February 18, 2010 | The FAO Journal

Defeating Islamists at the Ballot

A dilemma for Washington is that whenever the United States pushes for elections in the Middle East and Muslim countries, Islamist parties often per-form well—better than liberal, nationalist, and secular parties. For instance, in the Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi elections of 2005 and 2006, Islamist parties either finished first or did well enough to scare their secular opponents. Even in Turkey, a democracy ruled by secular parties since 1946, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party with Islamist roots, defeated secular, liberal, and national-ist parties in the elections of November 2002 and then in March 2007.
If Turkey’s example represents the future of the democratization of Arabs, are America’s efforts to promote democracy in Muslim countries as well as block the rise of Islamists doomed? Not quite. Islamist parties perform well in elections because they already possess the necessary ingredients for electoral success: an exciting ideology, and substan-tial support (particularly financial) from anti-American forces around the world. This is not the first time the United States has faced a situation in which interna-tional support threatens to catapult anti-American forces to power at the ballot box. Washington en-countered just this scenario in Italy after World War II, with Soviet-supported communists poised to take power through elections. Yet Washington managed to prevent the communist takeover of Italy.
The Italian case indicates that U.S. efforts to shape the Middle East and Muslim countries through electoral politics are not doomed—but Washington will have to learn and apply the lessons of its accom-plishment in Italy that began over sixty years ago.
At the end of World War II, Italy’s powerful communist movement received significant support from the Soviet-sponsored Communist International. In the 1946 Italian election for a constitutional assem-bly, the Italian communists (running in a coalition with the socialists) emerged as the most powerful legisla-tive block, winning 219 seats to the rival Christian Democrats’ 207 out of 556 seats in the assembly. Money from the Communist International helped the communists establish grassroots structures, obtain arms, and carry out propaganda to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Italians. At that time, Italy ap-peared a lost cause to Washington. Yet by 1958, the Christian Democrats won 273 compared to the com-munists’ 140 seats in the chamber of deputies, estab-lishing a political ascendancy that would last until the end of the Cold War. How did this happen?
Some might view it anachronistic to compare Italy with the Arab world. Italy today differs greatly from the Arab world. It is wealthy and has a large middle class, which forms the bedrock of Italian de-mocracy, while the Arab world is poor and lacks a significant middle class. Yet the Italy of 1947 looked a lot like the Arab world of today. Back then, Italy was as poor as Egypt is today. Italian GDP per cap-ita in 1950, adjusted to today’s prices, was $4,100, less than Egypt’s current GDP per capita of $5,800. In 1945, life expectancy at birth in Italy was 66 years. In Egypt today, that number is 70.
How did the U.S. prevent communists from taking over Italy at the ballot box? First and foremost, Washington made a decision that in the case of Italy, the battle was one in which politics was the continua-tion of war and international conflict by other means, and that such political warfare could not be won with-out a massive plan. Communists could be defeated only with bold initiatives. A statement by George Kennan, the founder of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, demonstrates such thinking:

“Political warfare will be the employment of all means that a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both covert and overt as political alliances, economic measures, and wide propaganda to such covert actions as clandestine support a friendly foreign element of black psychological warfare and even encouragement of under-ground resistance in hostile states.”

What this statement underscored first and foremost was the need for a fundamental restructuring of the U.S. government.
The first step was to set up the National Se-curity Council (NSC). The NSC’s first directive, NSC 1/1, aimed to prevent Italy from becoming commu-nist. Within the State Department, the Policy Plan-ning Staff was specifically established to combat communism at the ballot box in Italy. The other de-partments followed suit in the 1940s and 1950s.

The strategy was to use not just the govern-ment but also the collective wisdom of the American people in creating policy, so Washington rallied American NGOs to the struggle. For instance, the AFL-CIO promoted the idea of non-communist labor un-ions and transformed the Italian labor landscape from one in which communists had been dominant. There were massive campaigns by American civil society: Italian-Americans wrote letters and sent cables to Italy (10 million in all) discussing their commitment to the U.S. and asking their compatriots back home to follow the successful American model. These steps effec-tively the anti-communist message across in Italy.
On the public diplomacy front, the U.S. gov-ernment used its immigration policy as a weapon. Italians at that time would have been as desperate as Egyptians today to migrate to America, and the United States made it very clear: those Italians that voted communist, would be unable to emigrate from Italy. Italian-Americans wrote letters saying, “Uncle, if you vote communist, I cannot bring you here.”
