Talking with terrorists : Part 2, Handing victory to the extremists
The second part of Perry & Crooke’s analysis of Islamist movements concludes that the U.S.’ inability to separate political movements based on constituencies from jihadist “jacobin” organizations such as al-Qaeda has totally undermined the “War on Terror.”
It’s a long article, but both parts are well worth reading, if only for an unorthodox viewpoint on the Middle East that the mainstream media simply refuse to explore.
After the writers of this article and our colleagues visited the Middle East for talks with some of the leaders of political Islam, our work was greeted warily – when even acknowledged – in both the United States and Europe.
We have been accused of “giving legitimacy to terrorist organizations”, of “suffering from the Stockholm syndrome”, of being “naive and soft”, of treading on ground where only “more realistic, experienced and trained diplomats” have a right to go, and of being “apologists for violence”. The US administration has insisted that we make it clear that our program does not have its approval or even tacit endorsement.
We repeatedly sought a meeting with US officials to brief them on our work, but were told that such a meeting “would be seen as a confirmation that you are acting on our behalf as some kind of back channel – which you are not”. The message to us was repeated several times by a number of officials: “The United States is not talking with terrorists, we will not talk to terrorists and we do not endorse or in any way support those who do.” We have agreed that we would make it clear: we do not represent anyone but ourselves. This has been plain to all our interlocutors from the outset.
But we adamantly reject the view that our willingness to engage in “an exercise in mutual listening” with Islamist organizations gives them legitimacy. They already have legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood (the most recognizable as well as the oldest pan-Islamic party in the region) is the most widely respected Islamist organization in the Middle East and the second-largest party in the Egyptian legislature, Jamaat e-Islami is the most powerful and respected elected opposition to the Pervez Musharraf government in Pakistan, Hezbollah forms the second-largest bloc in the Lebanese parliament, and Hamas is now the majority party in the Palestinian Authority. In southern Lebanon and in the West Bank and Gaza, the largest proportion of constituent services – in health care, child care, education and employment – is conducted under the auspices of Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively.
The question of legitimacy is important because for democracies, legitimacy is not conferred, but earned at the ballot box. Hamas and Hezbollah would welcome a dialogue with the West not because it would confer “legitimacy” – they already have that – but because such a dialogue would acknowledge the differences between Islamist movements that represent actual constituencies from those (such as al-Qaeda and its allied movements) that represent no one.
Are we captives of our own process? There is no question that our engagement with political Islamists has led us to argue strenuously that US and European diplomats follow our lead. It is true that we have been impressed by the political sophistication of our interlocutors, their willingness to discuss complex political questions, to work to shift perceptions of their movements and their movements’ goals. We suppose it possible (though we believe it unlikely), that we have been courted and misled by master terrorists who have maliciously entrapped us in their web of lies.
But it seemed to us when we began this process that the gamble of being lied to was worth taking, and a far better alternative to not talking at all. Then too, there is no monopoly on lying, and it is certainly not the sole province of Islamists. Diplomacy, at its heart, is a process of deciphering the real from the imagined. Of course, foreign governments and movements lie to the United States and to its allies: lying is often a significant part of the delicate calculus of managing a sophisticated foreign policy, and should not be viewed as an insuperable obstacle to political engagement. Given the current increasing instability in the Middle East, conducting a discourse with movements or governments that we find distasteful could prove a useful substitute for implementing policies that have no chance of working because they are based on what we believe, and not what we know.
By our calculation, the West has only three options in dealing with Islamist organizations: we can bomb them, we can ignore them, or we can talk to them. By now the evidence should be clear: the first option has not and cannot work, while the second is simply a defense of intellectual laziness – how can we possibly know whether our political assumptions are correct unless they are tested?
In the 1980s, US president Ronald Reagan engaged in an exchange with Soviet leaders – and even concluded substantive agreements with them – telling critics that a person who held fast to the rule of “trust but verify” could not be duped. The US talked to the leaders of the Soviet Union when its leader banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations and vowed to destroy the United States. The US talked to the Soviet Union through four decades of confrontation. And Americans talked to the Soviets even when they had thousands of missiles trained on the US homeland. The Islamists have none.
