Can We Do Business with Islamists?

Can We Do Business with Islamists?
By Martin Kramer
Mr. Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.



Martin Kramer delivered these remarks on September 20, at an open briefing on Islamism and U.S. policy. He shared the podium with Alastair Crooke, founder of the Conflicts Forum. The event took place at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

I am pleased to speak here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Back in 1980, CSIS published one of my earliest efforts, a “Washington Paper” entitled Political Islam. I banged out that study on an old typewriter in Cairo, where I was doing research for my Ph.D. CSIS helped to launch me on my way as an authority. So I am delighted to revisit the same subject here, albeit at an interval of 25 years.

String of debacles

When I look back over those 25 years, I am struck by this fact: some of the greatest debacles in Western policy resulted from engagement with Islamists. Let me run through the most famous instances:

First: the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. That embassy was still full of personnel after the revolution, because some people believed it possible to engage the new regime. They miscalculated the forces at work in the revolution, and the extent of their hostility to America.

Second: Iran’s humiliation of France. France, it will be recalled, attempted the ultimate engagement, by receiving the exiled Khomeini in Paris, and allowing him to command the revolution from there. The French were certain they had the inside track with the new regime. But Khomeini turned against the French over Iraq, and it wasn’t long before Frenchmen were being abducted and blown up in Beirut, and Iran’s loyalists were setting off bombs on the Champs Elysees.

Third: the U.S. engagement with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The partnership against the Soviets created a false impression among many Americans that the jihadists were our SOBs. The failure to plot their trajectory left the door open to the first World Trade Center bombing, and then 9/11.

Fourth: the British attempt to engage Islamists, or at least neutralize them, by allowing them unparalleled freedom to act on the territory of the United Kingdom. The term Londonistan summarizes the effect of that policy. Britain reaped the resulting whirlwind on July 7th of this year.

So smart people, many of them with experience “handling” Islamists, have been wrong about them time and again. They have told us they know how to talk to Islamists, how to channel them away from violence, how to find common ground. And leaders, governments, and everyday people have paid the price for their errors. It has been the worst precisely in places where Islamists were given the most space to organize, preach, plan, and operate. So when old intelligence hands tell us that they have a bright idea on how to engage Islamists, we should first ask them to give us an accounting for errors past, and tell us the lessons, if any, they’ve learned.

One of the lessons we have learned these last 25 years is that there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of Islamism. Way back when I wrote Political Islam, many people feared that a tsunami of Islamist revolution might sweep the region. But the progress of Islamism has been erratic. It has been most potent in places that have been subject to war and occupation, and where the state is weak: Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. Where states are stronger, regimes have kept Islamists in check or at bay. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria–all of them have faced Islamist challenges, which they have turned back. Islamism has faltered in these settings for two reasons: first, Arab rulers were more resolute and ruthless than the Shah; and second, the Islamists were less adept at forging alliances than Khomeini.

They have been less adept at forging alliances because they have been unwilling to compromise on their core values or their insistence that they dominat e any system in which they participate. To put it in a word, they are intolerant, and so they stir deep misgivings among other opposition groups and potential sympathizers in the West.

Drawing distinctions

After all these many years of exclusion, there are signs that some Islamists are changing gears. But here we have to make careful distinctions. True, many of the wishful thinkers about Islamism also say that we must learn to distinguish among Islamists. But they wind up making no distinctions at all: instead they tell us that all Islamists, from the Muslim Brotherhood through Hamas, Hezbollah, and even Al Qaeda, are co-optable at reasonable prices. This airbrushes away some very profound differences. So let me propose an easy two-category typology of Islamist movements.

Category one: Islamist movements for which entry to politics would be a step up. These are movements that have been marginalized for so long that they have resigned themselves to operating within limits. You won’t see them marching with guns in the streets; they have been wholly domesticated. The Ak Party in Turkey is the model: their moderation is itself the outcome of Turkey’s well-defended secularism. Turkey’s Islamists have felt privileged just to be legalized and permitted to run, after decades of trial and error. Other domesticated Islamists include parts of the Iraqi Shiite establishment, and perhaps some members ofthe Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. (At least that is what Saad Eddin Ibrahim has been saying.) These movements might be co-opted and accommodated at relatively low cost, since they make fewer demands on the system.

