Washington, D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat- There are three major events that have shaped the Western world’s knowledge of political Islam; namely, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the 1981 assassination of the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat and the 9/11 attacks. Amidst these incidents that have defined the negative Western view of political Islam, there was the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad in which the US administration backed the Mujahideen only to abandon them after the Soviet departure. But the shift in the relationship between the Americans and Mujahideen in Afghanistan was not the driving force behind America’s identification of political Islam as an important variable in the region. It was not as a result of this that they began to produce general policies to deal with Islamists, regardless of the intellectual, ideological, political and geographical differences that exist across political Islam. After all, Afghanistan is not the heart of American strategic interests in the Middle East.
The 1980s was the decade that witnessed most of the key shifts in political Islam. In 1989, the world saw the Islamic National Front gain power in both Sudan and Jordan, and witnessed other Islamic groups actively participating in parliamentary elections in Egypt and Algeria, in which they achieved considerable results. However, most regional Islamist organizations sympathized with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and opposed sending American forces to liberate it from Iraqi occupation in 1991.
A delegation of leading Muslim Brotherhood figures in the region headed for Iraq for mediation. It is key events, such as this one, that showed the organization’s capability and the extent of transnational relations between the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the region. For the first time in the early 1990s, the US administration embarked on an attempt to lay down foundations for the US policy towards the brotherhood organizations in the region. It was Edward Djerejian, at that time the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, who led the initiative with a paper he presented during the term of George Bush, Senior, in which he reviewed America’s policies and the Islamist expansion in the region and stated that “Islamists in the region are not enemies”.
However, it is the developments in the last two decades which have perhaps led to other conclusions. Since September 11th, some US administration officials and members of the politically elite have labeled Islamists as a threat, and the narrow steps taken towards openness with the Muslim Brotherhood movements in the region were halted or at least obstructed as a result of the 2003 American war in Iraq. With the exception of the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, no further meetings have been held between American diplomats and leading figures and activists in the Muslim Brotherhood, as was the case prior to the war in 2003.
American policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood became questionable and raised some allegations. The accusation leveled against America by regional Muslim Brotherhood groups, suggested that it wanted “pluralism without Islamists” and that Washington was changing its policies towards the brotherhood with the ebb and flow of governments. They argued that the doors to dialogue were opened when agreement existed between successive governments, however the doors were firmly shut if a government adopted a stringent policy towards the brotherhood.
Asharq al Awsat investigates the relationship between America and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. In 6 installments, attempts will be made to answer a number of questions through interviews with officials in the US administration, including Scott Carpenter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Partnership Initiative, Daniel Kurtzer, former US Ambassador to Cairo, who is currently professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University, and Denis Ross, the Clinton Administration’s Middle East peace envoy, who is currently fellow of the Washington Institute (for Near East Policy), and researchers at American research centers closely linked to the administration, such as American enterprise, Carnegie Center, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, New America Foundation, as well as leading Muslim Brotherhood figures in the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of Jordanian brotherhood, the Justice and Development Party, the political wing of Moroccan brotherhood, the Constitutional Movement in Kuwait, the political wing of Kuwait’s brotherhood and leading figures from Egypt’s brotherhood, including Deputy Supreme Guide Muhammad Habib.
The six installments deal with a number of issues, including the relationship between America and the Brotherhood, how the relationship evolved and Djerejian’s role in the early 1990s in launching the idea of America’s dialog with “moderate” Islamists as part of the American foreign policy in the region.
The series will also address a number of questions such as: How does America view the Muslim Brotherhood? What are the various criteria that determine America’s relations with Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the region? How does America regard the International Muslim Brotherhood (IMB)? Does it regard it as an umbrella that covers all brotherhood organizations in the region? Is there sufficient information about the International Muslim Brotherhood’s position, funding and role in coordination with the rest of brotherhood organizations in the region? How does the modus operandi in the US State Department affect America’s knowledge of the international organization? What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of dialog with the Americans? What is the role of the International Muslim Brotherhood? What are the differences between the various brotherhood organizations? What are the US administration’s conditions for dealing with the brotherhood organizations in the region? Why does America deal with the Muslim Brotherhood organizations on case-by-case local basis? What are the dialog issues between the Americans and Brotherhood organizations in the region? What are the conditions for dialog with the Americans from the perspective of leading brotherhood figures?
