Engagement or Quarantine: How to Deal with the Islamist Advance

Panel 1: Islamists between Exclusion, Cooptation and Engagement
Amr Hamzawy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Emory University
Radwan Masmoudi, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy


Panel 1

Moderator: Marina Ottaway, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Amr Hamzawy elaborated three reasons why Islamist movements are key to Arab reform.  First is their mass constituencies, won over by their religious message, which resonates with considerable segments of Middle Eastern populations, and by their social activism; their success is facilitated by the fact that their counterparts on the political scene, ruling establishments and liberal leftist movements, suffer respectively from a crisis of legitimacy and debilitating political weakness.  Second is the dynamics of their opposition status and their clear desire to participate in the political system, both to capitalize on their popularity and to avoid repression.  Third is their potential impact.  Hamzawy pointed out that the starting point in debate tends to be that Islamists will impede democratic reform, whereas it is in actuality the regimes that impede democratic reform.  Islamist reformers face the two challenges of how to build alliances for reform and how address their internal differences in a democratic fashion (which will lead to diversity within the Islamist spectrum with a positive impact). 

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham described the trend in Islamist movements toward embracing moderation and democratic reform, pointing out that in many countries Islamist leaders have become reform’s chief advocates.  She first elaborated on the strategic dimension of this shift, pointing out that leaders realize the potential benefit their mass constituencies will earn them in elections.  There are other benefits to moderation.  Adopting more flexible positions widens international opportunities for leaders; running for and winning office gives them a wider, often non-Islamist, constituency; and strategic moderation deflects the suspicions of the ruling regime that Islamists seek to radically alter the political system.  Yet, Wickham emphasized that this shift toward moderation also denotes a real qualitative change.  There is a critical mass within Islamist movements that adopts a ‘centrist’ approach to Islam and challenges the revivalist agenda.  She elaborated evidence of this change, such as the de-emphasis on sharia and the increased focus on defense of the family, an Islamic frame of reference, and the public good, as well as on popular sovereignty and elected institutions.  Wickham’s research found that value change hinged on sustained dialogue with other groups, often in the form of safe spaces and consensus across party lines.  However, Wickham also pointed out that Islamist leaders are constrained by their members not to go too far in their moderation, leading to vagueness and contradictions within movements.

Radwan Masmoudi laid out what he considers to be two givens in the political systems of the Middle East: that the currently ruling regimes are unsustainable and that Islamist parties will become increasingly important.  Thus, it is crucial for outsiders to support the people’s democratic aspirations and to build relations with Islamic parties.  He asserted that it is impossible to entirely separate religion and politics and that a democratic system in the Middle East will necessarily reflect the Islamic character of its society.  He spoke about the historical context of today’s Islamism, saying that at the end of the colonial era leaders saw religion as a handicap.  With the failure of the oppressive secular elite it was only a matter of time before there was a resurgence of religion.  Today, Islamists are the main opposition groups.  Their slogans resonate with the same masses that overwhelmingly support democracy, especially the youth.  The main impediment to reform is the regimes, whose repression and failure to provide for their populations lead to an extremely dangerous mix of anger, lack of education, and large numbers of unemployed youth.  While Masmoudi agreed that Islamists are more moderate once in power, he also acknowledged that precautions should be taken against the monopolization of religion for political purposes.  The lack of a clergy in Sunni Islam serves as a check on this danger, but it can be further averted through the promotion of several Islamic parties in each country to allow for competing interpretations of Islam.  In addition, secular groups should have a better understanding of the relationship between religion and the state and not let themselves be perceived as anti-religious.

Panel 2: The Local Agendas of Islamist Advances
Khaled Hroub, Cambridge Arab Media Project
Maha Azzam-Nusseibeh, Chatham House
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Lebanese American University
Najib Ghadbian, University of Arkansas

Panel 2 - First Session

Moderator: Kirsten Maas, Heinrich Boell Foundation


Khaled Hroub discussed the politics of struggle and ongoing strategizing of Hamas in Palestine.  There are moderate and extremist elements in all movements and when movements are under siege, extremist elements prevail.  Within Islam as a whole, there has also been moderation and extremism.  In the Golden Era of Islam one saw toleration of atheism and even homosexuality.  Extremism is also bred by exclusion.  Hroub elaborated on several cases in which formerly excluded extreme movements are now participating in the political system and interacting positively with secular groups.  He also said that external pressure on Islamist movements is actually counterproductive since it leads them to adopt a siege mentality that hinders evolution toward moderation.  Hroub spoke about the two forces within Hamas that have existed since its inception: a nationalist liberation force and an Islamist force.  He feels that the movement has reached a major turning point in which the nationalist liberation force is currently taking the lead.  Three documents illustrate this: the recent election platform, the national unity government program, and a speech by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya to the Palestinian parliament.  These documents appeal to a much wider constituency, touch on a broad number of issues, emphasize citizenship, and present Hamas as the leader of the Palestinian nation.  Hroub feels that the policies of Israel, the United States and Europe have blocked the natural evolution of the movement toward moderation, which would be a great opportunity for the region at large.  Moreover, Hamas will play a crucial role in forming the Palestinian consensus and it would be overly optimistic to expect peace between Israel and Palestine without the movement.

