The term “Arab Spring” was born of optimism, not analysis. When a downtrodden fruit monger in Tunisia self-immolated, setting off a series of regional upheavals, many journalists, diplomats and academics thought they heard an echo of the Prague Spring of 1968. That was when Czechoslovakia boldly initiated democratic reforms – an experiment quickly extinguished by a Soviet invasion.
Americans do not like to see people living under the jackboots of dictators. We instinctively root for the revolutionaries hoping there are George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons among them. But the American Revolution was an historical anomaly. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution – in these and other instances, one form of despotism simply replaced another.
Are there freedom fighters in the Muslim world? Yes, without question. But not many. And most are Western-educated intellectuals, no match for disciplined Islamic militants operating from an international network of mosques and non-governmental organizations, drawing from a bottomless well of oil money, and more than willing to use violence – or to stand aside as others use it -- to achieve their objectives.
Islamists are calling this stormy new season the Nahda, Arabic for renaissance which is French for rebirth – in this case, they believe, a rebirth of global Islamic power. Khairat Al-Shater, the Deputy Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its recently announced presidential candidate, phrased it (in a speech he made a year ago and which was recently translated by the Hudson Institute) 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.
Last week, a delegation of Islamists from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Libya paid a visit to Washington. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a one-day conference: “Islamists in Power: Views from Within.” Jessica Mathews, Carnegie’s president, opened the discussion by noting that the “rise of Islamist parties is a political reality,” one which “has sparked a great deal of uncertainty, even trepidation” while “Islamist parties remain poorly understood.” No doubt about any of that.