Meeting Basic Needs Could Fight Islamic Extremism

There is still no better theory of human motivation than Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of human needs." Maslow, an American psychologist writing in the 1940s and '50s, argued that man's primary or basic needs are physiological: food, water, sleep, shelter. Only with these needs satisfied could one move up the pyramid toward security and employment, friendship and family, toward self-actualization and morality. No matter what your religion, you are human first and faithful second.

Muslims, like any other people, are searching for order more than they are searching for Islamic order. Governments are supposed to provide the basic needs of justice, welfare and security. But when they don't—as in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Swat Valley, or across the third world and much of the Muslim world—commanding loyalty and morality becomes anybody's game. Islamist groups like the Taliban, Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hizbullah quickly move into the fray to provide stability, services and justice. Are the young boys from NWFP who are paid 1,000 rupees a day to leave their families and march with guns and sticks into Swat really radical Muslims, or just kids who need jobs?

When the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt gained a surprising share of the Parliament in the first round of Egypt's 2005 elections, it quickly needed to formulate a platform. Here's what they came up with: countering corruption, creating jobs, improving social services and getting President Hosni Mubarak, whose reign is coming up on three decades, to repeal his emergency laws. Where is Islam in that agenda? If you were a young Egyptian with no prospects under Mubarak's yoke, wouldn't you vote for the Brotherhood?

According to a new survey published by the Council on Foreign Relations, most Muslims not only want democracy, but believe it moderates Islamists' agendas. If the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is allowed to advance, you can bet they would rather hold on to power than to cede it to the clerics. But to stay in power they would have to stay democratic, or risk the Army pushing them aside. In other words, Egypt could become like Turkey—a huge step forward for the most populous Arab country. What we have to aim for in the Muslim world is not an idealized Western democracy but the next best thing that is attainable.

We must be careful to distinguish political groups that are inspired by Islam and those that are bent on propagating it worldwide. Radical Muslims are so few in number that they could simply be called terrorists, especially since they don't represent Islam any more than the Red Army Faction's anarchism represented socialism or the Shiv Sena's militant nativism in India represents Hinduism.

There is a corollary to this: even though many Muslim societies are troubled, that does not mean there is a common Islamic world. Bush's mistaken creation has unfortunately been carried forward by President Obama, who also addressed the "Muslim world" directly in his Inaugural Address. On any given day, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia don't coordinate their governance or foreign policies. We need to stop pretending—and speaking—as if they do. The only common policy toward Muslim countries should be diplomacy with all of them, including recognizing the Islamist parties within them such as Hizbullah and Hamas. We cannot wish them out of existence, and if and when they come to power—often democratically—they owe America nothing unless we engage them now.

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