Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Crossing the Red Line | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Somewhere between the red line that was drawn by Egyptian officials, with regards to opening up to political fundamentalist movements, and America’s rush towards moderate fundamentalists in the Islamic world, including elements of the Taliban of course – chaos, interests and quick thinking came together. Its victims are those that stand by and watch as this process took place.

Last Sunday, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Egyptian sources about what was really said between the Egyptian Ambassador to Sudan and Hassan al Turabi, the spiritual leader of the Islamic movement in Sudan, in light of the crisis that the Omar al Bashir regime is facing. These sources highlighted that “Any contact between Cairo and any symbols of the Islamic movement in Sudan or in any other country [is a red line] that cannot be crossed under any circumstances.”

On official contact between Egypt and the Hamas movement, the sources revealed that this took place based on, “Considerations relating to the Egyptian role in the Palestinian [political] scene.”

On the other hand, the current US administration under President Obama, who is very keen on distancing America’s image from the America of George W. Bush, is talking about dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban and Islamist movements.

There is something important here that we must notice. The statement issued by Obama and his Chief of Staff about reconciliation with the Islamic world and respecting the Islamic civilization is something positive that restores confidence and reestablishes communication away from the climate of tension and cultural discord.

In other words, the moral content of such a message is beneficial, and is required by all those who call for tolerance, dialogue and mutual cultural exchange. However, when we delve deeper into the details of the policies and concepts that are hoped to be established within societies, we find ourselves facing a surreal contradiction. How can that be?

The heated debate on the issue of whether there should be dialogue or some kind of communication with Islamists, which can be seen in the opinion editorials and articles by Arab advisors on Islamic affairs in American research and decision-making circles, does not signal the approach of level headedness and deliberation in vision.

On March 10, 2009, I wrote an article entitled ‘Bad Idea, Fareed’ that was based on American journalist Fareed Zakaria’s article in Newsweek that argues that we should leave Islamist extremists to practice their beliefs in their societies as long as they do not have the power nor the strategy to inflict harm upon us outside of the borders of their own countries. A few days ago, I read an article by the former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program for the CIA, Emile Nakhleh. He held this post from 1991 to 2006, and in brief, he believes that the US must open dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and all political Islamist movements. Why? Because there is no other way but to negotiate with Islamist movements that advocate gradual change, even if the US classifies them as terrorist groups, which is the case with Hamas and Hezbollah. Nakhleh highlighted that: “Islamist movements (with a popular foundation) represent around 95 to 98 per cent of political Islamist activists, and they aim towards gradual change. They must be addressed. As for the Islamists for whom there is no hope, they make up about 2 to 3 per cent, and I do not call for a engaging in dialogue with them.” Nakhleh believes that the Al Qaeda network, which does not enjoy popularity in the Islamic world, falls under this minority, (Al Hayat, April 4, 2009).

Many others share a similar opinion; there is a trend in the US that is enthusiastic about the idea of a direct approach to political Islamist movements, without taking heed of the warnings or questions raised by the Arab world. Some US research centers exerted great effort to hold conferences and forums with Islamist figures. In April 2005, the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Studies headed by former US Ambassador to Israel, Martin S. Indyk, held a conference in Doha entitled the US-Islamic World Forum. It concluded that there needs to be more than just support for opening channels of dialogue with Islamists; it clearly stated that these elements should be incorporated into the political sphere. This would include allowing them to enter elections as political parties and even if they were to win, the US administration should be willing to accept that fact (at that time, the Bush administration was engaged in stage two of its transition towards the Islamists), just as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian academic, had requested from former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Affairs of Democracy and Human Rights, Scott Carpenter.

On their part, the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, have no objections to engaging in dialogue with the US and the Europe under the banner of ‘Dialogue between Cultures.’ Equally, the US and Europe are willing to acknowledge Islamists as significant religious powers in the Islamic world as here we have members of Hezbollah being hosted in Britain, as Britain is re-establishing contact with them and calls for a dialogue with the political wing of Hezbollah, (the Hezbollah issue is also part of the idea of opening up to Iran). Hezbollah is the Shia version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some might ask what is so wrong with the US conversing with Islamists. Should they be eliminated from political life? Aren’t the Arab regimes autocratic and aren’t these political Islamist movements the voice of protest against such autocracy? Furthermore, aren’t the Arab and Islamic nations the ones that want these movements to represent them and express their culture?

These are difficult and sensitive issues that must be raised. We should highlight that the popularity of these Islamist movements among Arab masses should not be underestimated nor can the transparency and the democracy of Arab countries be defended. But this discussion here goes ‘beyond good and evil’ in the words of Nietzsche and by ‘good’ here I mean the metaphorical goodness in the words of the Islamist opposition that says that it “fills the earth with justice and fairness just as the world is full of injustice and oppression.”

Apart from this, and discussions on the reasons why political Islamist movements are preferred among the Arab masses and the level of this preference had the economic and political situation been any better, according to the opinion of those who support developmental solutions, the Americans and Europeans should sit and talk to moderate Islamists – if the criteria truly is moderation – and hold discussions with them, drink coffee with them and talk and hold extended forums. This is all very good, and is a prerequisite for gaining more knowledge in politics and understanding the nature of the reality that decision makers are facing. But are Islamists the only ones who ought to be approached?

I fear that the view of these experts is blocked; the mere act of opening channels of dialogue with Islamists, which used to be a red line, has now become the ultimate purpose and the bold solution.

Very well, after discussions and holding lengthy sessions and drinking coffee and presenting papers full of sweet words about the values of peace, cultural dialogue and social justice, how would people like Martin S. Indyk and other Americans convince people like Khaled Meshaal, Mahdi Akef, Abdul Majeed al Zindani, Hassan Nasrallah, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Baitullah Masood, Mullah Omar, Waleed al Tabtabai or political fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and in other countries to accept the Arab peace initiative and recognize the State of Israel? I give this example not because I am fond of Israel, but because Israel is an issue that cannot be negotiated for the United States.

How would those Islamists deal with the idea of international cooperation to combat terrorism? How would they respond to the human rights charters and binding international agreements? How would these Islamists be talked out of wanting to establish a state according to Mullah Omar’s vision or following in the footsteps of Wilayet al Faqih in Iran?

We have been caught up in a vicious circle. Those who called for testing the Islamists by giving them positions in power have retracted their theories after seeing them put into practice, for example Saad Eddin Ibrahim following the Hamas experience in Gaza.

We do not know how to break free from this iron cage. We do not know how to make Arab regimes rule sensibly through peaceful and natural transition from within the state. We cannot guarantee that chaos will not prevail amid the process of change and that no one will take advantage of that and seize power and become obsessed with torturing their society and impose a political and social model that would further isolate us from the modern world.