07/15/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

'Political Islam': Really on the Ropes?

The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo has stirred speculation as to what it impends for politics across the Middle East. Washington's commentariat is especially enamored with the notion that "political Islam" is dead - or fatally injured, or on its way to the dustbin of history, or something of the sort. This is understandable. Since 9/11 the United States has been at war with radical Islamist movements that are viewed as either the agents of terrorism or its enablers and incubators. Distinctions have been made among various types of political groupings, usually on a rough-and-ready basis, but there is an obvious discomfort with nearly all of them. Only the long-standing strategic partners like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies are in the comfort zone of American policy-makers - this despite the dubious role of the Saudis in particular in bankrolling fundamentalism throughout the region.

So now that the MB has been usurped by a popular movement, and its cadres brutally repressed by the Egyptian army, foreign policy analysts are joyously anticipating that the wave of Islamist political theology that has been the hallmark of recent Middle East politics has broken and a strong ebb tide is about to disperse its energy into less turbulent seas. It is true of course that the Obama administration itself has harbored the hope that Egypt would be the laboratory for a successful experiment in reconciling Islamism with democracy. It has invested considerable political capital in the bet that it would join with Turkey as models for other Muslim societies. Still, that has been recognized as a risky gamble. Instinct has always been generally pessimistic. And certainly the country's political class overall has found it a strain to imagine any Islamist forces in a positive light. These latter attitudes are clearly evident in the premature celebration of "political Islam's" demise.

Wishful thinking on this score is encouraged by the failure to define exactly what is meant by "political Islam." Nominally, the term refers to all and any groupings that cultivate a collective identity associated with the religion. This simplistic formulation does not carry us very far if we are interested in a serious assessment of what the future actually holds. So broadly conceived, it covers everything from Erdogan's Development and Justice Party in Turkey to al-Qaida. Moreover, the place of religion in the organized political life of other civilizations reveals an even wider range of possibilities. Think of Christian democracy in Europe, the role of the Catholic church in Latin American and parts of sub-Saharan Africa - and, not least, the revived Christian Right in the United States itself. Beyond Christendom, we also note Hindu nationalism in India that spawned a ruling coalition; monk-led Buddhist activism in Thailand and Burma; and rampant Judaic fundamentalism in Israel that has a stranglehold on Israeli politics..

Islam remains somewhat special, though. It evokes stronger emotions and more powerful imagery linked to violence - actual or perceived - directed at Americans. As somebody has said: "all fear is local." Dread and anxiety stifle critical thinking. We currently are seeing that phenomenon manifest in the hasty conclusion that "political Islam is dead."

Let's look at the multiple forms of Islamic political groupings as the first step toward a rough assessment of what their place and influence may be. At the far fundamentalist end of the continuum are the salafist formations. They include al-Nour in Egypt, al-Nousr in Syria, Ansar al-Shariah in Libya and Tunisia, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) in the Sahel, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Islamic salvation Front in Algeria, al-Watan in Libya, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and several groups of less prominence. None of the major ones appears to be on a downward trajectory; some in fact will benefit from the righteous indignation many practicing Muslims feel about the Brotherhood's treatment at the hands of secularists. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood itself retains unique influence across the region as the fountainhead of Islamist ideology and source of organizational support. Its affiliates operate inter alia in Libya, Syria, Jordan and Tunisia. A further likely effect will be the radicalization of those groups and off-shoots of related parties that do not now include violence in their repertoire.

Violent salafist movements form a second category. There we find those that are al-Qaidi affiliated - as in the Sinai, Syria and Iraq - and who will find fresh recruiting opportunities opened to them. Signs of that phenomenon already are discernible.

We should remember, in this regard, the empirical correlation between free elections and the rise of Islamist forces. In those countries where they enjoy wide popular support, as has been the case in Egypt and in Tunisia (to a lesser extent), they are well positioned to use the ballot to gain legitimacy while reaching for the levers of state power. We can expect the same pattern to occur wherever popular pressure for representative democracy attains a critical threshold, albeit and paradoxically the pressure usually being generated by secular, liberal elements.

A third broad category covers those avowedly Islamist parties that have embraced electoral democracy. The outstanding example is Turkey's Development and Justice Party. While it has infringed on some civil liberties, especially freedom of expression and assembly, it has not called into question fundamental constitutional principles. One can also place in this category Tunisia's el-Ennahda Party - although its long-term commitment is suspect, Morocco's successful Justice and Development Party, Algeria's Movement for a Peaceful Society (MSP), Yemen's Islah and the Rashad Union. The existence of governing parties in particular has a two-fold significance. On the one hand, they may serve as models of "moderate" Islamist activism that leads to democratically determined power and competent governance. On the other, they could serve to lend credibility and impetus to Islamist political forces generally. Electoral success may also give incentive to non-Islamist parties to adopt elements of the Islamist program. Whether such a development would be a good or bad thing for the societies involved is not for us to say. It could create a reality, though, where "political Islam" remains alive and kicking indefinitely. In addition, Islamist or Islamist-tinged governments are likely to be relatively more sensitive to concerns of fellow states and co-religionists elsewhere. This last has implications for issues like Palestine.

