‘Engage’ moderate Islamists, but support Muslim democrats

‘Engage’ moderate Islamists, but support Muslim democrats

Recent elections in Iran, Kuwait and Lebanon confirm that the threat of radical Islam is receding and the West should overcome its “pathological” fear of engaging political Islamists who have foresworn violence, Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim told a Washington meeting today. There is a latent support for democratic and liberal values across the Middle East, he suggested, as evidenced by the spread of colleges reflecting the demand for U.S. education.

At a discussion of “strategic communications with the Muslim world”, he expressed concern at the “apparent” downplaying of democracy by the Obama administration, and called for consistency, “staying the course” and a multilateral approach in promoting democracy in the region.  The U.S. should at least demand that the Mubarak regime permit genuinely free and fair elections, supervised by an independent judiciary and international monitors, and suspend aid if Cairo fails to comply.

Even if political Islamists like Hamas met the West’s minimal conditionality criteria for engagement or dialog, active support should be reserved for those liberal democratic forces who genuinely share our values, said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Rob Satloff. There is no such thing as a homogeneous Muslim world, he argued, only diverse Muslim communities and their various interests and identities need to be seriously addressed.

In this respect, it was “absurd” that the only Arab leader praised by name in President Obama’s Cairo speech was the Saudi monarch, lauding the leader of a regime – in a passage on religious freedom – that officially outlaws freedom of worship.

In confronting radical Islamist and anti-American ideas across Muslim communities, the contrasts with the Cold War are more compelling than the comparisons, RFE-RL’s Jeff Gedmin suggested. During the cultural Cold War, Western policy and communications could draw on nascent pro-American, pro-western and pro-democratic sentiment and it was relatively simple to challenge the Communist states’ monopoly of information by finding ways to channel the truth.

By contrast, religion and nationalism are not so readily or easily mobilized in support of democracy – as they were in Poland, for example – in a political and communications landscape that is more complex and less polarized. Similarly, the egalitarian, individualist and libertarian values that resonated with people oppressed by communism have less appeal in many traditional or conservative Muslim communities.