Diversity on both sides

Increasing tensions between the Muslim world, and specifically the Islamists therein, and the West has been caused primarily by the lack of mutual understanding between both sides. Sweeping generalizations, misconceptions and lack of diversity acceptance have been three main factors hindering the emergence of a constructive dialogue between both parties, and have consequently contributed to increasing hostility between the masses on both sides; hostility that could lead to a real, destructive clash of civilizations. The chances of destruction increase in a highly globalized world, where millions of Muslims (and Islamists) live in the West, and millions of Westerners live in the Muslim world.
It is for that specific reason that attempting to overcome the obstacles hindering the emergence of a constructive dialogue is of extreme importance. The efforts to bring both parties to mutual agreement on some issues and mutual respect on others are of critical importance for global peace, and for humanity and human civilization.
The main obstacle hindering the emergence of a constructive dialogue is that there are two influential figures on the opposite poles who are both intolerant and do not accept diversity. George W. Bush and Usama Bin Laden both apparently believe they receive revelations from God, both believe they own the absolute truth, and both could not see the different colors of the rainbow and therefore divide the entire world into two camps. They are both terrorists who target civilians and kill the innocent. Whether or not a person is a terrorist is something decided by his words and acts, and not by where he lives, be it the White House, or a cave somewhere in Afghanistan.
The first step towards a constructive dialogue is realizing that those “leaders” are not the sole representations of their people. In fact, the vast majorities of their peoples go against them. Bin Laden is less of an Islamists’ representative than Bush is of American people. There are some strong voices now in different circles in the West- academicians, journalists, intellectuals, policy makers- opposing the policies of Bush, starting with the war on Iraq, and all the way to his support of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. There are even governments that oppose his policy, and we could see that in the past 4 years the difference between the American and EU policies towards the Muslim world are clearer than ever before.
On the other hand, I myself –being an Islamist- find it really hard to relate to the discourse propagated by Bin Laden. I find that his hostility towards the West (and even the Muslim world) and intolerance of diversity contradict the basic pillars of Islam, as Quran says: “O! Mankind, We have created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.” But that is not the only difference between moderate groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and radical ones, such as al Qaeda.
There are major differences between both groups on three different fronts; the goals, the means and the worldview. Al Qaeda’s ideologues regard the international scene as a struggle between “infidels” and “hypocrites” on the one hand, and “sincere Muslims” on the other. This is not how I, as a moderate Islamist, or a Muslim democrat, regard the international scene. It is a more complicated struggle for interests, and which sometimes includes a conflict of thoughts, among which is religion.
The simplification of the conflicts on the international level, and oppression on the domestic level is really harmful to the human mind. It leads to wrong conclusions. Most significantly, tyrants in the region do not oppress Islamists because they have an ideological stance against Islamism. Rather, they do so because Islamists are their strongest opponents, and the ones most capable of challenging their power. They are corrupt regimes that only have the intention of maintaining power for the longest possible time, to defend their interests and cover their corruption.
Al Qaeda’s religious-based division of the international community into two camps denies it the opportunity to build alliances with groups in the “other camp”; groups that sometimes share the same perspective on some issues, and sometimes share the same interest, or same ethical stance. Being a Muslim Brotherhood member, and one who upholds the group’s worldview and follows its prophecy, I could easily point to a large number of allies in the West and elsewhere in the world. I do realize that I might have some commonalities and differences with these groups, and am more than willing to work on the commonalities, and appreciate the differences. One of the famous sayings of Rachid Rida, the great reformer of the twentieth century, and Hassan al Banna’s mentor, is “we coordinate with each other on issues of agreement, and find excuse for each other on issues of dispute.”
Most importantly, I do realize that political alliances and political orientation are not built solely on religion. Therefore, we do realize that not all Muslims, and even not all Islamists, are our “friends”, and not all non-Muslims, or secular Muslims are our “enemies.”
