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Author of “The Islamic Paradox” Talks about Spreading Democracy in the Middle East.

A critical debate is taking place over the best way to combat global terrorism. The Bush administration believes that only freedom and democracy have the power to break the nexus between tyranny and Islamic extremism that gave rise to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. To that end, Washington favors empowering moderate, secular Muslims as an antidote to autocratic and extremist tendencies. However, Reuel Marc Gerecht, resident fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, argues that it is those who hate the United States most – Shi’ite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists – who hold the key to spreading democracy and stability in the Muslim Middle East.

In his recently published monograph, The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists and the Coming of Arab Democracy, Mr. Gerecht refutes the notion that moderate Muslims are the answer to a more democratic, stable Middle East. Speaking on VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Mr. Gerecht said that in an ideal world, he would favor putting the emphasis on Muslim moderates and progressives. But right now there are too few moderates and progressives, making it impossible for the United States to “reach over the heads of illiberal dictators and kings” and encourage Muslim moderates.

According to Mr. Gerecht, a former Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, Islamic activists will be an important driving force behind the democratic process in the region, especially in the aftermath of the January 30th elections in Iraq. He said the United States should not fear this tendency because it is Islamic activists who will be most effective in stopping “bin Laden-ism.” Iran, for example, began in 1979 as the most “jihad-ist, anti-American culture in the Muslim world,” but Reuel Marc Gerecht called that jihadism today “dead as a doornail” and described Iran as probably the most pro-American country in the Middle East. He suggested that trend could be replicated in the Sunni world as democracy starts to develop.

Using the slow pace of democratic development in the West as an example, Mr. Gerecht reminded that it did not get to Thomas Jefferson, author of America’s Declaration of Independence, without going through the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. And so in the Muslim world, he said, it is important for Islamic militants to argue with other Islamic militants and to “fight it out” in the political arena.

Mr. Gerecht suggested that it would be difficult for many Americans, especially officials in the Bush administration, to deal with an Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant political force. And he acknowledged that, along with the rise of fundamentalist participation in politics, women’s rights for example are likely to come under assault, as they did in Algeria. However, Mr. Gerecht said he is not overly concerned about the long-term outcome because democracies cannot ultimately sustain terrorism and most Muslims do not support terrorist behavior.

Regarding the controversial issue of U.S. support for groups like Hezbollah or Hamas entering the Middle East political process, Reuel Marc Gerecht said he thinks it is not for the United States to tell either the Lebanese or the Palestinians who can enter their own democratic politics. Furthermore, he suggested that, if Hamas wants to win elections, it would not be able to maintain an unrelenting holy warrior attitude toward the Israelis. So he said he favors allowing Islamic activists to compete for votes. Mr. Gerecht said he does not believe that Muslims in the Middle East are “fundamentally different” than most other people in the world who have embraced the democratic ethic.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.