We Americans are nice people. We don't like to see anyone living under tyranny. So when protests broke out against the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, most of us were supportive of the men and women in the streets.
The evidence suggests these protests were spontaneous—sparked when a downtrodden Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire. Most of those who took part appear to have been motivated by the frustration that festers among those with little hope of escaping poverty and oppression. Protests spread across the region. Regimes fell in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, a civil war is still under way.
This upheaval became known as the Arab Spring, an allusion to the Prague Spring of 1968, when Czechoslovakia boldly initiated democratic reforms. That season was short-lived—extinguished by a Soviet invasion. The Arab Spring, too, now looks more like a bout of spring fever, an outbreak of unjustified optimism and exuberance.
Once the dictators fell, it became apparent that Islamists—those committed to the supremacy of Muslims—possessed the most sophisticated organizations, the most developed skills and the funds necessary to form effective political movements and parties. They won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, though not in Libya, where a non-Islamist government is holding on by its fingernails.
It is a sad but demonstrable fact that most revolutions do not produce George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons. Most produce Robespierres, Lenins, Stalins and Khomeinis. Often, one form of despotism simply replaces another.
There are freedom fighters in the Muslim world, and they deserve our support. But they are not numerous. Most are Western-educated intellectuals wielding pens that are not mightier than the swords of the Islamists, who are supported by oil wealth and a vast international network.
Islamists do not use the term "Arab Spring." The word they prefer is Nahda, Arabic for renaissance or rebirth—in this case, they believe, a rebirth of global Islamic power and glory. Khairat Al-Shater, the deputy guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, phrased it this way:
"The mission is clear: restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life, empowering of God's religion; establishing the Nahda of the Ummah [Muslim nation] on the basis of Islam."
Islamism should be seen as an ideology and a movement—and the most significant 21st-century threat to freedom and democratic values. It is not, however, monolithic. Those most eager to use violence to achieve its aims refer to themselves as jihadis. They believe that only warfare in the literal sense can bring the changes they seek. Al-Qaeda is the best-known jihadi organization, but there are many others: the Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hezbollah and Hamas, to name just a few.
Then there are Salafis, a term indicating identification with the prophet Mohammed, his companions and early followers (who were among history's greatest conquerors). In most Muslim-majority countries, Salafis are competitors for power: In Egypt, a Salafi presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was seen as a front-runner—until, ironically, he was found ineligible because his mother held U.S. citizenship, disqualifying him under the rules of Egypt's Electoral Commission.
The members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who now hold majority power in Egypt, are neither jihadis nor Salafis. They are satisfied to take power through the ballot box, though it remains to be seen whether they will allow themselves to lose power through the ballot box as well.
Muslim Brotherhood representatives use words that members of the foreign policy establishment are eager to hear: democracy, freedom, pluralism. They talk of justice, dignity and "Islamic values." But they make little effort to define these terms.
Egypt's government, for instance, has done very little to curb the escalating attacks on Egypt's Coptic Christians. Islamists have raised no complaint about the Saudi Grand Mufti's recent fatwa that more Arabian churches be demolished. Recently, Mohammed Badie, the supreme religious leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, accused Jews of spreading "corruption" and desecrating Muslim holy sites. He called on Muslims to respond, adding: "Zionists only know the way of force." Analysts saw this, at least in part, as an attempt to put pressure on Egyptian Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member. Morsi has not responded publicly.
At a Washington conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this year, Mustapha Elkhalfi, minister of communications for Morocco—where a centuries-old monarchy has bent with the wind—said that in his country the priority will be to adopt policies that can reduce "poverty, illiteracy and unemployment."
By contrast, Abdul Mawgoud Rageh Dardery, a member of parliament from Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party, told the same gathering: "Many Egyptians tell me: We would like to live free even if we become hungry." In other words, he would not favor policies that conflict with Islamic law, even if they led to diminished foreign investment and tourism—both vital to Egypt's economic health.
If the Arab Spring was a mirage, the Nahda is the reality. By all means, let's talk to the Islamists. But let's listen carefully to what they tell us and, more importantly, watch what they do. Let's not confuse moderation with gradualism. Imposing Islamist policies slowly, to keep American aid flowing, is not the same as guaranteeing human rights and compromising to achieve peace. It's nice that Americans are nice people. But we also are free people. To preserve that status over the coming years will require more than niceness. It will require spines of steel.