The government also used measures to iso-late communists in power. In this regard, it made U.S. assistance conditional on being non-communist. Moreover, all money going to contractors in Italy was screened to make sure that none would end up in the hands of contractors with communist connections, those who employed communist subcontractors or worked with communist unions. American money was used intelligently to make sure that it would not enrich communists.
The U.S. government was creative in its use of the media. It employed white propaganda (talking up the benevolence of American efforts), such as send-ing its ambassador on highly publicized tours. It also used black propaganda, such as exposing the com-munists’ connection to the Communist International which as critical to communicating the message that the communists thrived through foreign support.
American methods were not always so naively benign. Bags of money were flown into Italy and given to Christian Democrats and liberal parties to strengthen them against the communists. The U.S. government identified non-communist political lead-ers, such as Alcide di Gasperi, and supported them financially for about ten years. On the less benign side, the U.S. was prepared to deliver secret ship-ments of arms to Italian security forces so they could crack down on communist uprisings and strikes.
In the end, this campaign of coordinated effort worked, and the communists were defeated. In the elections of 1958, they received only 22.7 percent of the vote compared to 42.3 percent for their main lib-eral democrat rivals, the Christian Democrats.
Even if some U.S. actions to defeat the com-munists at the ballot box in Italy were specific to the Italian landscape, the lessons of post-World War II Italy are still important. The Italian example not only provides food for thought, but also shows that with the right policies, America can overcome the challenge it faces at the ballot box in the Middle East:
Identify allies: Muslims versus Islamists
Who should America support in Muslim coun-tries? This is crucial, because only with the right U.S. allies can Islamists be defeated at the ballot box.
Today, there is an ongoing struggle in Muslim majority countries between Muslims who are Islamists and Muslims who are not Islamists. This is a battle more important than the struggle between the West and Islamists, as it will determine the future of Islam. Washington and the West should support Muslims who believe in liberal democracy and its values. America’s allies within Muslim countries are all Mus-lims who are not Islamists.
How about moderate Islamists? Are they po-tential U.S. allies? No. The term “moderate Islamist” is offensive to all Muslims; any attempt to forge alli-ances based on this term is necessarily abortive. Islamists find the “moderate” appellation abusive be-cause it implies that they are practicing a diluted, Is-lam-lite version of their faith.
Secular, liberal and conservative Muslims, too, find the term “moderate Islamist” offensive, as it sig-nals that the West is looking for allies among the Islamists rather than supporting true liberals and de-mocrats. It does not matter how Washington qualifies Islamists; once it acknowledges them as partners, parties who believe in liberal democracy will see this as a sign that Washington has allied itself with the Islamists. This is what happened in 2002 in Turkey when a powerful perception was built in the country that the rising AKP, wined and dined in Washington, was America’s partner. At that time, secular groups, including the Turkish military, pulled away from Wash-ington; they remain aloof to America to this day.
Washington need not completely ignore the “moderate Islamists,” though. It makes sense for the U.S. to engage Muslims who are liberals while creat-ing rifts among Islamists. Such a step would weaken the Islamists in the same way the U.S. weakened the Italian communists by engaging socialists and creat-ing rifts between them and the communists.
Do what Islamists do … and do it better.
Fund what the Islamists fund … and fund it better.
As an international conglomerate, Islamist re-gimes are flush with cash. Persian Gulf states are awash in petrodollars. Islamist charities and groups are able to fund Islamist political forces around the world. This “Islamist International” provides local Islamist movements with the financial means to chal-lenge regimes, as well as the secular, nationalist, and liberal parties in predominantly Muslim countries. Washington should study what Islamists are doing to build local support—and then outperform them. This will require the United States to fund what Islamists are funding, and fund such activities better. If Islamists are pouring money into political parties, me-dia, NGOs, charities, and free schools, Washington ought to do the same, and with even more money. This is neither a battle involving a few hundred million dollars nor a short-term struggle. Italy was weaned away from the communists in thirteen years, at the expense of billions of dollars. This is the only way countries such as Egypt can be won over.
Financial support is crucial. Given that Islamist parties and organizations have billions of dollars from their state and institutional sponsors, it is difficult for nationalist and secular political parties, who have no such international support, to counter them.
Sound financial backing has helped catapult Islamist movements to power by a variety of channels. Thanks to their wealth, Islamist parties are able to or-ganize more efficiently than secular parties. Accord-ingly, these parties have better grassroots appeal. In Egypt, for instance, Islamists reach down to district and village levels, and establish themselves in ways secular/liberal parties cannot due to lack of funds.