Category two: Islamist movements for which entry to politics would be a step down. If you are an Islamist leader who has never spent a day in jail or exile, if you have access to great wealth or hold territory or wield lots of guns, if you already run your own Islamist mini-state within the state, you are not going to give up tangible sources of power for a gamble at the ballot box. You might take a few seats in parliament to better defend your hard assets, but you are not going to give up those assets for a few seats.

In this category, I would place Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas. These movements have a strong sense of entitlement, and a record of rejecting offers of political inclusion that do not privilege them. The cost of bringing these movements in is high–they place heavy demands on the system, because they insist on retaining their mini-state privileges.

The most significant of those privileges is stockpiles of weapons. Both Lebanon and the Palestinians have been through dark chapters of warlordism, which they are trying to put behind them. Hezbollah and Hamas are the main obstacles to the turning of this page.

They say they will never give up their guns. They insist on stockpiling a vast array of weaponry, most of which cannot threaten Israel, but all of which undermines the fragile authority of the Lebanese state and the Palestinian Authority. In Beirut, Hezbollah still mounts paramilitary displays, and in Gaza and the West Bank, no demonstration is complete without the public display of weaponry. Yesterday, 10,000 Hamas militia militants paraded through Gaza with assault rifles, rockets, and anti-tank missiles. This is not like the gun culture of America, which is focused on the individual’s right to bear arms. This is militia competition, so familiar from other failed states where warlords compete by shows of armed strength.

Mr. Crooke, writing about Hamas, and a Lebanese professor writing in the Arab Reform Bulletin about Hezbollah, have both argued that disarmament should not be made a condition for allowing these groups a place at the political table. Arguments are mustered about how these groups need the “respect” conferred by their weapons.

This is pop-psychologizing. The weapons are not a form of psychological compensation. While holding them is justified as “deterrence” against Israel, they are really a lever of dominance over rivals. And as long as these movements continue to remain armed, others will not stand down. Because Hamas refuses to disarm, Islamic Jihad refuses to disarm, and so too do the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and Fatah, and so on. The result is that the Palestinian Authority’s own security force is reduced to the status of one more militia, and Abu Mazen to the primus inter pares among warlords. Gaza may thus come to resemble Beirut of the late 1970s, and Jordan of the late 1960s. And we know how that sort of story always ends. There will be a showdown, with predictable winners and losers.

It is true that there is no internal force that can disarm these militias, and no external force that has the need to do it just now. That is why it is all the more important for the U.S. and the Europeans to deny Hezbollah and Hamas political recognition so long as they act as armed militias. It is the only leverage that Lebanon and Abu Mazen have.

I think that Mr. Crooke has done a disservice to his interlocuters in Hezbollah and Hamas, by suggesting to them that our minds might change on this. They won’t, and he would have done better to tell them, frankly, that as long as they parade about with guns and suicide belts, and incite to their use, they will be seen in the West not only as terrorist obstacles to peace, but as political enemies of the very ideas of Lebanon and Palestine.

Policy preferences

These distinctions should define the parameters of our policy. People who have followed my work for a long time know that I am no enthusiast for democracy promotion in the Arab world. That is what bars me from entry into the neoconservative inner circle. To put it bluntly, I think that the Islamists who most stand to profit from political openings have yet to fathom what democracy means. It is not merely about voting or parties. Democracy means a willingness to fight and die so that those who differ from you can enjoy the right to be different, and even criticize you.

Islamists, with their dichotomization of believer and unbeliever, man and woman, Islam and West, do not share the values that underpin democracy. Islam itself, interpreted differently, can be rendered compatible with it. But that is not how it gets interpreted by most Islamists.

Having said that, I am perfectly aware that the United States has already bought the democratization ticket, and it is in for the ride. What I argue, then, is that democracy promotion should be selective.