Are we – the delegates who conducted the meetings (detailed in Part 1) – naive?
Our most recent and more private exchange with the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah took place in the immediate aftermath of the Palestinian elections. During the week that we spent in Beirut, no fewer than five workshops and conferences were held in Washington, DC, on the implications of the Hamas electoral victory, which included discussions of the group’s political program and its leadership. A number of those experts were invited to join our delegation. All refused.
So too, one of America’s most highly regarded experts on Hamas acknowledged to us personally that he had “never met one of them”, though he has written innumerable papers and monographs describing their views and held conferences on who they are and “what they want”.
There is certainly a price to pay for talking with proscribed organizations, as any diplomat who had contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s will attest. But the price for not engaging with these organizations has recently proved more costly: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted publicly that she was “stunned” by a Hamas victory that anyone with any experience on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza could have (and in fact did) predict. How could she have gotten it wrong? One of the reasons may well be that State Department employees are barred from entering Gaza, and have been for five years. The reason? Americans have been attacked in Gaza – though by Fatah, not by Hamas.
Is diplomacy best left to diplomats? The West’s most senior diplomats are wedded to the principle that speaking to “terrorists” is out of the question. The case was best put by former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, during a visit to the White House in May 2002.  “But [what] I would like to say once again is that we can establish no differences among terrorists. They’re all the same. They’re all seeking to destroy our harmonious co-existence, to destroy civilization. They’re seeking to destroy our democracy and freedoms.”
Aznar’s view has gained widespread acceptance in the international community. On February 6, 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed Aznar’s views: “But the commonly accepted international principle of fighting terror is an unconditional refusal to hold any dialogue with terrorists, as any contact with bandits and terrorists [encourages] them to commit new, even bloodier crimes. Russia has not done this, and will not do this in the future.”  In spite of this, Putin was the first major world leader to break ranks with the West in recognizing Hamas – thereafter inviting its leaders for consultations in Moscow.
Putin’s decision was undoubtedly the result of his anger with former senior US diplomats who not only criticized him for failing to grant Chechnya even “limited sovereignty”, but who established a high-profile Washington-based non-governmental organization to push for “a peaceful resolution of the conflict”. The American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus (ACPC) – whose board members include some of Washington’s more high-profile neo-conservatives – was founded, in part, to pressure Putin to convene “private ‘Track II’ talks between representatives of the Russian government and Chechen resistance …” 
ACPC’s public advocacy of a “private” dialogue is not only a contravention of the nearly unanimous view among diplomats that you should not talk to terrorists, but confirmation that (at least when it comes to Chechnya) not all terrorists “are the same”. Some, it seems, are thought to have legitimate grievances, a viewpoint put forward by Richard Pipes, who castigated Putin in the pages of the New York Times for failing to understand that Chechen violence is the result of Russian oppression. Diplomacy, Pipes argued, was the one way to resolve the conflict, as “there is always room for compromise”. 
The United States and its allies have certainly proved capable of following Putin’s lead. Soon after America’s occupation of Iraq, the US attempted to open a dialogue with the Shi’ite movement Hezb al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya. In the heady days following America’s triumphant race across southern Iraq, a US-Da’wa engagement held out hope for a useful alliance between those in the US government who wished to overthrow Saddam Hussein and a movement that had fought him for more than 25 years.
The problem, of course, was that the US had once been allied to Saddam’s Ba’athist regime and so was targeted by Da’wa’s military wing. A suicide bombing carried out by the group in 1983 in Kuwait (reputed to be the first suicide bombing in the Middle East of the modern era) against the French and US embassies in Kuwait killed three French nationals and three Americans. Oddly, Da’wa had never been listed as a proscribed terrorist organization by the US State Department (though it was tied directly to Iran, which was and is considered a state sponsor or terrorism), while Iraq was removed from the terrorism list in 1982 and added, again, in 1990. (Nelson Mendela was removed from the list in 2003.) “Today Al-Da’wa and its sympathizers distance the activist party and movement from these ‘aberrations’,” Middle East analyst Mahan Abaden wrote in the Beirut Daily Star in 2003. “They contend, with some justification, that the attacks were the works of rogue elements hijacked by Iranian intelligence.” 
