A historic tragedy is at play before our eyes: Another Munich, when some European democracies thought they could avoid the war by appeasing Nazism. Winston Churchill said: "You accepted shame to avoid war, now you will have both." History's verdict was merciless.
Today, Arab -- but also Western -- diplomats are making the same mistake toward the "green fascism." Their "smart" strategy would consist in involving these groups in a democratic process; Radical Islamists would then, they believe, change their behavior.
Radical Islamism, however, is a form of political activity that rejects the principles of parliamentary democracy. Extremist ideology and practices are based on intolerance, exclusion, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and ultranationalism.
Radical Islamism is a danger for any democratic state: its fanatic character may be used to justify violence. Even if it does not directly advocate violence, extremism creates a climate conducive to violence.
It is a direct threat in weakening the constitutional democratic order and civic liberties; and an indirect threat by causing political mistakes. Even some liberal parties in the Arab world are tempted to take their cues from the Islamist pitch book. Islamists have enjoyed the benefits of petro-funding for decades now, and have used these long years to set the terms of public discussion. Liberals in Egypt, for example, have sometimes been forced into the position of trying to "out-Islamize the Islamists."
Radical Islamism was born at the end of the 1970s after the failure of pan-Arabism. Islamists have presented themselves as reformists, proponents of modernity, who want to "modernize Islam." Unfortunately, in my experience, they are actually trying to "Islamize modernity" – in other words, to impose outdated interpretations of Islamic law on the present reality, to the detriment of women, minorities, and secular Muslims.
In the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the "Green Peril" is seen as a major threat. No wonder then thatin Algeria, in 1991, while Islamists of the FIS triumphed over free elections, the West saw the democratic process interrupted -- with a resultant Algerian civil war that was to last ten years and produce 200,000 casualties.
We need to see what lies beyond the veneer. There is not one radical current that has the slightest program on housing, health, education, and other aspects of civil society. They all feed on slogans chanting the return to pure islam, that of caliphs, and play wonderfully on the rise of a disquieting nationalist upsurge in the face of a supposed aggression of modernity in Iraq and Palestine. This position is at odds with the democratic transition, but supporters are attracted to the Islamist militant ideology nonetheless. One reason is simply that Islamists tend to have more money to spend on winning supporters: they enjoy petro-endowments from Saudi Arabia and Iran, while liberals and secularists have little or no backing by comparison. Another reason for the allure of these groups is their exploitation of powerful religious tropes.
Islamists still use the conservative backdrop of Moroccan society to press for Shari'ah-oriented social change. For example, Islamists massively mobilized to block the king's "Women's Integration Plan," a series of measures put forth by the government to improve the lot of the country's female population.
Mindful of the stakes, the king created an extra-parliamentary commission tasked to advance the plan's agenda. Non-Islamist Moroccan elites feared the project would be buried. The surprise that followed was that the king pressed for the implementation of the plan and won, despite Islamist efforts to defeat it.
Meanwhile, working within the cultural fabric of the country, the king has undertaken to reform religious life more broadly, promoting an open and tolerant form of Islam and fighting intellectual and cultural extremism. This endeavor has included the deployment of female religious "advisers" to many mosques and the reengineering of Islamic education in the kingdom, with the goal of stemming the more virulent forms of Wahhabism—a militant trend that had begun to take root in Morocco in the early eighties when Saudi Arabia and Morocco joined forces against Soviet communism in Afghanistan.
Drawing on Morocco's rich heterodox tradition of Islam, the king has also enlisted the country's Sufi leadership – the mystical strand of Islam, so strong in Morocco – to help counter militants. In this largely stable and benign political environment, a small coalition of fringe players are nonetheless working to rock the system, predominantly from outside the country.
Islamism moves almost by inertia: the democrats lack the courage of their convictions and so accept the upsurge of political Islamism as unstoppable, as the Islamists themselves claim it to be.
Last week I watched President Barak Obama's Middle East speech from my home in Casablanca. I felt the speech was important in that it signaled the Democratic party's full embrace of the freedom agenda in the Middle East and North Africa. But important questions remain. How the United States will address Islamist political parties in the region's emerging democracies is a problem that should be closely monitored by Arab liberals like myself. In some countries such as Libya, Islamist militants are among the fighting forces, and they will undoubtedly expect a piece of the pie when the dust settles and power is shared. Meanwhile in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to dominate the forthcoming elections.
American policy toward these groups is unclear to many Arabs. We know that since September 11, influential policy voices in Washington have been searching for a way of drawing a line between "moderate" Muslims and radicals espousing violence. But separating these two trends is extremely difficult, even for people who live in the region; and whether the Obama Administration will succeed in doing so remains unclear.
It is about time for the democrats to awaken, and not for a Munich-like collusion that would be conducive to disaster.
The Obama Administration needs to reassure Arab democrats by signaling its awareness that radical Islamism is a danger to Arab democratic transitions.
Vigilance is required to prevent these forces from taking power, lest the tragic story of Munich on the eve of the Second World War, repeat itself.