Islamist Pragmatists Ripe for Engagement?

Islamist Pragmatists Ripe for Engagement?

Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh, “one of the most dynamic and articulate spokesmen of the second-generation reformist faction“, was among those pragmatists who stayed when the old guard”s traditionalism forced many second-generation reformers to leave the Brotherhood and form the al-Wasat or Center Party in 1995. Although the reformers are a distinct minority in the leadership and the base membership, Futuh and his allies have secured important positions from which they articulate some distinctly revisionist views.

In a radical departure from the Brotherhood”s traditional vision, argues a recent Hudson Institute analysis, Futuh and his allies “advocate true political pluralism, equal citizenship for all the country”s nationals, regardless of religion, and rotation of power on the basis of the people”s choice.” Futuh wants to radically reform the Brotherhood, end all covert and external activities, including its participation the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, and convert the group into a bona fide political party. Islamic discourse is not sacred, Futuh asserts, but rooted in human judgment (ijtihad) and therefore subject to revision. He rejects the standard Islamist critique of democracy: democracy is not simply a means of reaching power but has intrinsic value.

Pragmatists have tried to assuage concern that democratic reform will sweep the Islamists to power. “This myth about Islamists capitalizing on calls for reform to leap to power has long been used, by both the regime and by liberal intellectuals, to hinder any process of change,” says Futuh. “It is generally accepted that in a free and fair election we would gain between 20 to 25 per cent of seats in parliament.”

The Brotherhood”s more pragmatic representatives consistently portray the movement not only as sincerely democratic but as a safety valve for discontented activists who might otherwise turn to more violent alternatives. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not al Qaeda, and the political discourses of Khayrat El Shater, the deputy chief of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ayman Al Zawahry, a leading ideologue of Al Qaeda, have hardly anything in common,” argues the Brotherhood”s Ibrahim El Houdaiby. “This diversity within political Islam should encourage Western policymakers to deal with moderate groups, whose empowerment could significantly undermine the radicals” contention that the doors for peaceful reform are closed.”

Houdaiby cites Islamists” record in syndicate elections in Egypt and parliamentary elections in Turkey and Morocco as confirming their respect for competitive political processes. He cautions that “by shunning dialogue with the moderate voices of political Islam, Western governments are gradually handing victory to the radicals both they and moderate Islamic politicians are keen to undermine.”

Many Egyptian liberal democrats, unlike some Western observers, remain unconvinced by the rhetorical changes. The draft platform demonstrates that the Brotherhood has added “vocabularies of democracy and human rights (to their rhetoric),” says Bahy Eldin Hassan, head of Cairo Center for Human Rights. “But the content remains the same as the old generations”. What”s more, he says, the reformists have “no weight” inside the main decision-making bodies.

The benign, reformist image promoted by some is belied by the Brotherhood”s own actions and words. The movement”s March 2004 platform, like the current draft, constitutes a call for an Islamist state, notes Middle East analyst Barry Rubin, while Egyptian commentator Magdi Khalil suggests the evidence confirms that there have been no substantial shifts in the Brotherhood”s radical Islamist orientation; that its deputies in parliament have focused on pushing cultural controls and censorship rather than addressing issues of economic and social reform; and that the Brotherhood has “abused, disregarded or tried to take over” potential allies like the Wafd and Wassat parties, suggesting a superficial commitment to political pluralism.

The Brotherhood”s reformers consistently point out that resistance to internal reform and heterodox arguments comes from both the old guard and the regime itself. Moderates claim that in disproportionately targeting potential reformers, “the regime is colluding with MB hardliners to block the movement”s evolution in a more democratic direction.”

A Foreign Office functionary recently proposed that Britain should not only cultivate but actively assist the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas. “Given that Islamist groups are often less corrupt than the generality of the societies in which they operate, consideration might be given to channeling aid resources through them, so long as sufficient transparency is achievable,” he argued.

There is a case for dialogue with pragmatic or revisionist elements of the Brotherhood. But the notion that the group should be politically embraced or actively supported is, at best, premature and inappropriate. To the contrary, while the Islamists benefit from Saudi and related funding sources and enjoy the sanctuary afforded by the mosque, energies and resources would be best focused on the genuine liberals and democrats denied both political space and material aid.