Washington D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- The American invasion of Iraq led to a significant deterioration in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood organizations. Many Muslim Brotherhood members had frozen or restricted their contact with American officials; such contact usually took place in American embassies of various Arab capitals or on the sidelines of conferences. The position of different Muslim Brotherhood organizations was similar in various countries. The Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan, was similar to those of Egypt and Morocco; they had all taken a step back following the invasion of Iraq. However, other member organizations of the Muslim Brotherhood were less reserved concerning their relationships with the Americans. What is the ceiling of meetings between Americans and Muslim Brotherhood organizations of the region nowadays? What are the issues and objectives of dialogue between America and the Muslim Brotherhood? In this regards, three observations must be cited.
The first of these is that the majority of Islamic leaders, with whom Asharq Al Awsat newspaper had spoken, had expressed their frustration at the sluggish progress of dialogue with the Americans. They emphasized that dialogue with American officials did not result in any change in US policies in the region and had not changed the known positions of the United States towards Arab and Islamic causes. The second observation is that the majority of leading figures within the Muslim Brotherhood member organizations that are not permitted to legally operate in their countries stressed the fact that they only tackle general Arab and Islamic causes with American officials. They stated that their dialogues do not address issues of domestic policy, especially those regarding political reforms. The third observation is that the dialogue between Americans and some moderate Islamic organizations in the region had recently deteriorated. This is not only because of the war in Iraq but mainly because of the US apprehension towards the potential threat of recent electoral victories of Islamists.
As stated by a number of American officials, there is no rejection of dialogue with Islamic parties as “Islamic or religious” parties. Conceivably, the dialogue is rejected because of the agenda and actions of certain Islamist parties and movements that American diplomats are banned from dealing with.
Danielle Pletka, researcher at the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington, said that the basic condition for conducting dialogue with Islamic organizations in the region should be determined according to their position towards violence. She told Asharq Al Awsat that she dislikes the term “moderate Islamist organizations” as it is meaningless. Pletka claims that the only way to distinguish between different organizations is through their approach towards violence and whether that is an appropriate means to achieve political objectives at the local, regional and international levels. She states that the US government is very clear in this regard and does not address terrorists and it would not talk to movements that target civilians, antagonize the United States or call for the destruction of Israel, for example. Pletka adds that the message addressed to Islamic movements is that if they want to be part of the global political scene, they must not be involved in any terrorist activity. However, Pletka highlighted that there are two sides to the problem of dialogue with Islamists. The first is that in the past, some Islamic movements such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had promoted violence and would not recognize Israel’s right to exist. However, on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt was exploited by Egyptian authorities as a pretext to prevent the progress of reforms. She elaborated that such an issue is a dilemma for the United States because if the United States should support democracy then it should support it in all its forms. This means that if Islamic organizations were ready to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept the rule of law, then they should be granted the right to political participation. Pletka stated that this is the prevalent opinion within and outside the US administration as not all Islamic organizations support the use of violence.
Pletka argues that while the principle of non-violence is a global call, the issue of women’s rights or the application of Shariah falls under the cultural and religious interpretation of each country. She asks if there is a group that advocates the application of Shariah and at the same time rejects and condemns violence and recognizes the right of countries in the region to live in peace and does not issue any fatwas that denounce its enemies as infidels or legalize killing them, should this group be ousted from the political process because it wants to impose restrictions on the rights of women or minorities? In this case, Pletka states that within the presence of real democracy, people will choose who is to represent them. If women as well as various religious minorities could vote, they would vote either in favor or against this group through the ballot boxes. Pletka told Asharq Al Awsat that the United States should not address parties that call for violence; the importance of the United States should never be underestimated to that extent. She claims that there are many issues that the United States can discuss with the centrist party, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas for example, yet there are standards that should be adhered to. If that is not the case, the influence of the United States would diminish and friendship with the United States would lose its value because if the US spoke to every party then this may indicate that it believes that the parties it is addressing are part of the political process. Those who want to establish a dialogue with the United States want the credibility that comes with it but this comes at a price. The price is the abolition of terrorism and elimination of calls for the destruction of others.
The United States keenly avoids dialogue with movements that promote violence, whilst the equally keen Muslim Brotherhood talks about Arab and Islamic public issues and this widens the gap between the two sides. In this regard, a leader of the Islamic Action Front Party, Ali Abu Sukkar, told Asharq Al Awsat that the issues raised by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood members with American officials are often regional and international issues. He denied that any of the local issues in Jordan are discussed with the American administration. Regarding the current status of the relationship between the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and American officials, Abu Sukkar stated that communication with the Americans had stopped for quite some time in the embassy and through conferences. He stated that there are Muslim Brotherhood representatives in parliament who refused to take part in any delegations that visited the United States. They also rejected any invitation to express their discontent regarding the occupation of Iraq.
