Washington D. C., Asharq Al-Awsat- “Fear” is a key word when considering the future of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the US. This multifaceted fear can be explained for a number of reasons. There is the well-known anxiety of what the Islamists would do if they came to power in one country or another and how this would affect American interests. There is the fear that US relations with regional allies will deteriorate if they began dialogue with moderate Islamic organizations, who have proven to have street influence and are capable of winning elections. The third concern is that a dialogue is not opened with these groups, and one of them rise to power. It is due to this mixed bag of fears that is difficult to lay down a clear US policy. A study written by David Shankar and published by Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in November 2006, discussed the various strategies that could be considered if the Islamists rose to power through an election.
The first strategy Shankar suggests is to isolate Islamist groups politically and financially by first drawing a clear distinction between “non-Islamist Muslims” and “Islamists” and secondly increasing the political cost for governments or parties dealing or allying with Islamists (including banning financial grants and imposing economic constraints). The second strategy is to delay the spread of democracy in the region, based on a refutation of George Bush’s fundamental notion on the close relation between political despotism and the spread of terrorism [supporting evidence is the existence of terrorist movements in democratic states such as the Basque National Liberation Movement in Spain, the Japanese Red Army in Japan and the Red Brigades in Italy]. Delaying the spread of democracy in the region will prevent Islamists from coming to power but will not affect the course of the American war on terror. The third strategy is to integrate moderate Islamists without waiting to strengthen the liberal current; however, this option should be resorted to along with consolidating regional cultural and educational reforms and recognizing that this option shall not be without cost.
But why discuss the future of Muslim Brotherhood/US relations? Do some American officials and researchers believe that there are common interests shared by both parties? And if so, is it better to put the future of relations on the table? The answer is yes; there are some who believe in the possibility and necessity of dialog to maintain US interests in the region.
Discussing this point, a key US State Department official told Asharq al Awsat that there is an agenda of common interests between Islamists and the Americans in some regional states, but that America does not want to publicly show its interest in one group or another for fear of the so-called American “kiss of death”. After all, any political current that is directly backed by America has many shadows of doubt cast across it.
Speaking to Asharq al Awsat, on the condition of remaining anonymous, the American official said, “I think there can be an agenda of common interests between Islamists and the US administration; however, this should not to be overestimated.
The fact is that there is currently no common agenda, although many people think it already exists. For example, we criticize the Syrian regime, as does the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, however this does not imply that we work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria or work against the Syrian regime. So, one has to be careful to avoid exaggeration. There is a common agenda but this does not mean we work closely together. We adhere to American non-intervention in internal partisan policies, we support political process transparency and election monitoring, but we do not want to select favorites because we fear the American “kiss of death”. We reject the “kiss of death” notion for any Arab world party or direct US support because this is forbidden and this does not serve the interests of America or these parties.”
For his part, John Alterman, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, stresses that there is increasing understanding of political Islam in Washington, pointing out that regional governments no longer monopolize political power. He cited last summers events, when the Middle East witnessed an unprecedented escalation of violence, both in Iraq (between the Americans and the “resistance” forces or “militants”, who are armed organizations rather than governments) and in Lebanon as a war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah (which is not a government either), indicating that this is a reason for concern. “If we look at governments alone, we will miss part of the picture,” he said, explaining that the rise of armed organizations, non-official political bodies and Islamic organizations has to be accompanied by changes in how American policy in the region is formulated. “America often talks to Islamists. In the cases where dialogue does not exist, the main obstacles arise from some rejections by regional governments, rather than from hesitation by the US administration. But if we are serious, we have to interact with politically active groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely a key part of local political interactions in the region. However, questions will remain about how Islamists would act if they gained more political power and about the relationship between political Islam and violence”, he told Asharq al Awsat.