Islamists financially support like-minded politi-cal prisoners and their families. Liberals do not have that luxury and are therefore less willing to risk impris-onment. Accordingly, a fund for political prisoners who fight for liberal democracy should be establishedto support them and their families.
With money in hand, Islamist parties are pro-viding Turkey, Arab world and other Muslim countries with social services that governments no longer pro-vide, such as quality free education and healthcare. The population bulge of the 1980s in Turkey, as well as the one currently hitting the Arab world and many Muslim countries, has created a situation in which the infrastructure of state social services, built decades ago to serve a smaller population, is crumbling. In the fifty years since its education and healthcare systems were set up, Egypt’s population has grown by 50 mil-lion. Egyptian public services have not coped with the increase. In areas where states are failing, Islamist parties, organizations, and charities are moving in to provide those services at minimal or no cost.
Islamists who set up free schools are able to win the hearts and minds of parents and indoctrinate children at a young age. In the 1990s, Turkey’s politi-cal showdown between the Islamist Welfare Party government and the secular bloc was fought over the issue of free Islamic education. Secular forces, with the help of the military, were able to either bring Is-lamic schools under strict regulations or shut them down altogether. Such strong political action is unlikely in the Arab world; only with significant finan-cial support that allows secular parties to establish free, quality secular schools will they be able to chal-lenge the appeal of Islamist parties and the efficiency of their grassroots organization.
Apply Different Speeds
In formulating policy, the U.S. ought to distin-guish the political differences between Turkey and the Arab world and other Muslim countries, and even make nuanced distinctions among Arab countries. In Turkey, as was the case in postwar Italy, liberal de-mocrats have political room to maneuver and have generally advocated freely. This is not the case in Egypt and most Arab countries. Repressive Arab re-gimes often limit the activities of liberal democrats. In Egypt, where emergency law has been enforced for the last twenty-eight years, secular liberals face huge challenges. The media and judiciary are closely aligned with the regime, and it is extremely difficult to obtain a license to establish a political party. Free-dom to express one’s political opinion is severely lim-ited, rights to demonstrate or strike are not officially permitted, and students and non-Islamist political par-ties are prevented from engaging in political activities on campus. These statutes are upheld by Law 79, which is actively being challenged by students and political parties. Meanwhile, Islamists use campus mosques to promote their agenda. The task is mo-mentous, but unless strong pressure is exerted to ease some of the constraints on political participation, it will be difficult for liberal forces in Egypt and else-where in the Arab world to flourish.
Islamists, however, are able to bypass legal restrictions prohibiting the existence of religious par-ties. By relying on the mosque, Islamists disseminate their message to large groups of individuals. More-over, given the underground nature of Islamist politi-cal structures, Islamists are less vulnerable to the re-gime’s efforts at control and persecution than the le-gally organized secular democratic opposition groups. Unlike underground Islamist organizations, legal secular liberal parties are exposed to regime interference when choosing their leaders or formulat-ing policies. Legal status also means that liberal par-ties face tight government control of their finances. Islamists, meanwhile, do not have a government body overseeing their funding or expenditures.
Another difference between Egypt and Turkey is that the Egyptian regime, like most Arab govern-ments, benefits from an Islamist threat. It is in the in-terest of authoritarian Arab regimes to demonstrate that Islamists are the only viable alternative to their rule. This argument is used as a pretext to avoid lib-eralizing the political space and to blunt American efforts for regional democratization.
In Turkey, liberals already have political room and roots in civil society. Arab countries like Egypt need more aggressive efforts to open the political space for liberals to succeed, while Turkey requires a more subtle approach. In each country, U.S. policy will need to be formulated and implemented at differ-ent speeds, calibrated to local conditions.
Create a cost for being Islamist
Once the U.S. has identified its allies, funded them properly, and out-assisted the “Islamist Interna-tional,” the next step in battling the Islamists will be to create costs for being an Islamist political party or fig-ure. Currently, there is no such cost for Islamist ac-tivity vis-à-vis the United States. In fact, Islamists benefit from the way Washington deals with Muslim countries. For instance, when Washington grants contracts to build schools and gives money to busi-nesses and NGOs, some of that money goes to Islamist businesses, helping fund their activities. When exchanges are organized and people visit the United States, Islamists benefit at least as much as the liberals do. And little of the U.S. money spent to support local media actually ends up in the hands of liberals, nationalists, and secular types.
There are many ways to create a meaningful cost to being an Islamist in the Middle East. Wash-ington might, for example, consider banning the immi-gration of Islamists. During the Cold War such restric-tions were both acceptable and practiced when it came to the immigration of communists into America. Immigrating is a privilege that should be granted only to America’s friends.