The leaders of political Islam know this history quite well, and so have concluded that Americans’ talk of values and democracy and peace is actually a cover for the promotion of US interests. In 1982 it was in US interest to support Saddam Hussein. Today, it is in US interest to speak to the leaders of the Da’wa party, particularly since its leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is Iraq’s prime minister.
There exist a small but substantial number of extreme Islamists who not only refuse any and all engagements with the West, but who also target those in their own communities who seek a broader set of contacts and accommodation. These takfiris take as their touchstone the view that all Westerners are kafirs – infidels – whose remorseless political and religious goals are bent on conquest and domination. “They’re all the same.” Those Muslims who talk with these kafirs are viewed as irtidad (apostates) and are outside of the protection of the community. The takfiris are exclusivists, claiming a special hold on the truth.
Moderate Islamists have long condemned this takfiri trend. Writing in 1935, Maulana Maudoodi (the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami, one of the groups with whom we met in Beirut), warned of the dangers of those who call others “wrongdoers”. It is, he said “not merely the violation of the rights of an individual, rather it is also a crime against society”. 
So too, it seems, Western takfiris would deny any and all contacts and accommodation with political Islam and condemn those who engage in them.
One of our principal purposes in engaging with the leaders of political Islam is to stimulate a new and more rigorous understanding of armed political action, its causes and its varied nature, and to distinguish between it and “terrorism”. There is no question that two of the groups with whom we spoke – Hamas and Hezbollah – have adopted violent tactics to forward their political goals. They are not alone: Fatah (whose candidates for election the US supported with US$2 million in campaign funds) continues to use violence (and kidnap Westerners), so do the Tamil Tigers, so did the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the African National Congress. So too does the United States. America’s insistence that Hamas and Hezbollah “renounce violence” and “disarm” is dismissed by these groups as not only an invitation to surrender but, in light of the continuing and increasingly indefensible use of alarmingly disproportionate US and British firepower in Iraq, the rankest hypocrisy.
The West’s seeming abhorrence of violence is derived from its deeply rooted belief that political change is possible without it. But defending this proposition requires an extraordinary exercise in historical amnesia.
While we Americans proudly point to the civil-rights movement as an example of how non-violence can successfully enable dispossessed peoples to grab the levers of change, history shows that those same levers were made available as the result of previous, often quite bloody, conflicts – in the case of the civil rights movement a brutal civil war that left 638,000 Americans dead. Nor was America’s civil-rights movement as non-violent as it may seem from this distance: the moderation of Dr Martin Luther King Jr was opposed by a portion of the black American community who vowed that they would change the nation “by any means necessary” and who claimed that “violence is as American as cherry pie”.
Whether we want to admit it or not, history shows that political change is most often the result of political pain: the owners of Montgomery, Alabama’s transit system did not agree to integrate their buses because they suddenly ceased being racists, but because they were going out of business. Nor, once the right to vote was won, was the civil-rights movement ended. The fight for equality has been long and often agonizing, and it is not yet finished.
So too, as America’s most recent actions in Iraq attest, the US policymakers would certainly not reject the proposition that violence (albeit, as President George W Bush continues to attest, “only as a last resort”) is often used to defend US interests or promote US views.
So while we Americans hold to the belief that the ballot box offers the best way to effect change, we must acknowledge that history shows that change is most often painful and usually bloody.
The leaders of major Islamist organizations view the issue of violence in the same way Americans do – as a legitimate option that is applied to establish deterrence and stability and to defend and promote their interests. For Hamas and Hezbollah, “armed resistance” is a way of balancing the asymmetry of force available to Israel. Both groups place their use of violence in a political context.
