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June 2, 2006
The Next Battle Of Islam

Yousef Ibrahim reports that the next clash between secular Muslim governments and jihadist radicals may come in Tunisia. His column in today's New York Sun describes the efforts of that moderate nation to "rationalize" Islam, and the portents for violent backlash this program carries:

The next confrontation between secular dictators and Islamic jihadists in the Arab world may happen in Tunisia. The country's interior minister, Hedi Mhenni, has spoken of plans to issue an electronic identity card to Muslim worshippers, pairing them with the mosques nearest to their homes in what he termed "the rationalization of religion."

The crudely named initiative is an effort to restrict the political activities of Islamic fundamentalists, who for decades have used mosques as a staging ground to recruit, organize, and launch potential jihadists at home and abroad.

When it comes to battling fundamentalists, nothing done by Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - or two other current and former prominent Arab secularist dictators, President Mubarak of Egypt and the imprisoned Saddam Hussein of Iraq - would ever surprise me. They are dictators all right, but tenacious secularists, too. ... These men, disdainful as they may be of human rights, make a pretty good argument for why jihadists are a cancer far more lethal than their contempt for democracy

Ibrahim makes a case for Tunisia and the brand of benevolent despotism that has allowed it to become, in his description, the most modern of Islamic states. Women have integrated into government and business roles, and they do not have the forced humiliations of polygamy and the veil. As of now, Tunisia also has shown remarkable stability, and its secular nature has ingrained itself into the cultural fabric of the nation. Ibrahim argues that such benevolent despotism may have more value in its imposition of secular values than a democracy which gives free expression to Islamist impulses.

Ah, but there's the rub: actually getting a benevolent despot. Two of the people that Ibrahim references in this article have all indulged in torture and violence to maintain their grip on power. Saddam send hundreds of thousands of his own people into unmarked mass graves in order to maintain his brand of despotism. Mubarak's police beat and imprison people for exercising free speech, even of a secular nature. Ben Ali may or may not be different, but this list of complaints by Human Rights Watch indicate at least some issues with the level of benevolence he exercises. Tunisians may not even read this post, as Tunisia apparently censors Internet traffic and jails Internet writers for their dissent.

However benevolent a despot may be, the inability to speak out against abuses ensures that abuses continue and escalate. Those abuses, as well as the frustration of the natural desire for self-determination, gives rise to more radical movements, whether they be democratic as in the Cedar Revolution, or Islamist as in the Iranian revolution of 1979. In fact, the Shah is a perfect example of this phenomenon; he had attempted a reform of his autocratic rule and his secret police, and got overthrown by the forces that he had allowed to build over the years. Saudi Arabia exports more jihadists than anywhere else, primarily because of the absolute Wahhabist dictatorship. Syria, whose Ba'athist dictatorship most closely resembles Saddam's, has never stamped out its jihadist elements, but has managed to redirect their anger towards Israel and not the government that massacred thousands of them over twenty years ago.

The Middle East is chock-full of despots, and most of them have no measure of benevolence at all. Despots retain power through the use of force, and applied force creates radical reactions. The only solution for radicalism in the Muslim world is rational self-determination. All else is simply delay and pressure cooking. Tunisia might remain stable for a year or five years, but sooner or later Ben Ali or another despot will have to go too far in order to maintain power. I suspect, as does Ibrahim, that this mosque-assignment plan may just be that occasion -- and then we will see how well his dictatorship disarms radical Islamists.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 2, 2006 6:50 AM

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» Oxymoronic from Cagey Mind
If ever there was a term that made no sense it is benevolent despotism. We are not talking about Plato’s Philosopher King, we are talking about despots. Remember the old saying, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”... [Read More]

Tracked on June 2, 2006 11:29 AM


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