By Nuray Mert
It seems “the pragmatism of Islamists” has defeated “the Western pragmatism,” at the end of the day.
The western powers supported politics of the “conservatives” in Muslim countries against the so-called “threat of communism,” all along the Cold War years. The famous (or infamous) Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia summarizes this well-known strategy better than anybody else, as he states, “Saudi efforts to fight the Communists were not limited to oil and petrodollar contributions for CIA covert operations.” Bandar maintains, “We did not use East-West arguments or America’s anti-communism, we used religion. We said ‘the Communists are atheists, they don’t believe in religion and we are fighting them for religious reasons.’“(William Simpson, The Prince, New York: Harper Collins, 2006, 112)
Indeed, it proved to be a working strategy and the western powers never thought their support of “Muslim politics” not only “saved” those countries from left wing politics or Soviet influence, but it also hindered the improvement of secular modern politics. At the end of the Cold War years, it turned to be supporting radical Islamism against the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and moderate Islamism elsewhere (and especially in Turkey) against the possible influence of revolutionary Iran. Finally, after the end of the Cold War, Muslim politics were still needed; this time not only for avoiding “a clash of civilizations,” but also to enable the integration of Muslim societies into the global free market.
From the beginning, it was not only Western powers used conservatives against their (communist) enemies, but Muslim conservatives used Western support to improve their political power in their countries. Then again, it was not only the U.S. (and western powers in general) used radical Islamism against Soviets, but also radical Islamists found a chance to empower their mission with Western support. And finally, it was not only western powers invested their hopes in “free market Muslim politics,” but also free market Muslim politics and politicians used this new channel to get by with westerners as they empowered themselves. From the mid-90s onwards, the Western assumption was the pragmatism of “moderate Muslim politics” would lead to a new type of accommodation to the world system. It was that the new rising pious middle classes would aspire to be the new bourgeoisie; the ordinary Muslims would transform into being simple customers, rather than subscribing to radical political views. Besides, it was not only the “anaesthetics” of free market economy, but also the political pragmatism of those ex-Islamists, who had been excluded from the political system for long and were eager to take over political power, would lead to de-radicalization and it would finally give way to democratization.
This was the happy idea behind the hopeful scenarios concerning “the Turkish model” and “the Arab spring” and both failed, since it turned to be that Islamists’ pragmatism and political manoeuvrings defeated western pragmatism. It is true that Islamist politics and politicians could achieve neither good governance, nor their political ends in the “Arab spring countries,” but only disproved the optimistic expectations.
Unfortunately, it is the people who live in these countries who pay the price for unfounded optimism or crude pragmatism. The case of Turkey is rather different, ex-Islamists managed to be the absolute political power at the expense of the ever growing democracy deficit here. Those who were expected to moderate their views out of pragmatism, used pragmatism as a political tool to change the power structure to ensure their hegemony. Alas, it happened this way and the future is truly uncertain.