Middle East expert warns against illusion of 'moderate' Islamists

pphabibmalikcna110411 Prof. Habib Malik

Updated April 13, 2011 at 11:13 a.m. MST. Corrects previous description of Malik as a Maronite Catholic.

Habib Malik, a Lebanese Roman Catholic scholar and human rights advocate, recently warned Western countries to be on their guard against radical Islamic forces that present themselves as political “moderates” in countries such as Libya and Egypt.

“Another fallacy is rearing its head again, and we saw this prior to 9/11,” said Malik in a March 31 address at Washington, D.C.'s Westminster Institute. “It's now coming back into the discourse, unfortunately, in Washington: this very wrong and dangerous idea that 'there are moderate fundamentalists and there are radical fundamentalists, and maybe we can talk to the moderate fundamentalists and wean them away from it.'” 

“This is garbage, and nonsense,” said Malik, author of the 2010 book “Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East,” as he described the notion of “moderate” Islamic radicalism as a fantasy entertained by the West. “It doesn't exist. There is no such thing. What appears to be moderate can, in an instant, flip and change.”

“When you're thousands of miles away, in a place like Washington, you give this armchair analysis that generates policy, about 'moderate' and 'radical' fundamentalists. This eventually translates itself very adversely, on the scene over there. It affects whole communities of Christians on the ground.”

In both Libya and Egypt, the U.S. State Department has acted and spoken in favor of movements calling for democracy and human rights while avoiding religious rhetoric. However, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood played a significant part in overturning a government they had long opposed in favor of a religious state.

Meanwhile, Libyan rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi has acknowledged the presence of fighters linked to al-Qaida among his troops. President Barack Obama told CBS Evening News in March that the Libyan rebels were “saying the right things” and appeared “credible,” although he admitted they might contain “elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests.”

In his remarks at the Westminster Institute, Malik used his own homeland of Lebanon to illustrate how repressive ideologies can hide behind the appearance of moderation and modernity.

“I come from Lebanon. Let me tell you, there is very little faith in people who are clean-shaven, and wear Pierre Cardin suits – like Mr. (Saad) Hariri, the now-former Prime Minister – and who appear to be modern, talk the talk and walk the walk.”

“We all know that he is tethered to a monarchy, the Saudi monarchy, that is Wahabi, that is pre-dark-ages in every definition of the term, and that is responsible – through its worldwide propaganda, and the way it has used its money – for producing the kind of virulent Islamism that produced 9/11.”

“Mr. Hariri could be a very well-meaning man,” Malik said. “But if he's in power, there is no guarantee that the 'bearded ones' won't just put him aside, any minute. These are fears that Christians have in the region. There's very little faith in this kind of 'moderation.'”

While Western power entertain hope for democracy and the flourishing of civil society in Egypt and elsewhere, Malik said local Christian communities are concerned with the prospect of other outcomes.

“What will replace these regimes? This is the question that the various Christians in the region are asking,” he noted. “Will it be similarly repressive regimes, reinventing themselves?”

“You can topple a dictator in a reasonably short period of time. But to build democracy, that's a generational project – especially in a region where the rule of law has been absent, and the importance of the individual as a citizen is missing.”

“I'm not pouring cold water on the aspirations of the youth,” Malik stated. “I'm simply giving myself, and us, a reality check. Don't expect democracy in Egypt and Tunisia next week, or six months from now.”

“It's going to take time. And the more time it takes, the more possibility there is of other forms of repression – whether Islamist, or regime-style – hijacking the whole show.”

“Christians are concerned,” he said. “And they have every reason to be.”

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