Abu Sukkar believes that the decision-making process in US administration is fully controlled by the Jewish lobby in a way that infringes upon the interests of the United States itself. He states that even when suggestions are made that could best serve American interests, they are not considered if they would not benefit Israel.
Abu Sukkar states that Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood organization is a legal and legitimate movement that represents moderation and Islamic enlightenment; nevertheless, it lacks positive reaction towards some of the issues that it proposes. This in turn reflects a more negative image of the American administration, where US stances against Islam instigate further extremism, adds Abu Sukkar.
It is apparent that most Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the region do not reject, in principle, the idea of dialogue with an American party either formally or informally and do not set any preconditions. However, there is a fundamental and essential objection shown by Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the region towards the fact that Washington turns a blind eye completely in cases of arrest of Muslim Brotherhood members in Arab countries, which contradicts the American position towards the arrest of liberalists.
Independent MP in Egyptian parliament Gamal Heshmat, who is considered a member of the Muslim Brotherhood told Asharq Al Awsat that he does not think that there are any set preconditions as this would mean the termination of any dialogue before it even starts. Heshmat emphasized that dialogue with Americans takes place with academics, civil society institutions and journalists. He affirmed that many of them meet with Muslim Brotherhood members, emphasizing that there had been no dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and the American administration or other governments at the official level. Heshmat stated that any dialogue is a discovery of ideas and attitudes and that he believes that their opinions may need to be conveyed regarding the behavior of the American administration from the standpoint of human rights, especially in dealing with Islamic and Arab issues and even in dealing with Egypt. Elaborating on that point, he stated US administration has created a state of hatred towards Americans and that its foreign policy should be reconsidered and that the astringent American foreign policy and the dominance of Republicans has caused much harm to the American image. He admitted that there is an anti-American/Zionist project within the Brotherhood but this is because it [US] adopts an expansionist, colonialist and settlement project that does not comprehend equal relationships or opportunistic relations but wants to deal with the world out of a desire for domination, which is clearly unacceptable. He finally adds that the Islamic project rejects the practice of domination and refuses it to be practiced against it; therefore, it may be necessary that the American party talks to the Muslim Brotherhood directly.
Regarding the issue of dialogue, Heshmat told Asharq Al Awsat that Egypt is part of the regional situation and it cannot be separated from American plans in the region. He stated that Americans use Egypt to mediate in some cases and achieve their goals without direct intervention. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood’s conditions for dialogue, he explains, is that there must be a set agenda for the dialogue, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry should be informed and the meeting should be declared. He adds that the absence of the American intention and will towards such initiative [for dialogue] hampers the actualization of this meeting.
The stance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Morocco regarding dialogue with the Americans is similar to that of its Egyptian counterpart. Secretary-General of the Justice and Development Party, Ali al Rumeed told Asharq Al Awsat that ever since the invasion of Iraq, he had decided to boycott any American activity or contact any person who works within the official American institution. He pointed out that others from within party had also taken part in the boycott of the United States, although the party did not issue any formal decision regarding this.
It is noteworthy that the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the region do not necessarily coordinate with one another regarding dialogue with the Americans. The deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Habib, elaborated on this point saying that there is no coordination since the statements of the US are contradictory. Habib claims that there is a state of deliberate misunderstanding and that US administration is trying to cause confusion between Al Qaeda and moderate Islamic organizations represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. He continued, explaining that if the US State Department wanted to establish dialogue with leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, then this would be done through the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. He underlined that the Muslim Brotherhood does not consider itself a state within a state.
In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood organizations of Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, whose contacts with American officials were affected after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Kuwait maintained relatively stronger contact with the American party on the basis that dialogue is an opportunity to put across Arab and Islamic viewpoints of major issues.
