Amid disheartening news from across the Arab world, one of the few pleasant surprises has been the reinvigorated Arab League. Since the outbreak of revolution last year, the league has conferred legitimacy on the NATO-led campaign to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi, helped coax Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, and assisted Europe and the United States in applying pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. At a time when Egypt, mired in domestic strife, no longer plays a leadership role in the neighborhood, the Arab League has demonstrated that a pan-Arab coalition can serve a useful function.
But the region's defining challenge for years to come -- how to build the foundation for democracy over the fault lines of tribe, sect, ethnicity, and ideology -- requires a different form of transnational leadership. The Arab League remains largely an assembly of autocrats who exploit the divisions within their societies to cling to power. Even the fledgling democracies among its member states have begun to use the same old cynical tactics with their populations. Egypt's post-Mubarak junta is prosecuting foreign and local NGO workers on bogus conspiracy charges, and Arab heads of state have been silent. Despite having assisted the international community in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the League has not discussed the future of these states' political development. Nor will it: Arab leaders won't press for democratic reforms in other countries that they are unwilling to take on themselves.
While the league should continue to serve as a policy platform for Arab heads of state, the region also needs a transnational body that speaks for the aspirations of civil society activists and reformists -- and the tens of millions of people who stand to benefit from efforts to fight corruption, stem extremism, provide electoral transparency, and build institutions to serve women and the working class. Call it a "League of Arab Societies." This organization should draw inspiration from the region's most successful transnational institution in recent memory: The Muslim World League (MWL), an umbrella organization headquartered in Saudi Arabia that drew together the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi clerics, and jihadists to fight secular dictatorships.
Founded in 1962 and still active today, the MWL advanced the pan-Islamist ideal of a region organized by a framework of Islamic law. The venture represents an impressive marriage of pragmatism and idealism. The MWL's constituent groups used friendly Saudi terrain to plan and coordinate their activism, endowing mosques with funding and ideological literature and pumping resources into a network of charitable organizations. They fostered an agile political strategy: Where Arab leaders sought an ally in the struggle against communists and socialists, the MWL was there to help. When the United States sought an ally in its struggle against the Soviets, the MWL brought together the infamous team of Islamist groups that fought and flourished in Afghanistan.
It may seem strange to recommend that a liberally oriented "League of Arab Societies" model itself after an organization that nurtured Islamist groups -- including jihadists who violently turned on their backers and the West. But Islamist parties committed to nonviolent activism are now poised to shape the future of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and perhaps Syria and Yemen. These parties, which often share an agenda consonant with the MWL's founding principles, also owe a debt of gratitude to that group. This may not be good news from a liberal point of view -- but it is a validation of the Islamists' transnational model.