President Obama’s Islamist Opening in the Middle East

President Obama’s Islamist Opening in the Middle East

Since taking the Oval Office President Obama has slowly moved to open a new path of engagement with the Arab world’s “Islamist” movement. The grand strategy behind Obama’s “Islamic Opening” has been twofold; erecting a Sunni Muslim firewall to contain Iranian expansion in the Middle East while building up an alternative political force to wring concessions out of authoritarian Sunni dictators or to displace them if threatened with a collapse of state power. Obama’s gamble to renovate Washington’s stagnant Middle East project envisions a gradual shift from American overreliance on diplomacy with authoritarian Arab sheiks and kings to a broader field of engagement with the mainstream of Arab society. In the New Middle East pragmatic Muslims seeking to reconcile Islamic values and Sharia law with participation in electoral politics, democratic institution building and increased integration with non-Muslim communities now occupy the center of the Arab mainstream.

 To be sure, “Islamists” views on many issues like the role women and the relationship between religion and the state are anathema to traditional norms of western democracy. Islamists may not be liberals but they do hew toward democracy and broader forms of social inclusiveness. Moreover, secular Arabs that championed failed Baathist, Socialist and Arab nationalist projects in the past are a small sector of the region’s body politic and simply cannot garner the mass support required to challenge the salafists. Thus, Obama’s “Islamic Opening” is not the product of appeasement or liberal American foreign policy run amok, but a sober assessment of the changing political dynamic engulfing the Middle East. It seeks engagement with prominent “Islamist” academicians, activists and organizations, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  Whether President Obama remains committed to transform the “opening” to a real breakthrough is now in question.      

The Obama administration first signaled its new opening in January 2009 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported lifting the ban imposed by the Bush administration on Tariq Ramadan, the internationally renowned Islamist professor at Oxford University. In June 2009 the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling prohibiting Ramadan’s entry into the United States because he donated money to a charity that supported HAMAS. The grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and son of Said Ramadan a legendary Muslim Brotherhood figure, Tariq Ramadan’s “Islamic” pedigree is widely recognized across the Middle East. A reformer and President of the European Muslim Network, Ramadan has authored several books that among other things implore Muslims in Western Europe and America “to become responsible citizens,” immersed in the social fabric of their countries and fully aware of their “rights and responsibilities.” He has challenged Salafist interpretations of the Koran restricting women’s inheritance rights and called for a moratorium on “hudud” penalties including the stoning of women charged with adultery. Ramadan’s controversial call to reform Islam by realigning the foundational sources of Sharia law and jurisprudence and expanding the field of contributing Islamic scholars and experts to reevaluate the impact of scientific, economic and cultural changes on Islam’s capacity to renew its diverse international community are seminal works. Through the Obama administration’s efforts Ramadan was finally allowed to tour the United States in the spring of 2010.  

Like Ramadan, Yusef al Qaradawi is an Islamist academician and critical opinion leader across the Middle East. Still banned from visiting the United States, Qaradawi host a Qatar-based television talk show called “Sharia and Life” on Al Jezeera with an estimated audience of 40 million viewers. The author of eighty publications, a trustee at the Oxford University Center for Islamic Studies, Qaradawi is a passionate advocate of democratic participation and is regarded as one the top Islamic scholars in the world.  Having denounced al Queda’s violent extremism as a “mad declaration of war upon the world” Qaradawi is the proponent of “wasatiyya” or “centrism,” a doctrine that seeks a middle path between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. His IslamOnline website is also one of the most popular forums in the Middle East. Although the Obama administration has kept Qaradawi at arm’s length he represents the rising phenomenon of influential “new media” personalities in the Islamists movement who are changing the face of the Arab Middle East—a phenomenon President Obama will have to embrace to a induce a gradual political re-alignment in the region.  

            President Obama’s most significant effort to change the trajectory of engagement between the United States and the Islamists occurred in June 2009 when he delivered his much anticipated speech (A New Beginning) in Egypt to the Muslim world. As the cultural and political center of the Arab world and birthplace of the most influential transnational Sunni Muslim organization in the Middle East—the Muslim Brotherhood– Egypt was the logical choice for Obama to put his larger agenda into play. Obama administration officials successfully insisted that elected parliamentary members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s largest officially banned opposition party) receive invitations to attend his address. Obama’s demand to seat Muslim Brotherhood members was calculated to achieve three objectives. First, to signal his administration’s desire to open a channel of communication with the organization. Second, to show support for moderate Muslim Brotherhood members across the Middle East who favor participating in national elections.  And third to increase the pressure on President Mubarak to expand political access for Muslim Brotherhood members and  opposition forces like former IAEA leader Mohammed al Baradei who is considering a presidential run in 2011. One week after President Obama’s speech the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement agreeing “with the general principles of human rights, justice and the need for dialogue based on respect and mutual trust” articulated by President Obama. The statement also said President Obama’s “deft use of language to win Muslims’ hearts does nothing to give Muslims their rights, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, where blood is shed day and night by the design of successive U.S. administrations.” Considering most Islamists and the “Arab street” generally oppose U.S. foreign policy the Muslim Brotherhood statement expressing agreement on the principles of human rights, justice and the need for dialogue suggested the MB left the door open to a new dialogue. Since the Cairo address, there are few signs that the Obama administration is attempting to expand the opening to the Muslim Brotherhood to ongoing discussions.   