This clear difference in worldview between moderate and radical Islamists has its huge impact on both the means and ends of both. Moderate groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood to which I belong, have a completely different “end in mind” than that envisioned by radicals. The “Islamic state” we want to see is a democratic one, that upholds civil liberties, and promotes the values of justice, equality, mercy and freedom. It is a neutral, civil, state that only applies Islamic Shariah based on the will of the majority, and in a way that does not undermine the minority rights. In Egypt, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood fully endorses the 40th article of the constitution, which states that all Egyptian are equal before law, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or beliefs.
The Islamic state I dream of is a real democratic state. It is one that allows for different ideas to be propagated, defends the freedom of expression, and guarantees accountability and responsibility through the separation of different state branches, and balance of authorities and responsibilities assigned to each. It is a state that would allow for non Islamist opposition to step up to power in case they were elected by the people in free and fair elections, because the last thing I want to see is Islam being used as a pretext for oppression and authoritarianism, as it unfortunately is in almost all contemporary Islamist models. This should not be used as a pretext to defame Islamists altogether as oppressors and authoritarians, simply because the secular regimes in the region are also using secularism as a pretext for oppression and authoritarianism.
Having that said, the Islamist state I want to see is nothing like Afghani Taliban state that was supported and endorsed by the Qaeda. In fact, I would rather live in the USA than in Taliban rule. I could take this further and say that the American society is more “Islamist” than the Talibani; meaning that it better preserves the objectives of Islamic Shariah in terms of political rule; namely justice, equality, freedom and mercy.
Differences in means between moderates and radicals are vividly clear as well. Moderate groups embrace peaceful means for change and reform, without compromising on the internationally recognized right to resist occupation in occupied territories. We do believe in gradual change that starts with building a more proactive individual, willing to sacrifice his time, money and effort for the values of freedom, justice, equality and mercy to prevail. We educate our supporters that piety should drive the individual to defend such values, not only for himself, but for his society, and for human beings at large.
We take an uncompromising stance against corruption, tyranny and authoritarianism, yet we do not believe in confrontation as a means to challenge them. Rather we believe in peaceful struggle, proactive political engagement and social mobilization as means to challenge tyrants and oppressors. Further, we could see the different colors of the rainbow within corrupt regimes, and we do realize that not all civil servants in such regimes are corrupt. We realize that whereas concepts such as corruption and tyranny could be absolute, practices and people are not.
Our stance against using violence to achieve political purposes is an ethical, ideological stance and not a tactical one. We believe that no single group has the right to enforce people follow its political program or ideological beliefs, and that if it force was an acceptable source of legitimacy then we should be living in a vicious cycle of violence that completely undermines any possibility for development or reform. Also, we regard with great appreciation the value of human soul, and we do realize that even in what could be regarded by some as a fair struggle against oppressors and tyrants, there will be lots of lives unacceptably wasted.
Finally, it is important to realize that those are not the only models of Islamism, and that there are other variations on the Islamists’ continuum, both amongst groups, and within each group.
Clear from what has been already mentioned, labeling a party as “Islamist” does not really reveal anything about its political orientation. Indeed, there are common grounds for all Islamists; they all believe in the comprehensiveness of Islam, and call for the application of Shariah, and they all regard political reform as a religious obligation. Yet those broad statements hardly reveal anything about the real political orientation of the groups.
Western intellectuals and policy makers are required to give more attention to such differences between Islamist groups. The “politics of integration” have become of extreme importance, both in the Middle East by integrating Islamist parties in the political systems of their respective countries, or in the West by integrating Islamists in their societies to become inseparable parts of it. It is through engaging the moderates on both sides in constructive dialogue that radicals will be overshadowed. The moderates on both shores should therefore search for each other, and start building bridges, as the only foreseen alternative for that would be increasing tensions, and consequently paving the way for radicalism and destruction.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby is political activist and analyst, he studied political science and economics at the American University in Cairo. You can visit Ibrahim’s personal blog at http://ihoudaiby.blogspot.com/