POMED Report: “Strategies for Engaging Political Islam”

POMED Report: “Strategies for Engaging Political Islam”

Political Islam is the single most active political force in the Middle East today. To offer insights into this critical issue, the Project on Middle East Democracy partnered with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung to bring together scholars and experts from the Middle East, the United States, and Europe. Moderated by Nathan Brown, Director of George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, guests discussed the topic “Strategies for Engaging Political Islam: A Middle East, U.S. and EU ‘Trialogue.’” Panelists included Ruheil Gharaibeh, Deputy Secretary-General of Jordan’s IAF; Mona Yacoubian, Special Adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace; Zoé Nautré, Visiting Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations; and Shadi Hamid, former research director and current vice-chair of POMED’s Board of Directors, and also currently the Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Center.

To read the full report, which draws upon the participants’ observations and recommendations, click here. Otherwise, continue reading below the fold.

Written by Shadi Hamid and Amanda Kadlec — Dialogue Fellow with POMED and a second year Master’s candidate at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs — the report explores practical manifestations of political Islam as well as Western diplomatic responses to Islamist movements. Cognizant that the future of political Islam is “intimately tied to that of the region,” the authors seek to provide a rubric for overcoming political barriers and misunderstandings that have previously presented “significant challenges for engagement between Western governments and Islamists.”

Because Islamists are among the best organized and most internally democratic groups in the region, they are often seen as the only viable alternative to ineffective state leadership. This leads the authors to wonder: “Are they popular because of the specifically “Islamist” components of their message and program, or their ability to deliver to constituents?” Addressing the issue of political competence and literacy, the report dispenses with the notion that Islamist groups are static because of their ideological foundation: “Islamist parties are no different than secular ones when it comes to responding to certain political pressures, threats, and incentives.” Understanding this point is key in order to formulate new policy approaches that engage these groups in constructive dialogues. However, before broaching issues of internal political reconciliation, Western governments must engender a layer of trust within Islamist groups that was previously lacking due a “gap between Western pro-democracy rhetoric and policies that [supported] repressive regimes.”

In its retrospective look at the previous two decades of U.S. policy on political Islam, the report points to a “founding text” by then-Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian, who said that while the U.S. government doesn’t view Islam as the next “ism” confronting the West, “we do not support those who might promote ‘one person, one vote, one time,’” a reference to the fear that particular groups will win elections and then refuse to give up power. This policy approach underwent a fundamental change after 9/11, when the question of democratic reform assumed greater urgency after President Bush inextricably linked the lack of democracy in the region to the rise of terrorism. Member states of the European Union, who for years had largely avoided policy statements on Political Islam, began addressing the issue more substantively after 9/11 as well. Although the authors share a level of uncertainty around Obama’s impact on the future of U.S.-Islamist dialogues, they observe an emerging theme on the “need incorporate violent, extremist Islamist groups in nonviolent, democratic processes.”However, they view it as ironic that the U.S. is engaging with some of its most avowed enemies, yet has not moved to open formal contacts with groups that have “long committed to nonviolence and democratic participation such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.”

The report concludes by explicating the four main purposes of engaging with Islamists:

  • Information Gathering: Speaking with diverse opposition groups in order to gauge political conditions on the ground
  • Public Diplomacy: Demonstrating a willingness to engage popular opposition movements and pursuing dialogue with Islamists to soften the edge of their anti-Western statements and policies.
  • Supporting democracy: 1) Talking with Islamist groups demonstrates that Western governments are serious about democracy assistance; 2) Engagement allows Western governments to help Islamist parties more effectively — and peacefully — contest authoritarian regimes; 3) Knowing they have Western support for their participation, Islamist groups will be more willing to put pressure on regimes through nonviolent protests; 4) Western involvement can be decisive in bringing opposition parties of diverse ideological stripes together.
  • Securing interests: Engaging popular Islamist movements is a way to prepare for the inevitability that existing regimes will eventually be replaced with an uncertain “something else.” If there are free elections, Islamists are the ones most likely to benefit, and it is better to have leverage with Islamist groups before they come to power (afterward may be too late).

The first two purposes suggest low-level contacts. The last two rationales require either a strategic dialogue or partnership. However, partnerships entail a higher level of bilateral relations — perhaps at the ambassadorial or ministerial level — and would thus be difficult to pursue in the current political environment. Nonetheless, “the U.S. and EU can begin developing a common line on groups that are nonviolent and committed to the democratic process. This may simply mean supporting in principle the right of Islamists to peacefully participate in political life and more consistently condemning human rights abuses against Islamists and secularists alike.”

To read the full report, which draws upon the participants’ observations and recommendations,click here