The Caravan

Talking to Islamists in Power

The Arab autocrats have been toppled, the Islamists have stepped forth.  Islamists have come to various degrees of power in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt.  Some prophesy an outcome in Syria destined to favor the Muslim Brotherhood if and when the Assad dictatorship is overthrown.  Neighboring Turkey has shown the way.  The ballot box has aided the Islamists.  How do powers beyond deal with the Islamist ascendency?  How will the Islamists adjust to the demands and limitations of the international order of states?  Over the next two weeks, a panel of distinguished contributors takes up this vexing challenge from a variety of viewpoints. Return each day for a new perspective.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution with 30 years of government experience in the CIA and the National Security Council; Leon Wieseltier is the Literary Editor of The New Republic; Robert Satloff is the executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy with seminal studies of Islamic fundamentalism and the Hashemite kingdom;  Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Itamar Rabinovich is a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria; Cengiz Candar is a senior political columnist for the Turkish daily Radikal and a renowned television and print commentator on Middle Eastern politics; Marius Deeb teaches Middle Eastern studies at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a prolific scholar on Syria and Lebanon and the Arab world; Professor Russell Berman, Professor Charles Hill and Professor Fouad Ajami – senior fellows at The Hoover Institution.

Print Friendly
Fouad Ajami

Patience

These Islamists favored by the ballot box are not the Islamists of yore, hunted down by the mukhabarat (secret police).  This is not the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1940s and 50s – conspirators pledged to the destruction of the ruling order.  The new men may quote the legendary Sayyid Qutb who emerged out of the hothouse of that period, only to be sent to the gallows in 1966, but they are made of different material.  Nor are we confronted here by the jihadists of Al Qaeda.  There is no Ayman Zawahiri here, forged by torture and disappointment, leaving the Cairene world he knew for the caves and safe houses in the AfPak wilderness – let alone the killer Abu  Musab Zarqawi, a half educated prison bully hunting down the Shia and the American infidels.

The new breed is a worldly lot, they had seen the wages of violence and had recoiled from it.  They had wearied of being on the margins of political experience.  They disdained the Arab rulers, but worked the small political space that the rulers had left unfilled, and pushed at its limits.  They were no match for the officers and kings who dominated the Arab world.  After all, men of the Muslim Brotherhood had sat in domesticated parliaments that the rulers rigged, displayed a hunger for acceptance and official favor.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Marius Deeb

Nothing to Talk About

THE ISLAMISTS WHO CAME TO POWER NOT THROUGH THE BALLOT BOX

Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza, in February 2006, because of its prominent role in the Second Intifadah (September 2000 until February 2005) and the untimely death of Yasir Arafat in November 2004. Hamas, which is the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, has no genuine interest in democratic elections and pluralism, and therefore it was not surprising that it took over the Gaza Strip by force in June 2007. This action was decided in cahoots with the Syria-Iran-Hizballah axis, and its objective was to undermine Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hamas also provoked a war with Israel in December 2008-January 2009. To talk to Hamas will lead nowhere as Hamas is against peace with Israel, and all attempts to reconcile Hamas with the Palestinian Authority have failed.

In Lebanon, the prime minister, Najib Miqati, was hand- picked in June 2011 by Syria and Hizballah. The latter managed to do so because they have continued to use force and the threat of force to prevent the Cedar Revolution majority from ruling Lebanon . Despite the fact that the 2005 parliamentary elections led to the victory of the Cedar Revolution coalition, Syria and Hizballah have continued to use force. Hizballah provoked a war with Israel in July-August 2006, and Syria sent the jihadist, Fath al-Islam militia to northern Lebanon in May 2007 which was defeated by the Lebanese Army. Many prominent journalists and parliamentarians who were leaders in the Cedar Revolution have been assassinated. The parliamentary elections of June 2009 resulted in a victory for the Cedar Revolution coalition, but the Syrian proxy Hizballah threatened to use force and imposed Najib Miqati as Prime Minister. Talking to the latter, therefore, will produce no results as he is dependent on his Syrian and Hizballah masters.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Cengiz Candar

Turkey’s Offer

If the fight for Syria is the dominant issue in Turkish foreign policy, an observer can be forgiven the conclusion that Arakan is the second. The plight of the Rohingyas, the Muslim minority of Myanmar, who are trapped in the sectarian violence in the Arakan region of that country, has emerged as a major issue for Turkey’s leaders, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. They are devoted Islamists. No Muslim cause is too distant for them. During the Holy month of Ramadan, every day, there was always an opportunity to refer to the cause of Arakan, and on one such occasion, speaking at the “Fifth Traditional Fast-Breaking Dinner for Foreign Mission Chiefs & Ambassadors,” Prime Minister Erdogan urged the United Nations to take up the cause of the Muslims of Myanmar. ”Today people and humanity are being assassinated in the Arakan region.” “We call on the United Nations to take action on this issue.”

Turkish politics have become suffused with religious symbolism and concerns, a renowned trade union leader spoke in the same vein as Mr. Erdogan: “The world must also show an interest in Myanmar for the same reason they show interest in events in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan.”