Along this line, Washington ought to stimulate creative thinking to find other ways to make Islamists across the world understand that their activities will be cost worthy, including loss of access to American opportunities and finances. Such policies would make non-Islamist Muslims feel privileged and create a benefit for being a liberal democrat in a Muslim coun-try, a benefit that does not exist in most places today.
Take bold steps at home
There are also steps that the U.S. can take at home to help defeat the Islamists in the ballot box overseas. Some other steps include the following:
Restructure the U.S. government: The les-son of postwar Italy is that a reorganization of the government is necessary in fighting the Islamists at the ballot box. The United States cannot defeat the Islamists with institutions and agencies built to fight the Cold War. Washington needs to create new bod-ies to focus its energies on a belt stretching from Mo-rocco to Pakistan and beyond. In doing so, it is ac-ceptable for the United States to make occasional mistakes. Indeed, many of the agencies Washington established at the beginning of the Cold War to man-age the situation in Italy did not work and were shut-down. But new institutions were set up in their stead. The government was able to learn from its mistakes. This strategy should be employed for dealing with the Muslim majority countries today.
Invest heavily in area and language stud-ies of Muslim countries: Even though some such agencies are already established, Washington is un-able to staff them with the right people. The number of Turkish, Arabic, Pashtun, Urdu, and Farsi speakers in the U.S. government today is dismal. Alleviating this problem requires a massive effort of not hun-dreds or thousands, but, in the short term, tens of thousands, and in the long term, hundreds of thou-sands of Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun, Turkish, Uzbek, Swahili, Azeri, Malay, Bengali, and Urdu speakers, among other languages. Washington needs a vast cadre of people who are fluent in these languages, as well as the political and social affairs of the coun-tries where these languages are spoken. To this end, the United States ought to fund exchange pro-grams to the region to send hundreds of thousands of people there, as well as fund university and re-search programs to facilitate the study of these coun-tries. A strategy is needed to create tens of thou-sands of experts who are fluent in the politics and languages of Muslim countries. Only these people can successfully staff the new departments and agencies necessary to fight and defeat the Islamists in the ballot box and beyond.
Be bold: One of the ideas developed to fight the communists in Italy was called Psychological Strat-egy Board Plan B, which came out in 1951. Until that time, the United States had been fighting com-munists with economic measures, which were not working. The communists were becoming more powerful in elections. Hence, at the height of com-munist power in Italy in 1951, Plan B laid out a strat-egy to “isolate and weaken the communists with any means possible,” as well as “outlaw[ing] communist parties.” Washington was bold in its determination to defeat the communists at the ballot box. Unless the United States also takes bold steps today, it will not win the current battle.
An Uphill Struggle
In addition to the work of “Islamist Interna-tional,” other factors explain the demise of secular, liberal, and nationalist parties in Turkey, Arab world and other Muslim countries. In Turkey, secular par-ties that ruled for the last sixty years are fragmented, due to the leader-driven nature of Turkish politics. Today, Turkey has many center-right, center-left, and nationalist parties that vie for the same secular voter base. Not much can be done from outside to change this dynamic unless the secular leadership takes ac-tion to unite its forces or Turkish voters force them to do so. Hence, even if at first glance Turkey seems an easy case because of its functioning democracy, it is actually a tough nut to crack due to the vicissi-tudes of its political culture.
In Muslim majority countries, Islamist parties are doing well because they promise change. The revolutionary utopian promise of a bright new tomor-row that the Islamist parties offer stands in sharp contrast to the tired rhetoric of the secular, liberal, and nationalist parties. In this regard, non-Islamists have much to do to produce and successfully market a new, attractive political vision that captures the imagination of the masses. However, unless the United States takes an active interest in supporting such a strategy, it will not work against the exciting, well-funded program of Islamism.
For too long dictatorial regimes in the Arab world have oppressed secular, liberal, and nationalist parties. While Islamists have been able to bypass the restrictions of authoritarian regimes in the safety of the mosques, liberals have been jailed and weak-ened, and their grassroots structures mostly shut down. As a result, the playing field between Islamists and non-Islamists is not level — and will not be so for some time. This is one key reason why elections within Arab countries produce Islamist vic-tories over secular, liberal, and nationalist parties. The U.S. needs to understand that the struggle to defeat the Islamists at the ballot box is not only a costly and daring endeavor, but also an uphill march that will require great patience. It is a strategy that results in elections — it does not start with them.