Contrary to the present time, America’s relationship with regional brotherhood organizations was not hostile in 1950s. In light of the Cold War and Egyptian President, Jamal Abdul Nasser’s socialist trends and hostility towards the Americans and Egypt’s brotherhood, the doors of communication were open for America and the Brotherhood. This alliance was intended to undermine Abdul Nasser and confront the Soviet influence in the region. However, due to political hardships and the “closed-door” policy, meetings could not take place in Egypt. As a result, they took place abroad, particularly in Europe and the Arabian Gulf, and ended with various results; from financial to political support. The relationship turned hostile due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the Afghan coup d’etat. Prior to this, America did not have a firm policy on direct dialog with the Brotherhood.
In the initial stages of the US government’s attempts to develop a clear policy towards moderate Islamists, Kurtzer, an ambassador involved in making contacts with Muslim Brotherhood members during his service in Egypt told Asharq Al-Awsat that for over 15 years, America has been interested in dialogue with the so-called moderate Islamists in the Middle East region, while in the early 1990s, Djerejian delivered a key speech in which he said that, Dialogue with moderate Islamists is part of the administration’s policy during the transitional period between the presidential terms of George Bush Sr. and Clinton. A red line was always drawn with regards to dialogue with organizations practicing terrorism because the successive administrations did not want to engage in discussions with such organizations. During the past decade, Congress requested a list of foreign terrorist organizations. The difference here is between organizations involved in terrorism with which the US administration does not engage in dialogue, whether of Islamic or of any religious background and any other organizations not involved in terrorism. Kurtzer stressed that during that period US concerns were not the ideologies behind these organizations, but rather their actions and whether they practice terrorism.
Kurtzer also revealed that during his time as ambassador to Egypt he had met with various Islamist figures affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood outside of the Embassy, but had not met any official Brotherhood figures.
A US State Department official confirmed to Asharq al Awsat that dialogue with Islamic groups is not a current concern for the US administration, however, he added that US policies clearly state that banned groups are never to be dealt with. Discussions are opened with regards to specific issues and not merely for the sake of opening dialogue with Islamists because they gained power on the Arab street. If there are reasons, dialogue will take place, however if there is no specific or known reason, discussions will not take place.
Kurtzer is of the belief that the current US administration is engaged in talks with Islamic organizations in the region in Might be a calculated move.
Kurtzer also stated that there are a large number of individuals from various parties within the Egyptian parliament, who are known to have ties with Islamists and if the Egyptian government accepts this, the Americans cannot be more radical.
It is notable that the intellectual and legal differences between regional brotherhood organizations concerning a number of issues may not fully account for the varied American policies towards these organizations. Washington has good relationships with the brotherhoods of Kuwait, Morocco and Iraq but it has less warm relations with Jordan’s brotherhood, despite it being a legal political party like those in Kuwait, Morocco and Iraq. Also, it shunned Hamas though it came to power in a legitimate election.
Washington’s relationship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is marked with disregard despite their powerful presence as elected political force in parliament. What is also confusing is that the American dealing with regional Muslim Brotherhood organizations was not positively affected by, for example, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, which was approved by the US State Department in 2004 and intended to support public freedoms, political openness and the promotion of the participation of women.
Although the initiative was aimed at opening the way for the moderate Islamist current, by pulling the rug from under the feet of the extremist currents and urging regional governments to take steps to avoid forcing tens of thousands of young people into fanaticism or extremism, it also intended to allow the liberal current to take the stage in Arab politics. However, what happened was that Islamists were in fact the ones who benefited the most from the initiative (in the parliamentary elections, as was the case in both Egypt and Palestine). Islamists suggest that this led America to take a few backward steps with regard to supporting political openness. This can be noticed in the way Washington turned a blind eye to the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood figures in Egypt.
Recently, the Egyptian authorities have detained Khairat al Shater, the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with a number of Brotherhood activists. They also closed down the Islamic Distribution and Publishing House in Sayyeda Zainab neighborhood and Dar al Tiba’a for Publishing and Distributing. They also sealed off an outlet of the Distribution and Publication House in Qaliub, closed down Dar al Bashair in al Haram neighborhood, Nasr City-based Al Ilam bookshop, a printing press of another publishing house in 10th of Ramadan City and Al Hyat pharmaceutical company. All this before President Hosni Mubarak declared that the Muslim Brotherhood posed a danger to Egypt’s security, in a possible escalation of the crackdown against them.
