From San Francisco to Sarajevo – by Michael J. Totten
Stephen Schwartz was raised a communist in the San Francisco Bay Area and once worked for the Cubans. Then he became a Republican and converted to Islam in the Balkans. When he’s not busy with his duties as the director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, he writes books and articles for magazines like The Weekly Standard.
His analysis of the Middle East and the Muslim world generally is more fresh and interesting than that of most. He is the first Westerner to use the word “Islamofascism” to describe the “use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology,” and he did so not as an “Islamophobe” but as a Muslim believer. Those who yearn to hear from moderate Muslims, and those who have somehow convinced themselves that the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood are the moderates, really need to hear what he has to say.
MJT: So, what are your thoughts on Egypt?
Stephen Schwartz: Well, during the first two weeks most of the usual chatterers had no chattering to do. Everybody was stunned. Nobody had an answer. A lot of what should have been said was considered politically incorrect. Nobody for the first two weeks wanted to say there weren’t just two alternatives in Egypt, Mubarak or the Brotherhood. There were three alternatives—Mubarak, the Brotherhood, and the army which really rules Egypt.
Egypt has been controlled by the army since 1952. In certain kinds of countries the military takes over because it’s the only stable force. But in other countries the army is more ideological. Some of the armies in these latter countries develop a political ideology that I and a few other people have called the concept of the “army-party,” meaning the army acts as though it were a political party. It’s not simply a matter of a military dictatorship or a regime based on a militaristic or fascist party, and it’s not always necessarily an ideological phenomenon, but the army acts as a political party. It acts as a political force, and it acts as a political arbiter.
MJT: Like in Turkey, for instance.
Stephen Schwartz: Turkey is an example. There are lots of examples in Latin America. Argentina was an example. Algeria and Egypt are examples.
MJT: And Pakistan.
Stephen Schwartz: Yes, and Pakistan. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Egypt has an army-party.
MJT: It does.
Stephen Schwartz: So it’s not a question of Mubarak or the Brotherhood. The army will not, I think, permit the Brotherhood to take power, but the army will shuffle things in some ways. There may not be much of a change at all. When Mubarak said he wouldn’t run in the next election, well, the election is seven months away. How do we know there will be an election?
I’m for democracy throughout the world. I want bourgeois democracy everywhere. I’m an activist for it, but I’m also cautious about euphoria. I think a lot of people have been swept away by hope in the Egyptian case. They think this is the beginning of the great Arab transformation, but they don’t notice that there are few political alternatives in Egypt. There’s no labor-based party. There’s no bourgeois party. There are no parties representing particular social and economic interests.
The most important point, in my view, is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are two countries where democratization, or, at least, popular sovereignty, means leaving Islamist ideology behind. The problem with Egypt is that democratization, to a certain extent, represents a leap into the void. The Egyptians haven’t yet learned about Islamist ideology, through experience, what the Saudis and especially the Iranians have learned. We don’t want them to have to learn it.
MJT: But how are they going to learn it without learning it?
Stephen Schwartz: They can learn it by looking at the experiences of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan. They don’t have to suffer it in their flesh. People in the West rejected Communism without having to live under it, thank God.
The other problem is that the weight of corruption and despotism in Egypt is so heavy and has persisted for so long. I often compare Egypt with China in this sense.
Democracy in Iran could lead to social reform in Saudi Arabia and a stiffening of the resistance to radicalism in Pakistan. It could conceivably change the whole Muslim world.
MJT: The Arab world doesn’t look up to Iran or Pakistan.
Stephen Schwartz: No.
MJT: Arabs do look up to Egypt, though, and in different ways to Saudi Arabia.
Stephen Schwartz: If Iran becomes democratic, if the Iranians overthrow the clerical state as we should all hope and pray for every day, there will be a tremendous impact in Saudi Arabia.
MJT: You think?
Stephen Schwartz: Absolutely.
MJT: What kind of impact would you expect?
Stephen Schwartz: If Iranians overthrow the clerical state and put Islamist ideology behind them, they can move quickly along the path of democracy and stability. Iranians are very well educated, very sophisticated.
MJT: The Saudis don’t seem to be so educated and sophisticated about democracy. ….