The Mirage of Moderate Islamism

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s faltering attempt to repair relations with the government of Turkey brings into clear focus the uselessness of trying to deal with so-called “moderate” Islamists.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan continues to demand that Israel apologize for its part in the “flotilla” incident this May in which nine Turkish citizens died from Israeli gunfire. In an interview this week, Netanyahu again refused this request but spoke in most conciliatory terms and rebuked his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who had recently said that it is Turkey that owes Israel an apology.

Lieberman is a verbal bomb-thrower and ill-suited for the position he holds. His views toward the Palestinians make agreement more difficult. But on Turkey he was completely right. In the flotilla episode, Israel was a victim of Turkish aggression.

The flotilla operation was a monstrous fraud. The so-called “humanitarian” cargo consisted largely of items beyond their shelf-lives, and Israel offered repeatedly to deliver it by ground from the port of Ashdod. This was refused because the only “humanitarian” purpose of the flotilla was to break Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza in order to help Hamas in its project of killing Jews.

Erdogan’s government was largely or entirely behind this. The fatal ship, the Mavi Marmara, was provided by a municipal government controlled by his AK Party for a tiny fraction of its market value. It was then put under the control of a paramilitary team of Islamist thugs who set out to murder Israeli soldiers trying to redirect the ship by nonlethal means. To defend their own lives, the Israelis ended up killing nine of the thugs.

Netanyahu is not known as a conciliatory personality. His assiduity in trying to patch things up with Ankara reflects the importance for Israel of its long alliance with Kemalist Turkey. But that Turkey is gone — at least for the time being. We can hope that the Turks turn out the AKP crowd and renew the secular tradition bequeathed by Ataturk. But the chance that Erdogan’s regime will turn around is nil.

The flotilla plot was only one of a long string of vicious acts by Erdogan’s government, including the abetting of Iran’s nuclear program and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s declaration last month that “Israel will disappear” — a comment that essentially made Davutoglu an echo chamber for Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (In addition, various moves by the AKP cast a cloud over the preservation of democracy and rule of law in Turkey.)

Important as Turkey is in its own right, these events hold powerful lessons for dealing with Islamist movements elsewhere. The AKP was the very quintessence of moderate Islam. Writing in Commentary in early 2008, I (and co-author Charles Szrom) said: “On balance ... the AKP’s performance to date arguably strengthens the thesis that there is little to fear from Islamists who are voted into office. Yet ... it has governed under ... powerful constraints. ... Would it show a different face if free of these constraints? Who is to say?”

Those constraints — the Turkish army and the wish to enter the EU — have not entirely disappeared, and already the AKP has ripped off its mask.

Among other places, the immediate lesson applies to Egypt. There, 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled for 29 years, seems poised to give himself another term and/or pass the scepter to his son. Many Egyptians and well-wishers of Egypt are dismayed at this prospect, stirring hopes that somehow the Muslim Brotherhood can be harnessed to the cause of liberal reform. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Amr Hamzawy put it a few years back: “in most countries Islamists represent the only viable opposition forces to existing undemocratic regimes.”

In elections five years ago, some Egyptian and Palestinian liberals tried to forge alliances with Islamists; and Mohamed el-Baradei, possibly Mubarak’s leading challenger next year, has started down this road. But the Muslim Brotherhood is the original Islamist movement. And while observers have for years reported sightings of moderation and open-mindedness in its ranks, these have always turned out to be mirages. For example, in 2004 the Brotherhood issued an “initiative” that contained liberal passages and built anticipation for its new platform, a draft of which was released in 2007. It called for creating a Sunni version of Iran’s system of theocracy.

The wish for moderate Islamists parallels the story of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and 1980s. That was the hope that Western European Communist parties could participate in governments without ever trying to undermine their democratic character or impose Communism. Of course, if they didn’t want to create Communism, they wouldn’t have been Communists, but some were willing to play their game because hope springs eternal.

The same goes for moderate Islamism. Turkey was the test, and the results are in. Give up, Bibi. These guys are the plague.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, this post originally appeared on the World Affairs homepage under the title "The Mirage of Moderate Islam," rather than "The Mirage of Moderate Islamism," which was the author's intended title. We apologize for any confusion this might have caused.

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