“Armed resistance is not simply a tool that we use to respond to Israeli aggression,” a Hamas leader averred. “It gives our people confidence that they are being defended, that they have an identity, that someone is trying to balance the scales.”
Hezbollah puts this idea in the same political context: “It may be that some day we will have to sit down across from our enemies and talk to them about a political settlement. That could happen,” reflected Nawaf Mousawi, the chief of the Hezbollah’s foreign relations department. “But no political agreement will be possible until they respect us. I want them to know that when they’re sitting there across from us that if they decide to get up and walk away, they’ll have to pay a price.”
The West’s insistence that opening a political dialogue be preceded by and conditioned on disarmament is simply unrealistic: it suggests that we believe that “our” violence is benevolent while “theirs” is unreasoning and random – that a 19-year-old rifle-toting American in Fallujah is somehow less dangerous than a 19-year-old Shi’ite in southern Lebanon.
In fact, political agreements have rarely been preceded by disarmament. United Nations demands for the disarmament of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in 1978 unraveled a conflict-ending political agreement (a situation put right when the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons), and Northern Ireland’s “Good Friday Agreement” allowed the IRA to keep its weapons until a political process (leading to “decommissioning”) reflecting their concerns was put in place.
The West often views Islamic violence as random and unreasoning, but Hamas and Hezbollah believe that violence can shift practical political considerations to create a psychology in which armed groups can use the tool of de-escalation as a way of forwarding a political process. That is to say, absent a political agreement, Hamas and Hezbollah will not voluntarily abandon what they view as their only defense against the overwhelming weight of Israeli military power.
Disarmament (or “demilitarization”) is possible: it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. When coupled with substantive political talks, the unification of armed elements into a single security or military force – demilitarization – provides the best hope for increased stability and security in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.
As a part of our program with Hamas and Hezbollah, we invited John Lord Alderdice to Beirut to brief the groups on how demilitarization might work in their societies. Lord Alderdice helped to negotiate the “Good Friday Agreements” in Northern Ireland that “decommissioned” the IRA and allowed, among other things, for Catholic policing of Catholic neighborhoods and the recomposition of a more representative Ulster Constabulary. Hezbollah leaders have acknowledged that they would be willing to undertake a process of demilitarization that would allow Shi’ite officers to hold more senior level officer positions in the Lebanese army, while Hamas leaders have openly talked of creating a national army – thereby acknowledging the importance of the “one commander, one security service, one gun” solution promoted by the Bush administration.
Demilitarization is not a panacea, it does not work always and in every case, but it holds out greater hope for long-term stability and security than conditioning peace on requirements that cannot be met.
The Israel problem
Despite their sometimes deep and abiding organizational, historical and religious differences, all of the Islamist groups with whom we spoke claimed that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do more than any other single event to calm and stabilize the region. But while the US, Israel and their allies insist that “recognition” of Israel be a starting point for any dialogue between the West and political Islam, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami insist that recognition must be the end point of a political process – not its beginning.
They forcefully and correctly point out that America’s insistence on Israel’s recognition has never been a condition for any previous dialogue: the US and its allies maintained relations with president Abdul Nasser, president Hafez al-Assad, King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz, and King Hussein (and even shipped arms to Tehran), when Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan (and Iran) not only refused to speak with Israeli leaders, but vowed to destroy their state. In fact, the United States maintained diplomatic relations with these nations precisely because it thought it might end their conflict with Israel. In two cases – with Egypt and Jordan – it worked.
The argument that “things changed after September 11, 2001” seems almost perverse. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat e-Islami (as well as Syria and Iran) denounced the attack, expressed their support for the US war against al-Qaeda and even, in the case of Tehran, offered US rescue helicopters on missions in Afghanistan emergency landing rights in Iran.
The leaders with whom we spoke are offended by claims that what they call their “resistance to Israeli aggression” has led to recurring charges of anti-Semitism. “We are not fighting against Jews,” Hamas leaders repeatedly argued. “Our argument is with Israel.”
In the case of Hezbollah, a number of the delegates to our meetings pointed out that the Hezbollah television station Al-Manar openly broadcast a “documentary” on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – a Christian, not Muslim, invention. References to the “documentary” were met with an embarrassed acknowledgement by our Hezbollah interlocutor: “I did not know it was going to air until I saw it,” he said. “I am sorry it was aired.” A number of delegates were unimpressed by this apology: “It does not make it okay,” one said.
Claims that Al-Manar regularly broadcasts “anti-Semitic” videotapes showing Muslim “martyrs” celebrating before a backdrop of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, however, brought a swift denial: “The videos we air are not anti-Jewish, do not call for the destruction of the Jewish religion, and are not anti-Semitic. We have a right to extol those who sacrifice themselves in our defense. You do the same.”
The same claims are made of Hamas. In our first exchange in March last year, Hamas leaders were accused of supporting anti-Semitism by including “The Protocols” on their website. Our interlocutors seemed more puzzled than offended by the charge, as if unaware of the Protocols’ appearance. But they pledged to look into the claim.
In March of this year, Hamas leader Usamah Hamdan responded to the charge by noting that the Hamas website to which we referred in our initial charge was actually designed and owned by a Cairo firm that was not affiliated with the movement. The Hamas leadership, he said, was “working to resolve the problem”. As of this writing, the offending website (hamasonline.com) has been replaced with a nondescript website that includes links to both an anti-Hamas article and “Jewish Singles”.
Nor, it seems, is Hamas’ view of its charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, inviolable: “It is not the Koran, it can be amended,” a Hamas leader has said.
Still, the charges of Hamas’ anti-Semitism have proliferated. In a recent article in The New Yorker, David Remnick castigated Hamas for its open ties to the Muslim religious tradition that dictates that the territory of Palestine is a part of the Islamic waqf – the endowment promised to Muslims by God – and that “to relinquish any part of the land” is “forbidden”. 
But Hamas is not the only religious-based political movement that claims that all of Palestine was given by God. For Jews, as well as for the Zionist movement, there is a parallel theological belief that the Land of Israel was given to Jews for all time – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, from southern Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. The creation of a Jewish state in all of Eretz Yisrael (a phrase included in “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” read to the public by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948) has always been a fundamental part of Jewish aspirations, to be realized, as one recent American visitor with a Hamas leader recently described it, “in God’s time”.
Hamas has little problem with such aspirations, so long as they are not translated into settlements and land confiscations, which preempt “God’s work” and negate the eschatological nature of religious beliefs.
Hamas is as unlikely to disavow its aspirations for creating a Muslim state in all of Palestine as Israel is unlikely to cease calling the West Bank “Judea and Samaria” – geographic descriptions that Palestinians consider inflammatory and, they claim, evidence that Israel is dedicated to realizing its religiously ordained aspirations.
All of this may seem to be logic-chopping. The real question remains: Is it possible for the leaders of political Islam to recognize Israel, to acknowledge and live in peace with a Jewish state that has been established in the midst of the Muslim wafq?
On this question all Islamic leaders seem united: “The end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the hands of our brothers in Palestine,” Nawaf Mousawi said. “When they say it is over, it will be over.” The leaders of the other groups with whom we met agree, saying that while their support for Palestine is constant and unquestioned, it is no use “being more Palestinian than the Palestinians”.
For the United States and its allies, on the other hand, “recognition” of Israel – and not participation in free, open and fair elections – is a requirement for the acceptance of a Hamas-led government into the community of nations. But for Hamas, the recognition of Israel is not a pro forma political abstraction, but a vitally crucial issue. They point out that “recognition” is the province of states and that, therefore, the recognition of Israel should come when there is a Palestinian state that represents the will of the Palestinian people and has the same international standing as the State of Israel. Hamas leaders also believe that simple “recognition” of Israel will not yield any tangible changes in the status of Palestinians, let alone Hamas – that the US response will be (as one Hamas leader said, mimicking a US leader): “Fine, but that’s not enough. Now, you must …”
In their most recent statements Hamas leaders have been quite insistent: recognition of Israel is dependent on the recognition of Palestinian rights. That is to say, Hamas will consider recognizing Israel when Israel acknowledges UN resolutions calling for a withdrawal of those territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Put simply: measures taken by Israel in the West Bank without Palestinian consent are illegal and any future negotiation with Israel must take the pre-1967 situation as their starting point.
In fact, this is a reflection of the position enunciated by President Bush last May 26 in an address given during a visit to the White House by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties,” Bush said, “and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to.”
Bush’s words are vitally important. If the Palestinian do not agree with the final borders proposed by Israel, the conflict will not be resolved. In effect, the Palestinian have the right to veto Israel’s final status proposal if they don’t like it – and so maintain, by such a veto, their unwillingness to come to a final political settlement with Israel. So Bush agrees with the Islamists: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be over when the Palestinians agree that it is over. And not before.
Moderation under attack
The seeming intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exacerbated by America’s insistence that its allies in Europe and in the region withhold funding for the new Palestinian government until Hamas recognizes Israel (and renounces terrorism, and disarms, and …).
To America’s failure to foresee Iyad Allawi’s defeat in Iraqi elections, to predict Hamas’ electoral victory, and to isolate Hezbollah we may now add yet another failure: Condoleezza Rice’s failure to gain support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to cease their assistance to the Palestinian people. Rice’s plea to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to stand with the US in its refusal to fund a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority was resoundingly and loudly rejected by Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.
Instead of isolating Hamas, the United States has isolated itself: not only did President Putin host a visit by Hamas leaders in Moscow, a number of European nations (as well as a growing number of senior Israeli officials) are now quietly suggesting a reassessment of being identified with the US program for the region, and are seeking ways to talk with Islamist leaders whose legitimacy is the result of a popular mandate.
The differences in approach are not simply a reflection of Europe’s continued criticism of the Bush administration’s decision to shape a “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq, it is rooted in geographic realities: Muslims constitute Europe’s single most important and powerful minority constituency. Europe’s decision to respond more positively to Islamist concerns is also, quite obviously, the result of widespread Muslim rioting in France, the burning of European embassies in the Arab world, and an admission among European leaders that they must take steps to fight Muslim intolerance in their own societies. While European leaders initially defended the right of a Danish magazine to publish cartoons lampooning Mohammed, their most recent actions betray a discomfort with their defense of the publication of the caricatures because of the Western value of “freedom of speech” – a value that was once cited as a just defense of Julius Streicher’s “right” to publish virulent anti-Semitic caricatures in Der Sturmer.
A discussion of Middle East realities also inevitably touches on George W Bush’s call for greater democracy in the region, a vision fatally undermined by Secretary of State Rice’s imprecation that the United States will never deal with a Hamas-led Palestine, whether elected or not. Rice’s lecture tour of Middle Eastern capitals is not only the most recent evidence for the Bush administration’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to differentiate among Islamist groups, it threatens to undermine fatally the central pillar of America’s message to Muslims from Egypt to Pakistan – that democracy provides the last best hope for the realization of people’s dreams. Inadvertently that democracy message is being undermined by US policies, which are pushing Middle Eastern moderates into the arms of the region’s takfiris – those who view any compromise with the West as apostasy.
More specifically, America’s failure to talk with, or simply listen closely to, those groups who depend for their legitimacy on the support of their constituencies will swing the pendulum of the Islamist revolution far beyond the views enunciated by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat e-Islami. It has happened before.
In 1792, the architects of the French Revolution found themselves under attack. For three years the leaders of the Gironde – Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Marguerite-Elie Guadet and Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud – had served as the vanguard for national change. The Gironde represented France’s professional classes: businessmen, academics, lawyers and writers. They were viewed as defenders of authority and order. The transformations they authored were breathtaking: they struck down aristocratic preferments, convened a national convention, and made the king answerable to the people. But in the summer of 1792, these three leaders of the Gironde, and 18 of their colleagues, were purged from the convention, tried by a Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined before the jeering people of Paris. Their sin? They not only opposed the “Enrages” – the revolutionary “madmen” of the Paris Jacobean Club who would “burn France to ashes” – they expressed their admiration for England’s government, with its elections and House of Commons.
