Muslim governments must stop playing with fire

The lesson to be learned from all this is that Muslim governments need to address real economic problems with real economic and structural solutions rather than cut cards with the Devil and playing around with fire.

By Farish A Noor

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The tragic and violent killing of Benazir Bhutto leaves us with many unanswered questions. The question remains as to who was really responsible, and some radical Islamist groups have claimed responsibility and credit for her assassination. There is further speculation as to whether other non-religious actors and agents were behind the killing, and of course it remains to be seen (and discovered) as to how close or far the links between radical groups like the Lashkar-e Tayeeba, Jama'atul Dawa and Harkat'ul Mujahideen and conservative factions in the Pakistani army really are.

For now, however, the murder of Benazir Bhutto serves as a painful reminder of how violent politics has become in so many Muslim countries, the very same countries whose citizens pride themselves as the 'abode of peace' and 'Darul Islam', as opposed to the 'Darul Harb' or 'abode of chaos' without. But a simple overview of developments across the Muslim world since the 1970s will indicate that hardly any Muslim country has even made the successful transition to popular representative democracy of any kind: Iran's despotic Shah who ruled with an Iron Fist was finally ousted from power by student revolutionaries, only to open the way for a new wave of repression by the Mullahs who instituted public hangings and the public execution of homosexuals, political opponents and those regarded as 'deviants' by the regime. Egypt's Anwar Sadat was gunned down in public view by members of the Gama'at Islamiyyah, who likewise opted for the radical path of violence.

From Morocco to Indonesia radical Islamist groups have long since bid adieu to the norms of democratic participation- but not least simply because they have been denied the democratic option themselves.

The real crisis in the Muslim world seems to be a structural one and has less to do with Islam or theology. In Egypt for instance, a teeming population expanding at the rate of one million per year has created an economy that is not only unevenly developed but also unsustainable. Only three percent of Egyptian soil can be used for agriculture, and even much of that is used to grow cash crops for export to the developed world: The poor fellaheen of the rural interior grow everything from lettuce to string beans, but these are destined for the dinner tables of developed countries instead, while the poor live on bread and bean stew.

Faced with such stark economic realities many Muslim governments have failed to do what is necessary: open the way for economic reform, careful management of resources and plan and save for the future. Instead grandiose projects have been the order of the day and corruption the norm. The net result is social antagonism which is hardly surprising to anyone, and the rise of workers movements and protests.

Here is where many a Muslim leader has failed doubly: Fearful of further democratic demands they have cultivated – since the 1970s – right-wing conservative Islamist movements as a counterweight to social progressives, unions and workers movements. Anwar Sadat's great mistake was to favour the radical Islamists and use them as a means to blunt the criticisms of the progressive democrats of Egypt. But following the Camp David accord where he was seen as a traitor to the Arab cause and a lackey of both the USA and Israel, Sadat was assassinated by the very same radical Islamists his regime had cultivated and protected.

If it is ultimately proven that Benazir Bhutto was murdered by a radical Islamist, then this would be another case of the mouth biting the hand that fed it. For it has to be remembered that it was during Benazir's tenure that the Taliban were cultivated, armed and protected thanks to her government's reliance on such groups and her own co-operation with conservative Islamist parties and movements like the Jama'at'ul Ulema-e Islam (JUI) of Pakistan. The Islamists of the JUI who worked with Benazir's government were the ones who were constantly campaigning for things like the implementation of Shariah Law, in a country where illiteracy is a problem that affects almost half of its population. It is one of the supreme ironies of modern Islamic history that the misogynistic Taliban were bred under the gaze of Benazir's leadership, as she herself was a product of Western Oxbridge education.

The lesson to be learned from all this is that Muslim governments need to address real economic problems with real economic and structural solutions rather than cut cards with the Devil and playing around with fire. If countries like Pakistan and Egypt today seem tottering on the verge of crisis with radical Islamists waiting in the wings, part of the responsibility for that is the role played by Muslim leaders like Sadat and Benazir in tolerating, and even using, these radical firebrands in the first place.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the research site.