On June 7 Hizbullah will likely take over Lebanon and formally bring the oldest Arab democracy into the Iranian axis.
Iran’s stalking horse will not become the ruler of the largely pro-Western, non-Shi’ite majority country through a violent revolution. Lebanon will become yet another Iranian vassal state through ballots, not bullets. On June 7, Hizbullah and its allied parties are set to win a smashing popular victory in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections.
Hizbullah’s projected victory in these elections is of course not an isolated event. It is part of an Islamist electoral sweep in democratic elections throughout the region. Indeed, Islamists have won every free or partially free election in the region for the past six years.
Beginning with Turkey’s Islamist AKP party’s first electoral victory in 2003 – followed by its even more decisive reelection in last year’s race; moving to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in the relatively free, (although not open), presidential elections in his country in 2005, to the Muslim Brotherhood candidates’ sweep of nearly all electoral races they were permitted to contest in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, to Hamas’s electoral victory in the Palestinian Authority’s legislative elections in 2006, the Islamist candidates and parties have been victorious in state after state.
The only outlier in this pattern is Iraq. But then, Iraq is the only country in the region where the West overthrew an enemy regime and retained an empowered military force in the country in the years that followed. What will happen in Iraq once US forces are withdrawn is an open question.
Generally speaking, Western analysts have attributed the Islamists’ victories to their well-run welfare programs for the poor, and to the fact that unlike their secular opponents, Islamist parties and politicians are perceived as honest.
No doubt, economic interests have played a role in their election. But the fact is that people who voted for the likes of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmadinejad, and those who are poised to vote for Hizbullah are not blind and they are not disengaged from the ideological currents of their societies. They know full-well what these parties and their leaders represent and seek.
Turkish voters, for instance, know that Prime Minister Recep Erdogan wishes for Turkey to be an Islamic state and a leader in the Islamic world. Palestinian voters did not vote for Hamas just because it runs the best soup kitchens. They supported Hamas because they support its goal of destroying Israel.
Iranian voters chose Ahmadinejad over former president Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani not merely because Rafsanjani was corrupt, but because of Ahmadinejad’s outspoken extremism. Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt know that the jihadist movement calls for the overthrow of the government and its replacement with a caliphate and that the group spawned both al-Qaida and Hamas. And in Lebanon, voters know that a vote for Hizbullah is a vote for war against Israel and the West and a vote for placing Lebanon under effective Iranian control.
They know all this, and still they vote for these parties and leaders. And once in office, these leaders do not disappoint them. In addition to expanding welfare benefits for their supporters, they have worked steadily and aggressively to Islamify their societies internally and to strengthen their alliances with likeminded governments against the West in foreign affairs. At home, through patronage, repression of political opponents, introduction of Islamic laws, and incitement against the West, these democratically elected regimes have been moving their people further and further away from secularism.
AS FOR the burgeoning alliances between and among these likeminded jihadist states, events of the past week alone make clear that backed by popular support at home, these governments are steadily expanding their military and commercial ties in a naked bid to challenge and defeat the West.
Buffeted by US President Barack Obama’s warm embrace of Turkey earlier in the month, Erdogan has moved swiftly to consolidate his place as a central pillar in the new regional jihadist axis spearheaded by Iran, which includes Syria, Lebanon and the PA. Over the past week, his government signed a military pact with Lebanon committing Turkey to providing arms and training for the Lebanese army – a force which is already largely subservient to Hizbullah and will likely come under its complete control on June 7.
It signed a defense agreement with Syria’s Ministry of Defense, and even more provocatively conducted a three-day joint land forces exercise with the Syrian military. This was the first joint exercise between Syria and a NATO member.
As for Iran, Turkey signed a trade agreement with the mullocracy that is slated to double bilateral trade between the two countries within five years. Even more significantly, Ankara gave a green light to Iranian gas exports to Europe through the Nabucco gas pipeline which runs from Turkey to Austria. The Nabucco pipeline was supposed to bypass both Iran and Russia and increase instead gas exports from the former Soviet republics to Europe. Iran’s access to the pipeline will earn it billions of dollars annually and increase its political power as Europe increases it dependence on Iranian gas.
