats in the recent parliamentary election, are evolving into more moderate organizations as they gain political power.

“If we’re sincere about this, we have to admit there is room for Islamic parties,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to talk to the media. “The question is: Are these parties committed to certain rules of the game? That’s the key. They have to evolve too.”

There is evidence they are doing just that.

Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have historical links, fielded female candidates in elections this year. The two groups also forged political alliances with Christians, and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood recently made the startling concession that a Christian could be president of Egypt as long as he or she were elected.

“Hamas has essentially been moving to a more moderate view on issues related to the political system, more liberal views toward women and the peace process,” said Khalil Shikaki, a widely respected Palestinian pollster. “Hamas will be a very different Hamas in four years than the Hamas we have today.”

The Brotherhood’s entry into politics “came at the expense of their identity,” said Hossam Tammam, author of “Brothers in a State of Change.” He compares the Brotherhood’s current platform, which calls for a free market and doesn’t object to relations with the U.S., to those of Christian parties in Europe.

“Forget about the Islamic state, the caliphate and so on,” Tammam said. “The more the Brothers get dragged into the political arena, the more they are integrated, and the more they try to operate according to the rules of the arena.”


That political scientists reach radically different interpretations after studying the same groups renders the Islamist parties a daunting prospect: Their intentions remain murky.

Meanwhile, many Arabs regard U.S. policy as a patchwork of contradictions. American support has been steadfast, for example, for Saudi Arabia, an ultraconservative Islamic state where religious rights of non-Muslims are nonexistent and women live as second-class citizens.

In other words, critics argue, the United States remains willing to accept religious repression by friendly Islamic governments. But America cites the threat of similar repression to justify snubbing Islamist opposition groups that may pose a political threat to other friendly governments. Bush administration leaders say the different histories and makeup of nations in the region require custom-made approaches for each country.

When it came to Iraq, the U.S. administration could no longer afford its discomfort with Islamist leaders.

In the struggle to foster a new government from the ruins of war, the administration clearly preferred leaders such as Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite it named as head of a transitional government last year. Yet the United States has bent to the political realities and accepted the strong appeal of both Sunni and Shiite Muslim religious-based parties.

Iraq’s Shiite parties have stoked fears that they will institute religious law once a long-term government is in place. Women’s rights activists are challenging a decree that grants clerics sole authority over family law questions such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. And during negotiations over the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution, hard-liners sought to establish Islamic law as the primary source of jurisprudence.


But some influential Americans remain circumspect on the possibility of Islamic law taking hold in Iraq. “That’s not our choice to make,” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said during an election day visit to Hillah, a Shiite city in the south.

Some analysts regard Iraq as the prime example of a troubling flaw in the U.S. push for democracy. Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, apparently eager to prod the nation’s Shiite majority to political power, brushed aside an initial American timetable of five to 10 years for Iraq’s emergence as a fully sovereign democracy and in effect hijacked the electoral schedule.

In the end, the campaign hardened sectarian and ethnic identities. With little time to build democratic institutions, many fear that Iraq’s election is merely a precursor to civil war.

“Development of democracy is a very delicate process that can’t be compressed,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor.

Still, none of the “bumps in the road” appear to have dampened the administration’s enthusiasm for implementing President Bush’s vision. Less than a year since the president declared America’s support for democracy “in every nation and culture,” the administration believes a huge shift is underway.

Dina Powell, the Egyptian-born former White House staffer brought to the State Department earlier this year to help rebuild America’s image in the Middle East, listed several examples, including the Palestinian elections, the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon and Kuwait’s decision to give women the vote. “If you’d have told me that two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said.


“I think we need to talk about freedom and democracy,” she added. “I know it resonates. I see it resonating in the region, but we need to do it in a way that respects the sovereignty and the will of the people in the Middle East.”

Stack reported from Cairo and Marshall from Washington. Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Baghdad, Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem, Ashraf Khalil in Hillah, Iraq, and Hossam Hamalawy in The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.