To Engage or Not to Engage?

To Engage or Not to Engage?

So, there’s been a little back-and-forth between me and Stanley Kurtz on the question of what to do about political Islam. He wrote a two-part series “Doc Jihad,” and “Doc Jihad, Part II,” where he, among other things, criticized the recent policy report I wrote for PPI (full version, summary), where I advocate engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood and other nonviolent Islamist groups. Kurtz did a follow-up post last week, where he again criticizes me for wanting “the United States to cozy up to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Unfortunately, he at no point explains why engaging with the Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist parties is a bad idea. I lay the case for engagement not only in the PPI report, but also in a similarly long piece for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Taken together, these two articles attempt to address many of the mistaken assumptions about political Islam and explain how engagement can actually help us deflate extremism and win the war on terrorism. In the Democracy piece, in particular, I move from narrative to nuts-and-bolts and lay out the five components of a pro-engagement policy. I would be interested to see  Kurtz’s critique of these policy recommendations. Instead of simply saying that dealing with the MB is a bad idea, I wish he would tell me why it’s a bad idea.

Would Kurtz like us to continue supporting the brutal, repressive Mubarak regime which has imprisoned and tortured thousands of opposition activists, Islamist and secularist alike? Ayman Nour, as close to a pro-Western liberal as you’ll find in the Middle East, is currently languishing in jail, and the Bush administration has failed to do or say anything of note. Now, I imagine that Kurtz’s argument will be that even if the Egyptian regime is bad, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the MB is good. And, in this, he is correct.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not an ideal ally. They are far from liberal, something which I’ve noted in nearly every piece I’ve written on this topic. (It’s a different issue, but I don’t think the Republican party is liberal either, as they refuse to ban torture, have little respect for separation of powers, have stacked our bureaucracy with people who put party over country, and believe in something called the “unitary executive” which is more frightening than anything I’ve seen the MB put out in their election programs).

But while mainstream Islamists aren”t exactly liberals, they have come a long away in recent years, and, yes, they have moderated in both rhetoric and practice. Kurtz cites one incident in the early 1990s, which he uses to make the broader claim that the MB is a dangerous group intent on forcefully imposing its will on Egyptians. While I am not familiar with this particular incident – that the MB when in control of the Doctors Syndicate “forced union members to sign a pledge to be pious Muslims” – I am fairly certain that no comparable incident has occurred in recent years. In any case, it was in the mid-1990s, and not really until then, that the Brotherhood began to evolve toward a more explicit commitment to the foundational components of democracy. The MB in 1991 is different than the MB in 2007.

Let me briefly outline some of the key markers of moderation. In 1994 and 1995, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood released a series of documents clarifying its position on issues of contention. In the statement “Shura and Party Pluralism in Muslim Society,” the Brotherhood publicly affirms its belief in popular sovereignty, calls for a “balance of powers,” and disavows all forms of political violence. Its “Statement on Democracy” addresses the status of non-Muslim minorities: “Our position regarding our Christian brothers in Egypt and the Arab world is explicit, established and known: they have the same rights and duties as we do…Whoever believes or acts otherwise is forsaken by us.”

More recently, the Brotherhood released its 2004 reform initiative, in which it reiterates in its most clear language to date its commitment to alternation of power, separation of powers, the unrestricted right to form political parties, and freedom of personal belief and opinion.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the MB and other groups like it are 100% sincere in their commitment to democracy (it is impossible to prove intention). Words are not enough; we need action. And, in this, I share Kurtz and others’ concerns about what these groups may or may not do once in power. But this isn’t something unique to Islamists. We should be equally concerned if “pro-West” secularists come to power, especially considering the fact that secular parties in the region have a shockingly bad record when it comes to upholding liberal, democratic values. In fact, over the past five decades, the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East have been, with very few exceptions, both secular and “pro-West.”

The fact that many observers and policymakers are (understandably) worried about what Islamist parties will do in power, only lends further credence to my argument that we should begin engaging with these groups sooner rather than later. Let us build links – and leverage – with these parties before they come to power, not afterwards when it’s too late to exert any influence. As I note in Democracy, “this leverage will increase our ability to hold Islamists to their democratic commitments, and will be critical in ensuring that vital American interests are protected when ‘friendly’ dictators are finally pushed out of power.”

This is particularly important when it comes to a concern which, I feel, is too often neglected by those who support engaging Islamists – how to ensure Israel’s safety and security. Guaranteeing Israel”s security in a hostile regional atmosphere is a vital strategic (and moral) interest. And in any future discussions with Islamist groups, U.S. officials would need to make clear that peaceful co-existence with Israel is something that we are not willing to compromise on. Again, our justified fear of Islamist parties playing the anti-Israel card only strengthens the argument for engagement. As I note in the same article, “the United States and the international community can mitigate the risks of Islamist overreach by providing clear incentives for Islamist moderation on [relations with Israel] and other issues. A potential model for this type of “enmeshing” is Turkey’s ruling AKP, an Islamist party which has enacted a series of far-reaching democratic reforms in order to meet requirements to enter the European Union–and which enjoys a working relationship (and military ties) with Israel.”

More to say, but I”m going to have to wrap up: Kurtz has written very good and useful two-part series on how Islamism rose to prominence in Egypt over the last several decades. But I would be very interested to hear him further articulate his thoughts about what U.S.
policymakers should do about the MB and other Islamist groups in today’s Middle East.