BOTH THE popularity of Islamist parties and their behavior after being popularly elected have confounded conventional Western reasoning – particularly in the US. Quite simply, successive administrations in Washington have been unable to provide an accurate explanation of what drives the populations of these countries, and increasingly of the Islamic world in general to support Islamist parties and movements.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration came to the conclusion that it isn’t that these parties and movements are popular. It is just that people are intimidated into supporting them. Were the people given the freedom to choose, they would choose to be led by liberal political forces interested in living at peace with the West. For former president George W. Bush and his advisers, the root of Islamic extremism was authoritarianism and the solution was Westernization through open elections.
When time after time the citizens of these countries or societies voluntarily elected jihadists, the Bush administration was confounded. Rather than seek an alternative explanation to understand what was happening, the administration alternatively denied reality – as in the case of Turkey where it pretended that the AKP was a moderate, pro-Western Islamist party in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Or they claimed that the people were simply voting against corruption and showered them with money – as has been the case with the Hamas-supporting Palestinians. Or, as in the case of Egypt and Iran, they have simply ignored the fact that elections took place.
The same of course occurred after Hizbullah’s violent coup last May. Rather than cut off ties with the Saniora government – which had been compelled to accept Hizbullah control over its affairs – the Bush administration continued to support Saniora and increased US military assistance to the Lebanese army – hoping that it could pretend away the problem.
SINCE HIS first moments in office, President Barack Obama has embarked on a policy course which rejects Bush’s belief that the quest for freedom is universal as so much American chauvinism. For Obama, Islamic hostility towards the West is caused by American arrogance, not the absence of freedom. And because American arrogance is the root of the problem, the solution must be American contrition. It is this view that propels Obama from one international apology tour to the next and causes him to air the CIA’s laundry in public. As far as he is concerned, the more apologetic he is, the more contrition he expresses for the actions of his predecessors, the greater the payoff will be.
And yet, as we see from the behavior of Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Iran over the past week alone, Obama’s apologetics are not winning them over, but emboldening them to take more aggressive positions against the West. How can this be explained?
There is an alternative explanation for the behavior of the peoples of the Islamic world that actually can explain events, and has successfully forecast them. It has even engendered policy recommendations that might have mitigated both the popularity of Islamist parties and deterred these parties, once elected, from taking provocative steps against Western states and interests. Unfortunately, every time this explanation is raised, Western policy-makers head for the hills.
This explanation is really nothing more than an observation. It observes that the populations of Islamic countries and societies support Islamist parties like the AKP and Hizbullah and Hamas because they support what they stand for. This explanation notes that tens and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iranians, Turks, Egyptians and others voluntarily congregate in public venues and swoon when Islamist leaders tell them that Islam will defeat the West and promise the death of America and the death of Israel.
The jihadist message resonates with them. Their hearts and minds have already been won over. Contrary to what Western leaders as distinct as Bush and Obama believe, the hearts and minds of the Islamic world are not presently in play. From Beirut to the Taliban-controlled Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan, jihadists enjoy public support because the public supports their aim of defeating the West with bullets, with bombs, and with ballots.
It is too early to know how Obama will react when he like Bush is no longer able to deny that his strategy for winning over the hearts and minds of the Islamic world has failed. We don’t know if like Bush before him, he will simply ignore reality and pretend that nothing has happened; if he will blame his political opponents or Israel for not joining him in his contrition; or if he will cast about for another central organizing principle that will explain hostile Islamic behavior.
What is clear is that in the absence of Western – and specifically American – willingness to consider the possibility that what is happening in the Islamic world has next to nothing to do with either what the West embodies or what it has done, and everything to do with the resonance of the Islamist message within the Islamic world, events like the expected loss of Lebanon in June will continue to be met with incoherent prattling and confusion.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.