POMED on engaging Islamist movements.
POMED on engaging Islamist movements.
Sunday, February 14,2010 11:09
By Shadi Hamid

Since we're talking about the Muslim Brotherhood this morning: Shadi Hamid and Amanda Kadlec have a good new POMED paper out on engaging political Islamist movements, like the Brotherhood and Jordan's Islamic Action Front.

The paper traces the unimpressive history of U.S. and European engagement with Islamist groups and offers some policy suggestions. More importantly, it does a good job of explaining why Western governments should engage with Islamists.

That question normally leads to a reductive answer -- either "because they provide social services" or "because they're popular." Both of those are true, but they don't tell the whole story: Many Islamist parties are popular because they take democracy more seriously than ruling parties. They tend to be less corrupt, more responsive to their constituents, and more familiar with local and national issues.

By fighting corruption and providing critical services, Islamists are often seen as the only viable alternative to ineffective state leadership. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to gauge the sources of Islamist popularity. Are they popular because of the specifically "Islamist" components of their message and program - for instance their unabashed social conservatism - or their ability to deliver to constituents?

Let's take that a step further: If it's "difficult to gauge" why Islamist parties are popular, we can deduce that at least some of their supporters are motivated by an interest in good governance. In other words, some people support these groups because they're effective political parties who happen to be Islamists, and not the other way around.

Those kinds of supporters -- people interested in practical matters, not social conservatism -- will serve as an ongoing moderating influence on Islamist parties.

Hamid and Kadlec also raise a good point about American policy in the region, in light of recent policy in Iraq (where the U.S. engaged insurgents) and Afghanistan (where the U.S. wants to engage the Taliban).

It is ironic that engaging with some of America's most avowed enemies is on the table, yet the U.S. has not moved to open formal contacts with groups that have long committed to nonviolence and democratic participation such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the world's most influential nonviolent Islamist group. As Secretary Rice explained in response to a question after a June 2005 speech in Cairo, "we have not engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood. And we won't." It remains to be seen whether we will.

Obviously the scenarios are quite different. The U.S. isn't running a counterinsurgency in Egypt; it's trying to manage a diplomatic relationship with a government viewed (rightly or wrongly) as crucial for regional stability.

At some point, though, Hosni Mubarak is going to die or step down, and all of Egypt's internal problems -- which Mubarak has restrained but hasn't fixed -- will boil over. Many Egyptians will want the Brotherhood to play a role in the post-Mubarak era. So it would be beneficial for the U.S. to cultivate a relationship with the group -- which is popular, effective, and committed to non-violence and a fairly liberal agenda -- before it takes a more prominent role, not after. (The same holds true for other Islamist groups, like the IAF.)

Anyway, this is a long way of saying: read the paper!

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