Alterman said there must be ongoing discussions in Washington on the relationship with Islamic organizations. In fact, one reason why it is difficult to determine the US policies dealing with Islamists is the existence of the push and pull between some State Department officials and US ambassadors to the region. State Department officials may propose contacts with one Islamist party while embassies in respective capitals are more interested in maintaining diplomatic relations, and even in consolidating such relations, especially with America’s key allies in the region. In this respect Alterman says, “There is a difference between realizing information and wisdom. There are people inside the administration who have information but it is not integrated correctly so as to be comprehensible to senior administration officials and therefore the whole picture is sometimes lost. Most foreign US policies are put in force by the various US embassies in world’s capitals and embassies depend on the existence of strong relations with the governments of these countries. So on the whole, in the administration there may be people who believe in opening dialogues with Islamists, but the focus of embassies in respective countries is focused on strong bilateral relations.”
If the American fear of angering Washington’s regional allies plays a key role in formulating the future of relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Americans, there is another fear factor that has to be considered. Attention must be paid to the agendas and goals of the Islamists, and consideration must be taken into whether they will not harm US interests in the region or turn against the principles of pluralism that brought them to power.
Marina Ottaway, the Director of Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, says that there is a mistrust, even of the so-called “moderate Islamists”, as it is suggested that they are not loyal to democracy, they just use democracy as a means to come to power, and that if they came to power they would turn against democracy. The cause, she explained, is the existence of a deep misunderstanding of Islamists and the view that they are “non-democrats”, as well as the existence of the concept of the clash of civilizations and regarding Islamists as anti civil freedoms.
“I think a dialogue with Islamists will lead to a return to a foreign policy concept that is comparable to the state of affairs during the Cold War-maintaining an interest in a state (the Soviet Union) that poses a great risk to us, rather than going to war. The solution to getting out of this situation is to open dialogue, gain understanding and differentiate between dangerous and non-dangerous groups; after all, there is the international terrorism challenge to consider” she added. While some maintain that the goal of dialogue with Islamists is to improve America’s image in the region, Daniel Kurtzer, the former US Ambassador to Egypt, played down this argument, pointing out that chief among these goals is to explain the US policy; “We believe that if we better understand people, they will be less hostile towards us. We see unfounded reports in American newspapers and this happens in regional countries also. Sometimes newspapers and other media outlets publish and broadcast reports that are simply untrue but people tend to believe them, drawing false conclusions about America.
So the first goal of dialogue is to give an accurate picture of America, of who we are and of what issues concern us. The second goal of dialogue is to listen to the viewpoints of the “other”. We hear of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaa Islamiya, Hamas and Hezbollah. If we talk with people from these organizations, we can better understand their positions on supporting terrorism, peace, Israel, America and many other issues. The third goal of dialogue is for the administration to see whether or not there are practical techniques to move forward. For example, we have in place a policy on spreading democracy in the region. The Bush administration is strict in pushing this, but all administrations sought to make success in spreading democracy. It is important to seek to understand what this means and whether there is a potential to increase the number of states involved in the agenda of democratic transformation, not according to the American culture but rather according to the respective cultures of these countries—the cultures of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” he added.
In fact, there is a correlation between dialogue with Islamists and American efforts to boost political and constitutional reform in the region. Some officials and researchers interviewed by Asharq al Awsat believe that the key is to back the truly moderate Islamic organizations that have introduced remarkable changes to their political and intellectual discourse, actions and practices. Support for these moderate Islamic organizations is accompanied by real pressure on US allies in the region to forge ahead on the track of political reform rather than take a step forward then another step back, as is happening in some regional countries. Amongst the factors that encourage such a proposal is that Islamic organizations in the region have increased internal intellectual debates regarding their agendas and positions towards many issues. They include the Muslim Brotherhood and the Center Party in Egypt, the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait and its debates on the political participation of women, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan and Hamas in Palestine. In this respect, Marina Ottaway says, “There is an ongoing debate within the Islamic movements, such as with the Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt. There is a more moderate, flexible and reformative wing that talks of laws drafted within and conforming to an Islamic framework; yet they do not mean a literal interpretation of Islamic Sharia like the 7th century interpretations. When we talk of the application of sharia laws we mean the hadd penalties and personal status law, not the legislation regulating everyday life, such as traffic laws, water distribution or taxes. The majority of laws in the region today are based on the French laws. There is also the hardline wing within the Muslim Brotherhood leadership that wants the application of sharia.” Ottaway notes that centrist organisations in Egypt, Justice and Development Party in Morocco, the brotherhood in Kuwait have become more flexible. “I do not believe this poses a threat to America,” she emphasized. However, she blamed the US administration for observing the ongoing debate between “moderate” Islamists and “hardline” Islamists (without taking a particular position) to see who will be successful, pointing out that because the victory of those who call for jihad against the “infidels” will not be good for America, the administrations has to do one of two things.