The slippage from moderation to terror that seized France in 1792 is chillingly familiar to any discerning observer of America’s relations with Islam since September 11, 2001. Stunned by the attack on its cities and institutions, the US government justifiably struck back at al-Qaeda, destroying much of its network, interdicting its funding, and identifying and jailing its supporters. The US was supported by the entire planet. While it would have not have taken much political sophistication for British prime minister William Pitt to differentiate between the Gironde and the Jacobeans, his failure to do so – evinced by his description of the Gironde as “regicides” followed by his mobilization of the British army – sent them to the block. Like the stiff and unbending Pitt, who saw little difference between the Gironde and their enemies on the left, the Bush administration has lumped Muslim revivalists, who admire democracy and reform and want it for themselves, with the Middle East’s revolutionaries – who want to burn the region to ashes.
A more recent historical example shows how the US and the West might find a way out of this morass. In 1947, US president Harry Truman directed the Central Intelligence Agency to fund European socialist movements that supported democracy. He did so not because he was “soft on communism” or a “fellow traveler” (the accusation made at the time), but because he was able to differentiate between those European movements that believed in democracy and those that didn’t. Truman calculated that marginalizing European socialists would force them into the communist camp. Truman’s strategy, carried out over a period of decades, worked – breaking off moderate European Marxists from their more revolutionary and violent co-religionists.
So too, while talking to or even dealing with Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami might seem an apostasy to some, including them on the same list of proscribed organizations as al-Qaeda confuses those groups open to adopting the values we espouse with those with whom there can be no accommodation. Being able to differentiate between political movements and currents and exploiting them to our benefit in order to spread democracy is not making a pact with the devil, it’s called diplomacy – and at its heart is a willingness to talk with groups and political parties to find a common ground to fight a common enemy.
The new Jacobins
The United States and its European allies have declared war on terrorism. Yet the policies that the West has instituted in this war are not leading to increased security for its people or societies. Rather, in failing to differentiate between “revivalists” and “revolutionaries”, between those who are willing to submit their program to a vote of their people and those who won’t – ever – the West is inexorably pushing this great middle ground into the arms of the takfiris, into the arms of Islam’s Jacobins.
The failure to differentiate between Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, between Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is the failure to differentiate between those who seek an accommodation with the West and those who work for an unremitting and uncompromising clash. The solution is not simply to begin talking to political Islam – “we don’t want you to talk”, a Hamas leader told us, “we want you to listen” – but rather to begin the necessary process of questioning our own assumptions: that “they” are “all the same”. If we fail to begin this vital work now we will soon see Mecca “burn”. And it won’t stop there.
What is perhaps most surprising about what we have learned in our “exercise of mutual listening” is not that our views are radical, but that they reinforce Western society’s best instincts, including those of George W Bush. In a speech before the International Republican Institute last May, the US president laid out his vision for democracy in the Middle East.
“Today, much of our focus is on the broader Middle East, because I understand that 60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in that region did nothing to make us safe,” he said. “If the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation and resentment and violence ready for export.
“The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East; a strategy that recognizes the best way to defeat the ideology that uses terror as a weapon is to spread freedom and democracy.”
1. “President Bush meets with European leaders”, The White House, May 2, 2002.
2. “Press Statements and Answers to Questions after the Completion of Russian-Azerbaijan Talks”, Moscow, February 6, 2004.
3. Included on the board of the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus are Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Frank Gaffney, Max Kampelman, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, and James Woolsey, among many others.
4. “Give the Chechens a land of their own”, Richard Pipes, New York Times, September 9, 2004.
5. “Deal with Al-Da’wa and its controversial legacy”, Mahan Abaden, Daily Star (Beirut), July 3, 2004.
6. “Fitna-I Takfir” (Mischief of Takfir), Maulauna Maudoodi, Tarjuman al-Quran, May 1935.
7. “The Democracy Game”, David Remnick, The New Yorker, February 27, 2006.