            If President Obama is to build on his incremental strategy of Islamist engagement he cannot avoid entering into substantive backchannel and public dialogue with HAMAS, also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the enduring source of widespread anti-American sentiment on the Arab street and Obama’s most significant impediment to close the gap between the United States and Islamist forces. Before taking office Obama’s transition team leaked stories to the press that U.S. intelligence services would open a “secret channel” to HAMAS. But beyond earmarking token amounts of humanitarian aid to Gaza President Obama has pursued a counterproductive One and One-Half State Strategy that backs negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel to the exclusion of HAMAS. While the West Bank received large infusions of aid and assistance the U.S. joined Israel to politically isolate Gaza and reduce it to a state of economic desolation. Obama’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been flawed from its inception. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to halt settlement construction embarrassed Obama and left Abbas in an untenable position to negotiate. Following Israel’s June attack on the Turkish flotilla that was condemned internationally Obama again squandered an opportunity to recast U.S.-HAMAS relations. He simply  doled out more humanitarian aid and stated the obvious: that Israel’s “siege was not sustainable.” In many ways it is Obama’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not sustainable. Notwithstanding Obama’s feckless response to Israel’s attack on the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, the incident also widened the breach between Washington and Turkey’s Islamist government led by Tayyip Erdogan-America’s most reliable partner in the Middle East.      

Ironically, while Obama has repeatedly distanced himself from HAMAS, senior intelligence officers at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have made the case for a diplomatic course correction. In a Red Team Report issued on May 7, 2010, titled “Managing Hizbollah and HAMAS” the report questioned the administration’s policy of “isolating and marginalizing the two movements.” Instead the report recommended a mix of strategies that would integrate both movements into their respective political mainstreams.  The report states that while HAMAS embraces a “staunch anti-Israeli rejectionist policy,” the group is “pragmatic and opportunistic.”  In particular, the Red Team report stated that reconciliation between HAMAS and Fatah combined with an explicit renunciation of violence by HAMAS would gain “widespread international support and deprive the Israelis of any legitimate justification to continue settlement building and delay statehood negotiations.” The CENTCOM report that has been read by General Petraeus also broke with current U.S. policy by stating that lifting the Israeli siege of Gaza represents the best opportunity to pave the way toward unification of al Fatah and HAMAS.  

            As the Obama administration approaches the half way point of his four-year term, the window to push forward his “Islamic Opening” is closing. The headwinds of democracy and change blowing across the Middle East are largely animated by Iran and its Shiite Islamic impulses. As chaotic as Iran’s managed democratic elections are there is nothing remotely comparable occurring in the pro-U.S. Sunni-led dictatorships in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirate Gulf States. Iraq’s continuing democratic experiment punctuated by sectarian violence with Kurd and Sunni forces is largely a Shiite-led enterprise backed by Tehran. In Lebanon, despite the Shiite-based Hezbollah forces narrow defeat by the Cedar coalition in the 2009 parliamentary elections, Hassan Nasrallah maintains effective control over the country. Iran’s growing “crossover” appeal and penetration of HAMAS’s Sunni Islamists movement in the Palestinian territories are a wake-up call that America’s Middle East foreign policy must be reassessed and placed on more sustainable ground. 

Having wisely initiated the “Islamist Opening” the Obama administration appears to be paralyzed by ambivalence and fear of an Israeli and Republican Party backlash to its enterprise. In the meantime al Queda and salafists forces are mounting a political counterattack against Islamists forces. Salafists have reportedly taken back control from Muslim Brotherhood’s moderates in Egypt and Jordan. Similarly, Salafists forces in Qatar have siezed editorial control over Yusef Qaradawi’s IslamOnline website and their political attacks on Islamist academician Tariq Ramadan continue unabated. In short, there are real consequences attendant to America’s reluctance to bestow agency on and support Islamists forces. For better or worse, the Islamists are the emerging Muslim mainstream. If President Obama is elected to a second term, perhaps the slow pace of his incremental “Islamic Opening” strategy may bare fruit. But that is a big if. The sooner the Obama Administration and American foreign policy makers come to grips with the need to embrace Islamist forces the sooner they can counteract the growing influence of al Queda inspired salafists and the growing specter of Iranian expansion in the Middle East.  

Republished with Permission from the Author