First is to press for the changing of laws regulating political parties and second, allowing the creation of more moderate Islamic political parties. She pointed out that the registration of Egypt’s center party, as a political party was rejected about three times. “However, does America have to back moderate Islamic parties such as the center party? I’m not sure this will help the center party. I think if the US supported any political organization, this would be viewed with suspicion. This has happened with liberal groups in the past. This concern is what the US State Department dubbed “the kiss of death”. It is amongst the difficulties facing the formulation of the American policy towards Islamists in the region.” The American official, however, sought to give regional people and governments a role in solving this dilemma based on his rejection of the statement that “America is both problem and solution” – pointing out that the fate and future of the region lies in the hands of its people rather than the hands of America in spite of Washington’s influence that cannot be underestimated. “There is difference between supporting democracy and supporting parties. American concerns go beyond the issue of Islamists. Where is the region heading and what is its future? What is its future model? Is there any future model or will the situation remain the same? Whose thoughts will prevail? Moderate Islamists or Takfiris and Al Qaeda? This is the 1 million dollar question, and I do not know the answer.
America is marginal in this internal debate, as is Israel. America can facilitate or hinder, but the solution to the issue lies with the Arabs. There is a major problem in the Arab world – a form of inferiority complex. The problem is always with the others – e.g. the Americans and Israelis are to blame. I know that America’s image is a bad one, and that Israel’s is even worse, but the problem is that there exists an obsession with focusing on the external rather than internal factors. I think that local internal factors are more important to consider, for instance, Syria blames the state of internal conditions on the confrontation with Israel, although Syria is not engaged in direct confrontation with Israel (or is only engaged through Lebanon). Syria uses Israel as a cover up for internal mistakes. Regional problems and solutions do not lie with America. We deal with the current regimes and so do the entire world”, the American official pointed out.
The views of American officials differ on Islamists in the region, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. But can one talk of the “friends” and “enemies” of Islamists in Washington? Scott Carpenter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Partnership Initiative, told Asharq al Awsat that one cannot talk of the “friends” and “enemies” of Islamists inside the administration. “We believe that all political players desirous of political participation have to comply with the principles of democracy, pluralism, minority rights, market economy and modernization. I do not believe there are friends and enemies. Rather there is a pragmatic process concerning Islamists and other political forces,” he added. Carpenter said that there are American research centers that encourage dialogue with Islamists, but that this is not binding to policy makers in America since those are mere views expressed. Carpenter cites the Council on Foreign Relations, as one of those centers that encourage dialogue with Islamists. Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is headed by Richard Haas. Amongst its key researchers are Vali Nasr and Noah Feldman, both of whom are defenders of practical dealings with Islamists in the region away from ideology and preconceptions, viewing the shifts taking place on the Islamic map objectively. It is one of the centers that focus on foreign policy issues and seek to offer work sheets and advice to American policy makers. However, the center, which publishes Foreign Affairs journal, was not spared controversy in several situations, last of which was when it hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, to deliver a speech on his vision of world politics as he took part in UN General Assembly meetings. Although it is not easy to determine who in the administration does not want openness with Islamists, Marina Ottaway, draws attention to the fact that within the administration there are neo-Conservative politicians who do not back the idea of openness to Islamists, pointing out that these officials maintain that it is not possible for the American values to coincide with the values of Islamic organizations, even if they are moderate ones. She points out that the neo-Conservative concept suggests that “America does not have to adapt itself to what already exists because it has the power to change it”, and therefore their approach is to surround Islamists or ignore their presence on the regional political scene.