The Chicken Theory of Islamist Parties
The "pothole theory" is time-honored in the U.S.; if a party doesn't meet local needs, it will be ousted in the next election. It is a hopeful theory, because it is self-correcting.
With Islamic conservatism sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, the administration has been portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as a service provider responsive to "the people" and thus to the pothole theory. The underlying assumptions are:
a) The Brotherhood will submit itself to "the people" periodically for reelection.
b) Other parties will be able to criticize the Brotherhood and offer an alternative.
c) The Brotherhood will transfer power to the opposition if "the people" so choose.
This is a stretch on many levels, but more worrisome than the pothole theory is the "chicken theory" of organizational "wings."
This postulates that while the Brotherhood (and Hamas and Hezb'allah) may have "wings" that are anti-Western, anti-Semitic, violent, homophobic, misogynistic, and totalitarian, its humanitarian "wings" need to be preserved. The goal of the West is to sever the nasty wings so the democratic wings prevail, or hope that the nasty wings wither as "the people" vote. This ignores the role of the Islamists in creating the very poverty they ameliorate and the possibility that people vote for the Brotherhood because they agree with the nasty parts of its program.
The Washington Times helped the administration out last week with an "all politics is local" story, citing Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics and Sara Silvestri of City University, London1. "What voters are doing is voting for a clean break with the old regimes. It is local politics at its best," said Gerges. "Poor Arabs in the poorest neighborhoods don't know what Islamists stand for, but are voting for them because they know them[.] ... We shouldn't be surprised by the Islamists' rise, but I think they will rise and fall on their ability to deliver the goods."
Silvestri preemptively blamed the West for the future failure of the violent wing to disappear. "There will be more to lose by condemning or ostracizing Islamic voices. It could cause resentment and grievances among the Muslim audience," she said. "There are exceptions that we have to take into account, but it doesn't mean that every electoral process will lead to a Hitler and [such] in the Middle East," she added, perhaps not realizing that she wasn't bolstering her case.
The chicken theory has been a staple of the American -- and Israeli -- approach to Palestinians. At the height of the "second intifada," the Palestinian war against Israel, an IDF official explained that his job was to ensure that the Red Cross, UNRWA, World Food Aid, and others had unimpeded access to the Palestinian population, despite the terrorism against Israeli civilians. Israel, he said, didn't want "the Palestinian people" to suffer for their leadership.
In 2003, then-Secretary of State Powell said of Hamas, "If an organization that has a terrorist component to it, a terrorist wing to it, totally abandons that, gives it up and there is no question in anyone's mind that it is part of its past, then that is a different organization." According to The Washington Times, Powell "praised the extremist group's 'social wing' for doing 'things for people in need.'"
Today, as Hamas rains ever more accurate missiles into Israel, the Israeli government still provides food and medical assistance to "the people" in Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead and since, the IDF has carefully catalogued its aid to Gaza, lest the world -- like Gerges -- think that Israel believes that "the people" who elected Hamas didn't know what they were doing.
The Washington Post once editorialized that it was "time for Hamas to prove" that it was a responsible governing partner by severing its association with its own terrorist "wing." Israel was urged to separate the "Palestinian people wing" from the "government-they-elected-wing" as if the terrorists were the (late, lamented) "Scoop Jackson wing" of the Democratic Party, or the "conservative wing" of the Republican Party.
But the Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezb'allah are not political parties; they are the political arm of the Islamic revivalist movement. One way they gain power is by ensuring -- through violence and intimidation -- that their own people have no other option for survival.
Hamas spent years using Palestinian workers in Israel to commit acts of terrorism, including at crossing points and in fishing zones, forcing Israel to restrict access by Palestinians to work in Israel and at sea. With fewer Palestinians bringing home Israeli paychecks, more are poor, and more are beholden to Hamas. The terrorist "wing" increased Palestinian poverty so the social service "wing" could ameliorate it.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood has attacked tourism, a primary source of necessary foreign currency, for years and has been sabotaging the vital pipelines in the Sinai. Foreign exchange is fleeing the country. More poor Egyptians mean more need for the Brotherhood to supply more services. Watch as the United States tries to slide the billions in military aid it provided to the Mubarak government over to the Brotherhood so "the people" don't suffer.
Money and aid are fungible.
By insisting that the social service "wings" of Islamist organizations are worthy of support despite the propensity of the whole to violence against their own people and others, the West has allowed Hamas, the Brotherhood, and Hezb'allah to spend their Iranian, al-Qaeda, Chinese, or other subsidies on weapons and political organization.
Like every other chicken, Islamist organizations need two wings -- and they like having two wings, especially when the West pays for the one and makes excuses for the other.
Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to Israel since 1982. She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA.
1 The story has been removed from the Washington Times site with the comment, "Every so often we are forced to remove stories from our site. We're sorry but you just happened to request one of them." It was retrieved only with difficulty.
2 "Poor Arabs" should be offended by Gerges' inference to the effect that they don't know that their religious leadership stands for religious leadership.