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Rubin Reports: Does Power Moderate Radicals? Where’s the Proof?

A Palestinian woman holds a picture of Egypt's new president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi

A Palestinian woman holds a picture of Egypt's new president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi
Photo Credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90

Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hizballah, which dominates the government in Lebanon, have not moderated despite predictions to the contrary. And the wave of Islamism in the region makes such a change even more unlikely. Muammar Qadhafi of Libya never moderated either. He just became more cautious after he was scared that the United States might overthrow him in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq.

Then there’s Iran. The Islamist regime has been in power there now for almost one-third of a century without any clear sign of moderation. When the revolution took place in 1979, many Western experts predicted that the regime was already or would quickly become moderate. This was given as a reason for supporting or at least accommodating that government. Instead, its repression at home and efforts to spread revolution abroad led to war, suffering, and instability on a massive scale.

There is, however, one apparent exception to this list of cases in which the moderation thesis failed. Twenty-five years after the 1952 coup in Egypt, President Anwar al-Sadat changed course. Sadat had concluded that his regime was finished unless he did something drastic, a conciliation process with the United States and Israel, to get back the Sinai oilfields and reopen the Suez Canal, along with an easing of repression at home.

Of course, there are some ironies here as well.  Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated for his moderation and his regime is the one against which the 2011 revolution was conducted and that has led to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt. Thus, the Sadat shift may be used as the best evidence for the moderation thesis but it is hardly overwhelming proof. Then, too, while one can cite national interests’ motives it was a shift brought about by one man and not by deeper social change, as we see today when it is apparently being reversed.

In contemporary Egypt, if greater moderation prevails it would be because the armed forces tamped down on the Islamists. Yet that pressure is opposed by the moderation thesis advocates who argue that the Brotherhood will produce a more moderate regime on its own.

It is far easier to challenge than to prove the moderation thesis. At the very least it should be advocated only with great hesitation and questioned vigorously whenever it springs up.

Instead – and we’ve seen this in hundreds of examples in the “Arab Spring” case – evidence of radicalism—deeds, writings, speeches—is systematically suppressed in the Western debate. Examples of alleged moderation, most often coming from public relations’ gestures or interviews with Westerners deliberately designed to mislead them, are highlighted by Western journalists and academics.

Because of political reasons and especially due to the ideological monopoly of certain forces over Western institutions, most of the academics, analysts, journalists, and politicians who speak on these issues get away with pushing the moderation thesis. They are virtually never asked to provide proof. Ignorance is no doubt a factor as well. This wrong idea thus sets current U.S. policy and creates a great risk of future crisis, instability, repression, and severe damage to U.S. interests.

And those who disagree, along with their evidence, are censored out of large-scale circulation to the general public.

While moderation can occur in radical regimes it only happens under the following conditions: a long period of time, a major personnel change in the leadership, and devastating defeats that leaders perceive are going to lead to their fall if not addressed. These factors don’t apply, for example, to Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt today who believe that–as President Barack Obama seems to agree–the tide of history is with them. They also believe that Allah, too, is on their side.

As you contemplate the issue you might want to see this excellent documentary made by an Iraqi Muslim moderate who lives in Norway. The point he makes repeatedly–and shows in his interviews with other Arabs–is that those Muslims who oppose Islamism have no doubt about the nature of the Brotherhood, its ideology, and goals. Indeed, they point out that the Brotherhood doesn’t even try to conceal its true nature in Arabic-language writings and activities. Yet we almost always hear that it is moderate in English by those granted the free run of the mass media and universities to inform the Western public on this issue.

About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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