Cliff May

The panelists ranged from dour to congenial. They used words the audience was eager to hear: “democracy,” “freedom,” “pluralism.” More than one said their goal is a “civil society, not a theocratic state.” They emphasized the desire of their peoples for “justice,” “dignity” and “Islamic values” but made little effort to define those terms.

Though they vowed “respect for the rights of minorities,” no one specified what rights minorities are entitled to as subjects of the “Islamic states” they envision. There was not a word about the escalating attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians; the Saudi Grand Mufti’s fatwa that more churches be demolished; Sudan’s mass murders of both Christians and the black Muslims of Darfur; the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Taliban; the Iranian regime’s continuing repression at home and support for terrorism abroad; the mounting death toll in Syria; Hezbollah’s power grab in Lebanon; Hamas’ commitment to the extermination of Israel; or al-Qaeda.

That is not to say these Islamists marched in lockstep. Mustapha Elkhalfi, minister of communications for Morocco – where a centuries-old monarchy has so far weathered the storms -- said the priority should 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, said, “Many Egyptians tell me: We would like to live free even if we become hungry.” He did not say whether he thought it would make Egyptians feel less free to have Westerners in Cairo supporting fledgling civil society groups, or businessmen and tourists sipping cocktails in hotel bars, or to restrain terrorists from firing missiles at Israel from Egyptian territory.

Nabil Alkofhai, of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front Party, struck a chord with me when he said that Arab peoples do not want “to remain on the margins of human civilizations.” But a few moments later he insulted the audience’s intelligence by asserting that “the Islamic world … did not witness anything in its history over 1,400 years that is called religious oppression.”

Similarly, I thought Dardery had a point when he said that sharia simply means law – and that Islamic law can be variously interpreted. But then he said that jihad means “exerting an effort” and so “I am doing jihad sitting here.” Studying hard, he added, is jihad; not eating too much – that, too, is jihad. I waited for him to add something about jihad as defined by Osama bin Laden, who said it “means fighting only, fighting with the sword,” or Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution, who said:

Those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. … Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! … Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to paradise, which can be opened only for holy warriors!

The Arab Spring was a mirage. The Nahda is a reality. By all means, let’s talk to the Islamists. But let’s listen carefully to what they say. Let’s not be complicit in our own deception. Let’s watch what they do. Let’s not confuse gradualism with moderation. Journalists, diplomats and academics might understand all this if they were relying less on optimism and more on analysis.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.