Maha Azzam-Nusseibeh discussed the effects of bringing religion into politics in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  She asserted that the Islamist advance has been a significant development not only in foreign policy, but also in local politics, identity and culture.  Like other movements, the Brotherhood has over the past decade come forward with more moderate positions.  For example, the Brotherhood has stated its support for the rights of women and Copts to hold public office and the necessity of political parties as the institutionalization of “God-given differences.”  She cautioned that the Brotherhood does not accept Western democracy wholesale, and that the West must come to terms with the fact that its coming to power would mean the development of a different kind of system with an Islamic character.  She explained that calls for sharia can be seen as a search for justice amidst repression, lack of respect for human rights and rule of law.  The Brotherhood calls for sharia as insurance against the tyranny of the regime, but believes that Islam is open to reinterpretation and allows for secularism that does not contradict religion.  Islamic beliefs are generally strongest in the social realm, yet even here are being challenged, as Islam allows for greater diversity of views than is generally accepted.  Finally, as Islamism becomes more entrenched, it brings with it stronger barriers against violence; one sees the increase of theologically based arguments against violence, and that Islamists increasingly see violence as a threat to their Islamist project.


Panel 2 - Second Session

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb began her discussion of Hezbollah in Lebanon by explaining the movement’s unique character and context and that it precariously balances Arab, Islamist and Shiite communal agendas.  Within Lebanon’s divided political system, Hezbollah emerged as both an Islamic movement and Shiite party for the theretofore largely unrepresented Shiite community.  Hezbollah chose political participation because it needed to legitimize its resistance and entrench its position, needs that only increased with the recent withdrawal of Syria.  Saad-Ghorayeb asserted that Hezbollah thus represents an exception to the thesis that participation leads to moderation.  Since its participation in government is aimed at preserving its armed status, its moderation in fact serves a radical end.  She also took issue with the term “moderation,” as many political leaders find it offensive and it is too simplistic to describe the many different facets of Islamist political movements.  The prospects for Hezbollah’s disarmament are dim, as it has led all Lebanese parties to agree that the confrontation with Israel requires such extraordinary measures, and has successfully argued that the profound weakness of the Lebanese state obviates the argument that it should monopolize the means of coercion.  The fact that Hezbollah will not disarm is a reality recognized by all Lebanese actors as well as the United States.  In fact, Hezbollah’s armed status is preferable in the eyes of many Lebanese political actors, since its disarmament would raise the greater threat of its enhanced political participation.

Najib Ghadbian described how, in the past few years, the Muslim Brotherhood has moved to the forefront of the Syrian opposition despite its illegal status within the country.  Several reasons account for this shift, among them the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood within Syria, the increased religiosity of society as a whole, the perception that it represents the Sunni majority, and its charismatic current leadership.  As shown in a series of recent documents, the Brotherhood has moderated its discourse.  It no longer calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, but instead for the use of Islam as a frame of reference.  In addition, the Brotherhood has since the mid-1990s renounced the use of violence and urged President Bashar al-Assad to institute modest reforms such as the release of political prisoners and the lifting of emergency laws.  Finally, the Muslim Brotherhood has called for a modern democratic state characterized by parliamentarism, pluralism, separation of powers, rule of law, and citizenship as the basis for all rights and duties.  The Brotherhood has allied with the secular opposition, joining opposition groups in drafting the Damascus Declaration and most recently allying with the newly created National Salvation Front.

Panel 3: Recognizing the Importance of Islamist Organizations while Doubts Persist: Options for External Actors
Mark Perry, Conflicts Forum
Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Discussants: Najib Ghadbian, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Khaled Hroub, Maha Azzam-Nusseibeh


Panel 3
Moderator: Helga Flores-Trejo

Mark Perry spoke about the work of the Conflicts Forum, which seeks to address the continuing need for dialogue with Islamist groups.  It began in 2004, expanded its work in July 2005, and began holding briefings in Washington, D.C. the following October.  Many policymakers welcomed the knowledge of Islamist groups that it brought, having gained the sense that non-differentiation among groups was increasingly untenable.  Perry voiced the opinion that the United States has come to an impasse in its promotion of democracy in the Middle East.  He feels it is necessary for Western actors to change their language and perception, immersing themselves in Muslim societies, understanding political actors and talking with them.  Perry warned against marginalizing and thus radicalizing Islamist movements, noting that the extremist Salafists and Takfirists are now targeting leaders of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood for coercion and assassination because they agree with the positions of Western actors such as the United States.  Perry asserted that it is the inability of the United States to differentiate between movements and talk to them that is endangering moderate leaders and pushing more moderate Islamism into radicalism.

Nathan Brown synthesized some of the main lessons of the day’s conference discussions.  He pointed out the two basic assumptions, that political reform gives openings to Islamists because of their mass constituencies and that Islamists have successfully captured the political reform issue.  He asserted that the first main lesson is that these are complex movements that go beyond the electoral realm to encompass complex religious or national agendas.  The second lesson is that they are ideological movements that take ideology seriously, yet also maintain space for strategic ideological flexibility.  The third lesson is that there has been real fundamental change in the beliefs of Islamist movements, but there remains significant ambiguity and division within them; often it is not clear even to members where they come down on critical issues.  A fourth lesson is that incumbent regimes themselves impede reform by treating Islamist movements as a security challenge.  Brown then questioned the degree to which external actors can constructively influence Islamist movements, since their evolution occurs in response to internal and not external impetuses and their very appeal comes from the fact that they do not curry favor with the outside world.  He suggested that external leverage is far greater and more effective with the ruling regimes, where external actors can first of all communicate clearly that they are not afraid of Islamists, a dynamic that regimes have so far exploited extremely effectively.  External actors can also support the development of institutional safeguards in political systems.  Brown concluded that although engagement has real positive effects, among them increasing our knowledge of Islamist movements, teaching them how to speak to an international audience, and sending a message to regimes that the U.S. considers them real political actors, it may not be the most important question.

Many of these themes were elaborated in the discussion that followed, which touched on the varying character and degree of U.S. influence in Middle Eastern countries, the use of engagement as a form of pressure on regimes, and the need to go deeper into the complexities of different types of engagement.

Synopsis prepared by Meredith Riley, Junior Fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project.