COLUMBUS, Ohio — Islamic political parties are assuming roles in the new order in Arab countries. Will these parties hurt American interests in the region? Depends on what you consider our interests.
Tunisia, the country where the political change began in early 2010, seems to be doing well. Islamists are part of the political process there, but Tunisia just elected as president a secular candidate who seems to enjoy general support.
If by American interests in the Middle East one means access to oil, there is probably no problem. Whoever has oil needs to sell it. Saudi Arabia is as Islamic as it gets, and they are happy to cash our checks.
It may not be irrelevant to ask how political Islam came to be a factor in the Middle East. To find the source of political Islam, don't go to a mosque. Try 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had no minaret on top last time I checked. American presidents have created political Islam and are still its main facilitators.
Islam is the rallying cry for opposing outsiders, especially us. Consider these examples:
—Iran had a secular parliamentary system until we brought it down in 1953 and replaced it with the Shah. The Shah's heavy-handed ways resulted in his being overthrown in 1979 by the ayatollahs, who went to Islam to explain how bad we are.
—In Lebanon, the Islamist-oriented Hezbollah party, now part of Lebanon's government, came to prominence to oppose the occupation of southern Lebanon by our ally Israel.
—By letting Israel use "negotiations" as a cover for taking Palestinian land, we brought the PLO-backed Palestine government into disrepute and set the stage for PLO rival Hamas in 2005 Palestine elections. After Hamas won, we isolated it as a pariah because of its opposition to those negotiations. Hamas is not opposing our approaches because of something they found in the Koran. Hamas is reacting to our own wrong-headed policies.
If we are concerned about Islamist parties, one might think we would learn lessons from this history. But witness our current campaign to promote Hamas. In November we cut off funding to the U.N. Economic, Social and Cultural Organization because it admitted Palestine as a member state.
The Obama administration claims that it was forced to do so by 1990s-era congressional legislation against U.S. funding of U.N.-affiliated agencies that admit Palestine. That legislation was aimed at the PLO, which we then considered terrorist. Now we give aid to the PLO and consider Hamas to be terrorist. By thwarting Palestine's admission to U.N. agencies, we show the PLO-backed government to be ineffective.
The beneficiary, is Hamas. Hamas could not ask for a better publicity agent than President Obama as it fights for hearts and minds.
Then there is our current policy on Iran. Following Israel's lead, we view Iran as a threat. This is the Iran, please recall, led by elements who came to power only because we foolishly backed their predecessor.
Our 2003 invasion of Iraq has destabilized that country along sectarian lines and enhanced the stature of Iran, which is aligned with the newly dominant Shia elements in Iraq.
We need a serious conversation about our own policies and about what our interests truly are in the Middle East.
Should we promote democracy? Then we need to be consistent.
Should we do whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks? Then we need to consider the consequences.
So long as we pursue short-sighted policies in the Middle East, we can expect a negative reaction, and some of that reaction will be clothed in Islamic garb.
John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.