More acute awareness of developments across the Islamic ummah may have the pernicious effect of intensifying, and internationalizing, the sectarian tensions/conflicts between sunnis and shi'ites. One cannot talk of political Islam without due regard to the ensuing passions and deepening sense of collective religious identities. Taking sides - vicariously or literally - means taking that collective, parochial religious identity more seriously; greater saliency of that identity in turn points to a heightening of tensions in a high stakes competition at the very core of the Islamic world.

That brings us to Iran. Some commentators quickly have jumped to the cavalier conclusion that the Muslim brotherhood's inglorious setback in Egypt is part of a wider phenomenon that includes Iran. Supposedly, the ruling mullahs will be dispirited by the Brotherhood's frustrated attempt to turn Egypt into a sharia society. Basic differences of theology, tradition, and experience are slighted. Iran - Persian, cynosure of shi'ism and heir to a great historical tradition - will not see its fate determined by transitory events along the Nile. That political fate cannot be predicted. However, there is no compelling reason to presume that the current regime will collapse due to massive popular disaffection and economic afflictions. The recent presidential election of Hassan Ruhani suggests that evolution toward some unknowable stable condition is far more likely than a sudden and sharp political rupture. Of course, that prospect discomforts many in the West, especially Washington, who cannot hide their wish to see the Islamic Republic disappear as soon as possible. Sanctions and isolation, the very sources of many current Iranian woes, are the means to that end. Instead, their effects probably have been to slow the evolutionary process. The ultimate outcome, in any case, will not be an Iran modeled on Westwood or Tel Aviv.

The discussion to this point has made no direct reference to the Muslims of South Asia. Yet, 65 percent of the world's Muslims live there and not in the greater Middle East. This neglect stems from several causes - not least of which are lower stakes, the absence of the Israel factor, the absence of oil, and the even greater ignorance of both policy-makers and commentators. When we do look at Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and India, the rising importance of Islam as a political factor stands out. In the first two, democratic institutions and practices (imperfect but well rooted) are being directly challenged by Islamist parties at the ballot box, in the streets and through violent acts. Indonesia is experiencing an extensive process of cultural and social Islamicization as its traditional easy-going version of Islam is being reshaped by aggressive fundamentalist movements of various stripes - some financed by Saudi Arabia, some with jihadist tendencies. A similar intensification is evident in always more orthodox Malaysia. As for India's Muslim minority of 160 million, it to date has been only marginally affected by the fundamentalist wave but its future orientation is uncertain. The odd state of affairs there means that in the country with the world's third largest Muslim population, they are a small minority of about 12 percent. They do not vote as a unitary bloc but they are courted on a communal basis by most national parties - the Hindu nationalist BJP an obvious exception.

This broad stroke picture of Islamist political parties across the Muslim world highlights the striking strengthening of their presence and influence over the past twenty years. It represents a multifaceted phenomenon of historic proportions whose current importance and lasting effects cannot be vitiated by events in any one place. Moreover, the range and variety of Islamist movements belies any attempt at facile generalizations. So, it is discouraging to see highly visible commentaries by widely read persons of supposed knowledge and foreign policy experience issuing pronouncements that reveal more ignorance than insight. Their presence on the Op Ed page of the august New York Times - among other publications - magnifies the consequences of their intellectual shortcomings. The last thing our already impoverished foreign policy discourse needs is a bevy of pieces that suggest Junior Scholastic with attitude.

Even more disturbing is the staccato stream of public statements from our leaders in Washington that are broadcast in scattergun fashion on an almost daily basis. They seem designed to shape headlines on the 24-hour news cycle in the manner of political spin during electoral campaigns. The target audience is American public opinion as registered in the polls and on the talk shows rather than foreign governments or political activists. This is not surprising when we recall that it is the White House political operatives who carefully filter all messages that emanate from this administration. The approach is incompatible with strategic design or a concerted diplomacy. Inconsistent, at times contradictory declarations confuse and alienate - as in Egypt where Washington has managed to lose standing among all parties to the conflict. They imply a measure of American influence that doesn't exist, thereby setting the stage for disillusionment with American leadership. These practices fail to make connections among developments in diverse places over time - forcing foreign policy into a reactive, damage control mode. The consequences for American interests are all the more damaging when the underlying analysis and interpretation is pitched only a few levels above that of the commentariat.