Awlaki and the Arab autumn
By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.
The death of Anwar al-Awlaki this morning is welcome news, but Washington policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking the drone that killed him is a supernatural antidote to militancy. Yes, drone strikes should continue, but the real playing field continues to be the aftermath of the Arab spring; namely vital elections scheduled for October in Tunisia and November in Egypt.
A series of outstanding stories by reporters from Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, have aptly laid out the stakes. Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but an extraordinary battle is unfolding over the nature of Islam itself.
“At the center of the debates is a new breed of politician who has risen from an Islamist milieu but accepts an essentially secular state,” Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick wrote in today’s New York Times. Common values, in other words, are emerging between the West and the Islamic world. These “post-Islamist” politicians argue that individual rights, democracy and economic prosperity are elements of an “Islamic state.”
Whether these politicians represent the most potent weapon ever fielded against militant Islam or a Trojan horse will emerge in the months and years ahead. More than any other figure, the new breed’s standard-bearer is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Pledging that conservative Islam is compatible with individual liberties, Erdogan holds the rise of his culturally conservative but economically liberal political party as a beacon for a new Middle East. Turkish critics, though, accuse Erdogan of a creeping authoritarianism masked by rapid economic growth.
For now, the “post-Islamists” should be taken at their word. The false Pax Americana of dictatorial regimes that once dominated the region is no longer viable. And the “post-Islamists” are a vast improvement over Awlaki and his ilk. For Awlaki and hard line Salafists, the only true “Islamic state” is one led by self-appointed clerics who rule by force and brutally regulate the minutia of everyday life.
At an astonishing rate across the Middle East, an internet-fueled communications revolution has implanted the ideals that the United States publicly espoused for decades, but privately failed to back. Washington is reaping a cultural amalgam that its rhetoric has slowly sown.
Recent opinion polls in Egypt show a desire for individual liberties while maintaining conservative Islamic culture, the electoral recipe that brought Erdogan to power in Turkey. A Gallup poll of Egyptians found that 96 percent of those polled supported freedom of speech and 75 percent favored freedom of religion. At the same time, more than 90 percent believed “Sharia” – or Islamic law – promotes justice for women, human rights, economic equality and a fair judicial system.
“Put simply, Egyptians seem to see no contradiction between the faith to which they adhere and the democratic ideals to which they aspire,” Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup center wrote in an analysis of the polling. “Egypt tops the region in two things: Egyptians are the most likely to say Muslim progress requires democracy, and the most likely to say Muslim progress requires attachment to spiritual and moral values.”
“Working out the proper relationship between these two priorities,” Mogahed concludes, “will be the next phase of the revolution.”
The stakes in “the next phase of the revolution,” in fact, are enormous. If the “post-Islamists” are true to their word and respect electoral politics, their rise will represent a devastating blow to militant Islam. They will deliver the popular ideals of justice and accountability that hard line Islamists insist can only be emerge from clerical rule.
The West must not dismiss the “post-Islamists” as closet terrorists, nor blindly accept their saccharine speeches. Instead, it should highlight, defend and promote the ideals that Americans and Egyptians share: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and justice for women. Culturally conservative Muslims should not be confused with terrorists.
That effort, of course, is a long, complicated and arduous one involving diplomacy, effective economic development and a new way of viewing Islam. The missile strike that killed Awlaki was instant and seemingly satisfying: American technology felled one of militant Islam’s most articulate spokesmen. But only electoral politics, economic growth and consistently applied American standards will render his words irrelevant.
Photo: Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location in this still image taken from video released by Intelwire.com on September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Intelwire.com