Rulers like Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein often used Islamic groups to discredit the secular opposition. Decades of repression, incompetence and stagnation ensured that citizens got increasingly unhappy with their regimes. And the only organized, untainted alternative was the Islamic movement.
Consider Hamas. It was founded as a sister group of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Initially it was a “quietist” group, accepting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as a fact and simply working to improve the conditions of Palestinians within it. Both Israel and Jordan tacitly supported the group during that period, because they saw it as a way of dividing the Palestinians. They also probably believed it could never come to power. But they worked tirelessly to destroy the PLO and its successor, Fatah, a secular, Soviet-styled revolutionary outfit. (Remember that in the 1970s, even the United States thought that conservative Islamic groups were allies against left-wing revolutionary ones, which is why we funded the mujahedin in Afghanistan.)
But the man who truly opened the space for Hamas was Yasir Arafat. Arafat created one of the most ill-disciplined, corrupt and ineffective organizations ever to be taken seriously on the world stage. Despite the pull of loyalty in tough conditions, Palestinians were losing faith in Fatah through the 1990s. Hamas, meanwhile, became more political, radical and organized. It provided health, education and other social-welfare services. And it stood up for its people.
Such problems extend far beyond the Middle East. To my mind, the central problem in the world today is bad government, ranging from relatively mild ruling party inertia and corruption in countries like Canada and Japan (to pick two who recently voted for reform), to hopelessly failed states like North Korea or Zimbabwe. At least democracies have the potential to clean house periodically. But elections don’t guarantee the next government will be any better.
A lot of the real dirtball regimes are hangovers from the Cold War, still riding the turbid waves of their enabling ideologies, while their backers keep lowering the bar while telling themselves things could be even worse. In their days, at least Arafat, Assad, and Nasser were secular. At least Ceausescu, Hoxha, and Mao were anti-Soviet. At least Kim Il-sung, Ne Win, and Pol Pot were anticapitalist. At least Papa Doc, Pinochet, and Somoza were anticommunist.
And we’re still doing that today. People console themselves that Kyrgyzstan’s Bakiyev, Tajikistan’s Rakhmonov, and Uzbekistan’s Karimov are at least anti-Islamist (and so is Turkmenistan’s Niyazov, though he may be his own kind of autotheocrat). Others applaud Castro, Chavez, and Evo Morales for at least being anti-American. Until accountability matters more than ideology, we’ll never make any progress toward inducing bad governments to clean up their acts.
(Yes, I know, it’s not just enabling ideologies, it’s also enabling vital resources–oil, natural gas, diamonds, whatever–that provide excuses for others to tolerate unconscionable behavior by oppressive governments.)