In particular, it should focus on those countries where Islamist movements have already undergone domestication–where they fall into my category one. I would not call these movements “moderate.” Many of them have past records marked by extremist violence. But this is true of many political actors in the Middle East. The question is: have they distanced themselves from that past, over time and in actions? If the answer is yes, it seems to me difficult to preach democratic inclusion and exclude them. And as I indicated, the dangers that attend to their inclusion are likely to be less.

This is not the case with my category two. These movements have not distanced themselves from a single facet of their past strategies and tactics. To the contrary: they have celebrated them, and they have promised to carry them forward into the next phase. (I have given Hezbollah and Hamas as examples, but I could add Al Qaeda and Zarqawi to this list too.) While we have come to the conclusion that conflicts in the region have no military solution, they have reached the opposite conclusion: that resistance, and the explicit or implicit threat of force, are the only effective, indeed the only legitimate means.

This is jihadism, and it cannot be appeased, because it is not about limited grievances, it is about unlimited ambitions. It is envy at what the West has: cultural, economic, and military supremacy. On the micro scale, it is about destroying Israel. Jihadists do not just want parity, as Mr. Crooke suggests; they want supremacy, because they once had it, and because they regard it as proof of the very validity of their faith.

I have resigned myself to a greater Islamist role in politics. But I believe U.S. policy should be discriminating, not indiscriminate; that it should be based on genuine knowledge, and not facile analogies. We should admit, too, that our track record in telling good Islamists from bad is abysmal, and we should revisit our assumptions regularly.

And we should not have any illusions about what a greater share of power for Islamists will mean. It won’t mean a grand faith-based alliance of America with Islamism. When we shared the enemy of godless communism, we could make some common cause. But it is naive to think that category one Islamists will ally themselves with us against category two jihadists. Islamists generally have more in common with one another, than we have with any of them. So we have before us a long and protracted contest, similar to the Cold War, all the more difficult because there isn’t any Soviet Union on the other side of the seesaw.

Since Mr. Crooke has had much to say about Hezbollah and Hamas, let me just say that he should have no illusions either. The more power they share, the more the conflict will be returned to a standoff reminiscent of the period between 1949 and 1967: an unsteady armistice, non-recognition, and non-negotiation. Islamism is now what Arab nationalism was then: a preference for long-term attrition over diplomacy. This should not be news to Mr. Crooke. We have the protocol of his meeting with Hamas’s late leader Sheikh Yassin, who told Mr. Crooke straight out that Hamas seeks to reverse Israel’s creation in 1948, and not just its occupation of 1967.

Already there are other developments sending the Palestinians back to 1949. I refer to Israel’s disengagement and security barrier, which is likely to become a new armistice line. The attacks of Hamas did not drive Israel from Gaza, demography did that. But its attacks did make Israel’s security barrier feasible, doable, and tolerable, both to Israel is and to much of world public opinion. Separation from Israel is likely to create another 1949 dynamic: the intrusion again of Egypt and Jordan into the Palestinian arena. They cannot accept a Hamas state, just as they could not accept a state led by the Mufti of Jerusalem in 1949.

Virtuous inconsistency

I conclude. Fortunately, power attracts as well as repels. If America’s support is supposed to be a kiss of death, it is amazing how many Arab and Muslim leaders and liberals come to Washington, lips parted. Our true partners will always be those who are attracted to the benefits our power can confer. They will be our natural allies in this contest, and most of them will not be Islamists.

They will not all be democrats either. Should we flay ourselves? There are those who criticize America for its inconsistency: that it preaches democracy, but supports dictators. But there is another kind of inconsistency that leaves Middle Easterners even more baffled: it is when America punishes friends and rewards enemies. This seems to be the policy advocated by those who would engage and even coddle the Islamists. But I ask you this: which inconsistency is more likely to leave you without friends and allies–and without much democracy either? To me, the answer is obvious. But perhaps Mr. Crooke sees it differently.