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Dialogue with non-violent Islamists is vital for Middle East reform, argues ippr
Dialogue with non-violent Islamists is vital for Middle East reform, argues ippr
Ahead of President Obama’s speech to the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly tomorrow (23 September), where he is expected to make a major announcement about his plans for Middle East peace, leading think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) argues that serious and sustained dialogue with non-violent Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa is essential if progress is to be made towards political reform in the region.
Saturday, September 26,2009 22:34
ippr

Ahead of President Obama’s speech to the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly tomorrow (23 September), where he is expected to make a major announcement about his plans for Middle East peace, leading think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) argues  that serious and sustained dialogue with non-violent Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa is essential if progress is to be made towards political reform in the region.

ippr’s new report Political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa  argues that dialogue with non-violent political Islamist parties and movements should be an urgent priority for the Obama administration and its allies, including the UK, as key to achieving long-term stability in the region. Such groups also often represent the best organised and most popular opposition to existing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. To date, western contact with these groups has been sporadic rather than strategic, limited by concerns about their views on particular social and religious issues. This approach must change if a more constructive form of engagement is to emerge.

Andy Hull, Senior Research Fellow at ippr, says:

“A renewed commitment by President Obama to resolving the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is very welcome, but cannot be pursued in isolation from attempts to promote security and prosperity across the Middle East and North Africa as a whole.

 “The West has spent decades paying lip service to the idea of political freedoms while simultaneously propping up authoritarian leaders who lack democratic legitimacy across the region. This approach has hindered much-needed political reform.  

"It has also helped to create an environment that is not conducive to long-term stability or development in the region, yet both are necessary for western powers to protect their considerable interests there.

“Seeking by peaceful means a more plural politics in the Middle East and North Africa is in keeping with the UK’s interests and with its values."

ippr’s report argues that as well as working towards a sustainable peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, the UK and other western governments must also:

  • Rethink their political strategy for engaging with non-violent Islamist parties and movements across the Middle East and North Africa, and be more proactive in creating channels for serious and sustained dialogue with them.  Without giving Islamists preferential treatment, there is scope for more consistently involving them in debate about broader relations between Europe, the US and the Middle East and North Africa alongside other non-governmental actors, including the region’s secular opposition politicians.
  • Engage with the political as well as the religious values of Islamist parties and movements. There must be recognition that a solid basis for engagement cannot be built without some attempt to find common political ground. Western policymakers should move away from their focus on ‘testing’ the democratic credentials of Islamist movements, and concentrate instead on discussion of the range of political, economic and social issues that concern these groups, many of which are shared by their western counterparts.
  • Be more even-handed in condemning all human rights abuses in the Middle East and North Africa, including those perpetrated against Islamists by the region’s authoritarian regimes. A visible change in approach here could go some way towards repairing the West’s tarnished image in the region, and would counter the charge that the US, UK and other governments tend to turn a blind eye when human rights violations are committed by authoritarian governments.
  • Display greater consistency in pressing authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa to open up their political systems.  Reform of undemocratic political structures in the region may well benefit Islamist parties and movements, and this will pose uncomfortable dilemmas for western governments. But an approach that seeks to ignore these political currents is neither morally or strategically defensible.

Notes to editors

Political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa  by Alex Glennie is available to download. 

  1. In recent weeks, US Special Envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, has launched a new US initiative to drive forward peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.  Focus has been on some of the major sticking points in the negotiations, including the question of the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
  2. Indicating the importance of this issue to the US administration, it is anticipated that President Obama will use his speech at the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 23 to make a major announcement about his plans for Middle East peace, which will possibly involve a mini summit between Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
tags: Engage / Moderate / Obama / Promotion / Islamists / Islamic movement / Middle East / North Africa / political reform / Obama / Moderate / Engagement
Posted in Islamic Movements  
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