Violent Islamists vs. Non-Violent Islamists

Violent Islamists vs. Non-Violent Islamists

There was one part of Obama”s Al-Arabiya interview which really struck me. For me, this realization – this willingness to make careful distinctions in the Middle East – is paramount, and perhaps even key to a general re-orientation of America”s policy in the region:

[Our administration will be] very clear in distinguishing between organizations like Al Qaeda — that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful.

Maybe it”s because I specialize on Islamist parties, but when I think of “people who may disagree with [the Obama] administration and certain actions” or have a “particular viewpoint of how their countries should develop,” I think of Islamist groups and parties, the vast majority of whom are both nonviolent and committed to the democratic process, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Morocco”s Justice and Development Party, Turkey”s AKP, Kuwait”s Islamic Constitutional Movement, Yemen”s Islah Party, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, and al-Nahda in Tunisia (sorry, it”s a long list).

I obviously don”t know what Obama had in mind here. However, the basic point is crucial and should really be one of the underlying principles animating our Mideast policy. There are violent groups which seek to attack and harm America, and nonviolent groups which may dislike or even hate American policies, but are legitimate political actors with large constituencies, massive grassroots support, and religious legitimacy.

There is an Islamist dilemma. It has paralyzed our policy toward the region for decades, and most acutely since the tragedy of 1991 Algeria. Perhaps we can move now toward resolving it and freeing our policy from the false choice between ideals and interests. It will take time, and it will be difficult, but we should begin.