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Itamar Rabinovich

The policy debate on the proper response to the challenges presented by the recent surge in Islamist power and influence in the Middle East is also a matter of geography. The position obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt or Turkey’s quest for a hegemonial role under an Islamist Prime Minister are seen differently from the distant capital of the American superpower, from the concerned capitals of Mediterranean European countries and from Israel, Egypt’s neighbor and the object of Islamist wrath.

For Israel, the Islamist challenge is manifold and the policy choices complex. The Iranian regime openly calls for Israel’s destruction. It established itself on the shores of the Mediterranean north and south of Israel, seeks regional hegemony and a nuclear arsenal. A dialogue is out of the question and Israel’s policy is clear: to combat Iranian influence and to abort its quest for nuclear weapons. The debate in Israel is whether it should, if all other efforts fail, resort to a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The proponents of this option argue that a regime of deterrence is not feasible when Ayatollahs possessed by an apocalyptic vision are on the other side of the equation.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Russell Berman

Lessons from Europe can shed light on the challenge of Islamism in power. The experience of two world wars seemed to prove that Germans could never accept democracy. Yet Germany became an exemplary liberal democracy and the anchor for European stability. This transformation points to prospects in the Arab world: can Islamism evolve from the cultural radicalism of its extremist wings into a moderate force for modernization? What can the US do to promote this evolution?

There are plenty of reasons for skepticism. Islamism led to 9/11. Islamist sympathizers sheltered Bin Laden in Abbotobad and fought American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Islamist agitators still preach radical messages across Europe and recruit new foot soldiers for jihad. Vigilant security strategies measures remain necessary.

Yet the field of Islamist politics is not monolithic. Extremist Imams in the mosques of London are not the same as mujahideen in the border regions of Pakistan, and they in turn are far away from legislators in Ankara and Cairo. We need sophistication to recognize these differences (which means developing more effective intelligence networks). We need to understand how operate in this complex landscape. And we need to distinguish between incorrigible enemies and potential friends.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Reuel Marc Gerecht

Engaging Fundamentalists

Given the growing strength and electoral triumphs of fundamentalists in the Middle East, many in Washington fear that the administration just can’t handle Islamists. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been the intellectual mother ship of virtually every radical Islamic movement, including al-Qa’ida. Comments by senior American diplomats and intelligence officials about the Brotherhood’s “moderation” are certainly worrisome. Could Barack Hussein Obama’s naiveté, so apparent in his early desire to engage Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khameneh’i, manifest itself again among the Arabs?

Probably, but it won’t matter. Engagement isn’t likely to go far. Muslim fundamentalists fear us more than we fear them. Our touch—especially the West’s unstoppable and intimate focus on women—is poisonous, if not lethal, to their vision of a good Muslim society. Even if President Obama and his minions believe and act as if there is considerable common ground between the United States and electorally triumphant fundamentalists, Islamists will put severe limits on how much American officials can be “duped.” Political correctness may at times cripple American counterterrorism (the case of Major Nidal Malik Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas, is a good example), but its foreign-policy equivalent—mirror-imaging American views upon foreigners—has been unable, even under Mr. Obama, to reshape fundamentally the relations between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Robert Satloff

For more than two hundred years, the United States has talked with Islamists in power. What separates that historical experience with today’s challenge is that U.S. leaders are facing with increasing frequency the unique set of problems posed by Islamists who come to power via the ostensibly democratic means of popular elections. Because of this, the “New Islamists” can claim a certain legitimacy that empowered Islamists previously could not assert.

The Arab uprisings of 2010-2012 have injected a new dimension to America’s engagement with Islamists in power. Neither the Saudis nor the Iranians – the archetypal cases of contemporary Islamist regimes – base their claim to legitimacy on a traditional democratic foundation. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a tribal/religious monarchy and while the Islamic Republic of Iran may call itself a “republic,” it is such in name only, with the “rule of the jurisconsult” – vilayet faqih – supreme above the president and parliament. Similarly, other Islamist rulers – in Gaza and Sudan, for example – have never put their hold on power to a free, fair and contested vote. But the Islamist leaders who have emerged in Tunisia and Egypt – and those who may emerge elsewhere in the region, such as Syria – are different. While their hold on power is uncertain, and their commitment to democracy, human rights and liberal values highly suspect they have a legitimacy that comes from popular revolution and internationally recognized election victories that earlier Islamists could not claim.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Leon Wieseltier

Turbulence

These are the most vexing questions of this historical moment, and I deny that anybody has the answers to them yet. Looking backward, I think that two observations can be made with some confidence. The first is that the only emancipated Arab country that did not elect an Islamist was the one Arab country in which the United States and its allies robustly intervened. I refer, of course, to Libya. Whether this is correlation or causation, it is certainly not coincidence. In Egypt and in Syria, by contrast, we have almost no levers of influence as regards the political direction of the change. President Obama’s assumption that American intrusion upon these events can only be for ill is a tremendous mistake. The second is that the rise of the Islamist parties in Egypt is owed in part to the disgraceful abdication of the political sphere by the liberal Twitterers who made the revolution. These fools pride themselves on their “leaderlessness” (they are abetted in this by any number of ideologues of the Internet who erroneously teach that “the network” is an appropriate metaphor for political life) while the authoritarians, religious and secular, the mullahs and the generals, have their leaders and seek resolutely to lead. The techies of Tahrir overthrew the dictator and left the field. They do not wish to live fiercely; but liberalism, too, must be fierce.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly