To take political Islam seriously, the West can’t romanticise it

To take political Islam seriously, the West can’t romanticise it

The British government’s announcement that it would resume dialogue with the “political wing” of Hizbollah has stirred controversy. Some have welcomed it as an overdue international recognition of Lebanon’s most powerful political player, others have decried it as a dangerous accommodation of a violent Islamist organisation. Certainly, for a government that designates the Lebanese Shia party’s “military branch” as a terrorist organisation, this reflects bold thinking whose merits may nevertheless not convert other Western governments.

This discussion is not happening in a vacuum and it is certain to heat up in the coming months. Ever since September 11, the debate over whether and how to engage political Islam has been raging in the West. “Political Islam” has emerged from the political and intellectual confusion of the post-September 11 world as a convenient, all inclusive category. If anything, though, recent years have shown how diverse political Islam, and its ideology and politics can be. Knowledge of political Islam has exponentially increased in recent years, and with it has come welcome contextualisation. The Taliban’s backward ideology or Iran’s Islamic ideals no longer stand as the only examples of political Islam in action.

Indeed, while all Islamist movements clearly share a desire to introduce more Islamic law and norms into governance, what this means in practical terms has surfaced as an issue of considerable disagreement, pointing to their inherent but often overlooked dynamism. Several of the larger movements, like Morocco’s Justice and Development Party or Turkey’s similarly named governing party, have emerged as serious actors with moderate platforms and broad appeal. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose influence extends from Egypt to Kuwait, has demonstrated a willingness to review (but not necessarily to amend) its positions on citizenship, gender, political participation or Sharia.

Shadi Hamid, a researcher on political Islam, has drawn a useful classification between politically active organisations like the Brotherhood, apolitical groups like the Hizb ut Tahrir, and those who operate outside and beyond politics like al Qa’eda. Another useful criteria differentiates between organisations that have never used violence as a means to attain power or have credibly renounced it and those who see violence as a legitimate instrument.

Then there are organisations like Hizbollah and Hamas, which cast themselves as resistance movements confronting occupation but have occasionally used violence for internal purposes and have purposely targeted civilians.

This is the grey area that the international community is at pains to understand. Hizbollah and Hamas are certainly viewed as legitimate political actors in Lebanon and Palestine. But both, accused by many countries of being terrorist groups linked to outside powers, have been shunned by the international community, even as they are deeply involved in the political process, win elections (as Hamas did in 2006) or could do so in a few months (if Hizbollah and its allies carry the day during the upcoming Lebanese election). That criticism of the isolation the Hamas government endured after a democratic win is warranted. But one cannot disregard the legitimate questions about its use of violence, nor can one ignore the pitfalls of a foreign state engaging with these non-state actors.

And if Islamist groups make themselves relevant through the use of force, what is the message to their local competitors who have not resorted to violence? This question is most pertinent in the case of Lebanon. Hizbollah is the only standing militia and has shown a willingness to use its weapons to counter internal pressure. Since then, it has joined a national unity government, but there is certainly no unity inside Lebanon about Hezbollah’s objectives and weapons. A direct foreign engagement of Hizbollah beyond its government representatives will be widely perceived as a recognition that could undercut Hezbollah’s non-violent opponents.

The British government’s decision may have been due to reasonable considerations, with British diplomats in Beirut feeling that their understanding of the country was suffering from lack of access to Hizbollah or in anticipation of a Hizbollah-dominated government in a few months. Less convincing though, is the artificial dichotomy between a “political wing” and a “military wing” made by the British Foreign Office, when the two are so closely and publicly associated. And for all the talk about the US following suit, an idea recently praised by the New York Times’s Roger Cohen, this seems unlikely. The Israel factor looms large, as does a history of blood between the US and Hizbollah.

It is important to realise that movements like Hizbollah mean what they say. To their credit, their rhetoric is not hot air. Their rejection of most things western and their belief in the inevitability of victory against Israel and “western imperialism” is not mere sloganeering.

Amid the accusations of dogmatic inflexibility, the US is showing selective pragmatism, arguably under duress. Barack Obama mentioned a few days ago the need to engage low-level Taliban to weaken the insurgency in Afghanistan. Under the Bush administration, the US co-operated with former Sunni insurgents in its fight against al Qa’eda in Iraq.

The danger for the West is to travel to the other extreme, by anointing Islamist movements as the only legitimate voices in the Middle East. One organisation that has made this leap is the Conflicts Forum, whose motto is “Listening to political Islam, recognising resistance”. Under the pretence of exposing the West’s prejudices and stereotypes, it elevates the Iranian-inspired “Islamist revolution” as a challenge to dominant Western norms. This thinking whitewashes the enormous damage that “Islamist resistance” does to its own societies. The West’s dialogue with political Islam is no small affair. What matters more for the well-being of Muslim societies is whether they embrace the moderate Turkish or Indonesian model or instead, the fallacy of the “resistance”.

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