Scott Carpenter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Partnership Initiative, told Asharq al Awsat that it is wrong to deduce from the existence of the initiative that the United States only recognizes the Islamists as opposition forces in the region.
The reason for this according to Carpenter is that the situation and the prevailing expectations in the region are that the active and reliable opposition forces are the Islamic parties, which Carpenter disputes.
People in the region expect America to focus on the idea that Islamists are the existent opposition force which is not necessarily the case since there are various Islamic groups. In Morocco, and Yemen, they are sharing power. When discussion takes place between the US and Islamists, the same issues are raised from women rights, Power sharing, Free trade, Economic development and capital freedom – Difficult issues that are related to the world today.
The question according to Carpenter is the position of Islamic organizations towards these issues, and that talking to a given group does not necessarily mean that the US backs it.
Carpenter said that the goals of the reform initiative are openness and involving all constituents of society in the open political practice. “There is no doubt that Islamic parties are part of these constituents or at least should be. But they are not the only group that has to benefit from political openness. This is why we spend a long time talking to governments in the region about the important need to create mechanisms for the rise of political parties, and to allow other elements of society, that do not have the organizational capabilities, to present themselves as an alternative, in order to arrive at real political pluralism in society. The issues of globalization and modernization are not simple but complicated ones. The idea that one political group has the answers to all queries is not possible. What we want to see in the region is active and dynamic pluralism.”
But the situation may be more complicated than this, as there is real fear of Islamists because of some ideas that the Americans fear might affect their interests. In this regard, another prominent State Department official who served in the Middle East said, “The dialogue with moderate Islamists is an old debate. First, we have to respect people’s religious feelings. Second, if we believe in and are faithful to the idea of democracy – and I believe so, despite everything in the region – we have to recognize that Islamists have the right to take part in civil life, and we have recognized that. For example, we are against Hamas, but Bush recognized their triumph in the election. There has always been a sort of American duplicity towards the issue, because we in principle respect the concept of popular participation and the right of everyone to participate in civil life. This involves the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the Islamic organizations. At the same time, however, we are not in a state of blindness. We know that these parties in general represent an anti-American political option and criticize America. This does not mean entire American rejection but means admitting that there is a problem. There is American dialogue with Islamists that exists on a modest and simple scale in some Arab countries, but this does not mean it exists in a systematic way or on a high level. In the case of Jordan, there are ordinary contacts and sometimes an exchange of views with some people. There is another problem—skepticism of some Arab regimes.
The Egyptian government, for example, always thinks of a conspiracy if the Americans talk to Islamists. The matter is exaggerated. There are contacts but no more than contacts. In principle, we are not against the brotherhood’s participation in civil life.”
In the last year of the presidential term of George Bush Senior and after the Second Gulf War and the calling for holding the Madrid peace conference, with the attendance of the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, the atmosphere indicated possible reformulation of the American policy in the Middle East against a less hostile background. At the heart of that were the policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Against this background on June 2, 1992, Edward Djerejian, who served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs between 1991 and 1993 and as Ambassador to Syria between 1989 and 1991 and to Israel in 1993, presented a vision on the American policy and interests in the Middle East, including the relationship with Islamists.
In his proposal, Djerejian said that the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War between the Eastern and Western camps had put the world in a new mode that he called “collective engagement,” pointing out that such “collective engagement” had been manifested in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Djerejian defined the American intentions in the Near East as two goals only—namely, the pursuit to bring about just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and all its neighbors, including Palestine, and seeking security arrangements that could ensure stability and access to the Gulf oil reserves.
Djerejian then talked of the so-called “Fundamental Values”, saying that, Politics in the Middle East has increasingly focused on change and openness…The role of religion has become more apparent, and much attention is being paid to the phenomenon labeled political Islam, the Islamic revival, or Islamic fundamentalism. Some say that it is causing a widening gap between Western values and those of the Muslim world. It is important to assess this phenomenon carefully so that we do not fall victim to misplaced fears or faulty perceptions…The Cold War is not being replaced with a new competition between Islam and the West. It is evident that the Crusades have been over for a long time.