Islamists: To Deal, or Not To Deal?

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza by force of arms last month, there has been a growing debate over how to deal with Islamic fundamentalist groups, not only in the Palestinian territories, but throughout the Arab world. With Arab Islamist groups making electoral gains, and now effectively running a statelet in Gaza, should other interested parties accommodate them or seek to neutralize or destroy them? It’s a useful debate because that will be a key question for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as he takes up his new job as envoy of the so-called Middle East Quartet.

U.S. policy has been to shun them, and prominent figures in the policymaking industry, like former U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, as I blogged recently, lept to the view that everybody should work to make sure that Hamas loses the internal Palestinian political contest with the mainstream, secular-oriented Fatah group. Perhaps their voices are not as loud, but a good number of other experts on the region are advocating the opposite—that the strategy of trying to isolate Hamas has failed, and that no peace process is likely to succeed unless a Palestinian national unity government is reestablished and recognized by the international community. The argument is taken further, that no democracy can come in countries like Egypt and Jordan unless Islamist parties are accommodated in the political system.

Writing in the Washington Post, two of Ross’s former colleagues on the Clinton administration’s peace team, Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller, advocate a different approach. Arguing against a policy of showering aid on Fatah’s control of the West Bank and strangling Hamas in Gaza, they point to the “wreckage” of a U.S. policy that has tried to isolate Hamas as a way of reversing the group’s electoral victory in 2006. “There can be no security, let alone a peace process, without minimal Palestinian unity and consensus,” they write. “Should a national unity government be established, this time [the U.S.] should welcome the outcome and take steps to shore it up. Only then will efforts to broker credible political negotiations between [Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas and his Israeli counterpart on a two-state solution have a chance to succeed.”

The sentiment is shared by Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University, an expert on Hizballah, an experienced hand in the region and sharp analyst of Middle East affairs. “Efforts to isolate Gaza under Hamas control will only reinforce America’s abysmal standing in the Muslim world,” he writes in the Boston Globe. “Eighty percent of the 1.4 million people living in Gaza now live in poverty. The United States needs to rethink its approach to Palestinian politics and peacemaking, as well as how it comprehends groups such as Hamas. The bloodletting in Gaza is a reminder that unless diplomacy makes room for all the major Palestinian players, the United States will only increase the vehemence and the cohesion of those who are left out of the picture.”

Another worthwhile perspective, in the London Review of Books, is that of Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 official who served on the Mitchell Commission on the causes of the 2000 Palestinian intifadah and later as a Middle East advisor to the European Union. Crooke bluntly calls Europe’s determination to isolate Hamas and return Fatah to power “one of their greatest policy mistakes in the region, second only to their support for the invasion of Iraq.”

Crooke warns that Islamists are reconsidering their participation in electoral politics as the result of the sanctions imposed on the elected Hamas government, Israel’s war to destroy Hizballah and Egypt’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. At stake, he says, is whether relatively moderate Islamists—he includes Hamas and Hizballah in this category, against radical salafists–can retain their influence amid increasing extremism.

“We should hope – that may be all we can now do – that moderate Islamist movements manage to navigate these turbulent times, in spite of European attempts to prevent Islamism, which is clearly now the dominant regional current, from reshaping Middle Eastern societies,” Crooke says. “These attempts are opening space, not for the moderate pro-Western secularists whom Europeans seek to empower, but for those who believe that to build a new society you must first burn down the old one.”

Arab governments, many of which face Islamist threats of their own, are divided on how to deal with Hamas. Saudi Arabia is encouraging Fatah and Hamas to reunite, while Jordan prefers to isolate Hamas as a way of luring Israel and the U.S. into the peace process and certainly to hold back the Islamist trend within Jordan. Egypt, which faces its own Muslim Brotherhood challenge, is in the middle. On the one hand, the Egyptians seem to believe that Hamas is a reality that cannot be wished away, and that no peace process can succeed if Hamas is repressed. On the other hand, Egypt is not happy about having an Islamist-led “government” in next door Gaza, demonstrating to Egyptians that it is possible for Islamists to win power.

Despite the Bush administration’s anti-Hamas position, it has shown some subtle signs of adjusting to the reality that Islamist groups are on the rise. When the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament in 2005, Bush officials said the boycott of the Brotherhood would continue but that nothing prevented U.S. officials from meeting with MPs, even if they happened to be MBs as well. In practice, however, that did not happen, until a few months ago when U.S. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met with MB parliamentary leader Mohammed Saad el-Katani in the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

Mubarak’s government was not pleased. It’s not clear to me, though, whether the small gesture toward the MB was meant to signal a reconsideration of U.S. policy toward Islamists or displeasure with the Mubarak regime’s increasing political crackdown on all opponents.


Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod, TIME’s Cairo Bureau Chief since 1998, has covered the Middle East and Africa for the magazine for 22 years. Read more