Mohamed al Dalal, member of the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait, told Asharq Al Awsat that there are some established communications with the American embassy in Kuwait regarding a number of issues such as those related to the conditions of the region as a whole; most notably Iraq and Palestine, as well as others regarding reform in the region in general especially after the US adoption of the slogan of reform since 2004. He stated that in regular meetings, members of the movement would express their reservations and dismay concerning the negative American position and its support for Israel for instance, or its stance against the rights of the Palestinians as well as its contradictory and conflicting position on its strategy towards Iraq. He stated that they hold the Americans accountable for the mismanagement and that they call for the American party to be more impartial in support of Arab issues. Nevertheless, he explained that recently, he had noticed the US still has a set of reservations related to its relationship with Islamists, including those who are moderates. Al Dalal claims that there is a state of reconsideration that some observers attribute to the fact that reform proposals which were presented in 2004 and the following years, contributed to Islamists becoming members of parliament and assuming power in a number of states. Accordingly, the persistence of such proposal may lead to the fact that a large number of Islamists would take hold of power in many Arab states and this may not serve the interests of the American strategy and its relationship with existing regimes and governments in the region. Al Dalal stated that this point has been made clear for the American party in recent meetings. He asserted that communications exist between both parties; however, dialogue is conducted in the most objective manner. Finally, he states that the objective is to establish communication and convey the viewpoints that best serve societies and countries in the most objective, fair and equitable manner.
Washington, rather than the Islamists, is accused of being the sole party responsible for the deterioration of dialogue with Islamist parties owing to its “concern” towards the victory of Islamists in Egypt and Hamas in the latest parliamentary elections in the respective countries. Heshmat agrees with this idea and believes that the victory of Hamas had caused the Americans to be fearful. Heshmat stated that the success of 80 candidates and the failure of 40 others from the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliament led the Americans to reconsider their position on the issue of dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian regime wants to use the Muslim Brotherhood to inspire fear in other groups, he claims. On the other hand, Americans are worried by the Islamist wave. Heshmat believes that the fact that the two sides exploit the Muslim Brotherhood is probably what delays dialogue.
Al Dalal supported Heshmat’s claim that Americans differ in dealing with Islamists from country to country. He explained that they may not agree with Hamas owing to the nature of the conflict and the nature of their support for Israel, therefore, there might not be dialogue because of this position. However, they may agree with the Islamic Party in Iraq and may have some points in common points with this party and consider it relatively moderate, therefore they are willing to deal with it. Al Dalal explains that because of the nature of the Islamic stream in Kuwait and relative democracy existing in the country, there is another outlook adopted towards Kuwaiti Islamists. He explains that Americans do not treat all parties equally and whilst they widen the scope for Washington’s relations with others with respect to dialogue and discussion and try to identify the viewpoints of others, they close the doors to some such as Hamas in Palestine. There is a state of give and take with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in accordance with the nature of the American administration’s relationship with the Egyptian regime and the limits of this relationship, al Dalal explained. He continued to say that in Kuwait, there are still some channels of dialogue, which convey different viewpoints transparently and clearly. With regards to the Palestinian cause, he explained that his party expressed its support for national and Islamic resistance against Israel in the recent war despite American rejection of this support. Ever since the establishment of the movement in 1991, a specific approach was adopted concerning certain issues, al Dalal explained. For example, his movement supported the Islamic Party in Iraq as it joined the political arena. Furthermore, it condemned the actions of Al Qaeda and the resistance that led to the killings of civilians and the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure. On the other hand it has also denounced the American position and the method with which the US is dealing with Iraq. He states that in Kuwait, they believe that the public interest of Iraq lies in the fact that people of Iraq are more aware of their interests, however, they call upon all Islamic streams including the Muslim Brotherhood and others to seek balance and objectivity that serve the best interest of all communities in general.
There are some parties that defend the launch of dialogue between America and the Muslim Brotherhood on the basis that moderate Islamic movements would “benefit” the United States, especially in light of the continual rise in hard-line ideologies that support the use of violence. Former American Ambassador to Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer told Asharq Al Awsat that allies of Arab governments should not be concerned about dialogue with Islamic organizations in the region given the lengthy relationship between the United States and its allies in the region. He stated that the US addresses many parties all over the world but holding dialogue does not necessarily mean that it is convinced by what others defend, but grants the opportunity to understand what others are saying and to understand their viewpoints.
As for Marina Ottaway, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she defended the idea of dialogue saying that the US should address Islamists and should talk to every party that wants to talk to the US whether the US likes that party or not. She explains that dialogue should not be confined to the parties that agree with [US] viewpoints. However, Ottaway explains that dialogue with Islamists does not mean that the United States will restore its lost credibility in the Middle East as the issue is not that simple. Ottaway believes that there is nothing the Bush administration could do to reinstate its credibility in the region and that the US may be forced to talk with certain Islamist organizations that want to participate in the political process and form their own political parties in order to better understand these movements. She states that the lack of dialogue in principle does not actually help matters and gives the example of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which the US did not talk to for several decades. The American Ambassador to the United Nations talked to representatives of the PLO in the United Nations and it is evident how greatly the situation has changed. She finally adds that the United States is trying to support Fatah against Hamas after a long period in which it considered Fatah a dangerous movement.