Dialogue manifisto Between Islamists And The West
Dialogue manifisto Between Islamists And The West
Tuesday, March 27,2007 10:37
By Dr. Saad al-Katatny

The importance of dialogue between moderate Muslims and the West is beyond question. To highlight this importance, it is enough to say that Islamists and the West do not live in different corners of the world. There is a significant number of Muslims in the West, and significantly high presence for the West in regions that are predominantly Muslim. Nonetheless, there are considerable misunderstandings between both sides, which are manifested in the high variance of tolerance in the discourse of each side regarding the other.

Historical encounters between Muslims and the West have been mostly confrontational. The first encounter in modern history took place during the era of colonization, when Islamist movements, along with other national forces, were struggling for freedom and independence. At that time, Muslims only saw one perspective of the Western civilization- the colonialist imperialist perspective. Western governments, trying to justify their aggression to their people, portrayed Islamists, as well as other national groups, as underdeveloped, brutal barbarians. This was how Islamists were first introduced to the West in modern history.

During the course of the century, there have been several encounters between Islamists and Western regimes. Most of these encounters were characterized by a high level of confrontation, as they all had to do with the Western biases in applying the international law in the region, specifically with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Again, the confrontation was not between Islamists and the West, but rather between the national forces and the West.

In the last couple of decades of the century, the encounter took a new direction. With the deterioration and then the breakdown of the USSR, most of the region"s regimes started seeking alliances with the “West”. The West, specifically the US Administration, backed these authoritarian regimes. Yet, these regimes were not pushing for good relations with their Western allies. In fact, they were defaming every political group attempting to have relations with the West as "traitors." Until today, the regimes continue to do this.

The regimes also utilized the negative perceptions about Islamists in the West, and capitalized on their monopoly over the media to stress that image through portraying Islamists as anti-democrats, terrorists, and radicals. Yet empirical evidence proves that democracy and human rights have been violated and sidelined by those regimes more than anyone else. Also, Islamists have been skeptical about the USA for the past decades because of its biased, unconditional support for Israel, despite its continuous violations of human rights, and disrespect for international law.

One of the major problems encountered by the emergence of a constructive dialogue is the sweeping generalizations made by both parties. On the Westerners side, there is no recognition for the diversity within the Islamists lines. Moderate movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot be lumped with radical movements like Al Qaeda. The difference between both groups is not merely organizational or tactical, but rather ideological. It is a difference in orientation, worldview, intellectual framework and political objectives and ideals. Between those groups, and perhaps within them, there is a high level of diversity. People are not the same, and there are several factors affecting their political views.

Islamists, on the other side, do not fully recognize the differences between the different "Wests." There is a difference between the EU and USA, between the regimes and the societies, and between different parties within the regimes. Most importantly, the difference between the USA and the EU is that the USA tends to take a more radical stance regarding Muslims. This is based on its short term interests in the region, specifically: the security of Israel, securing the oil resources, and maintaining control over a region that is geo-strategically important. Despite its "democratization" discourse, the US administration seems to be less concerned and genuine with the reform process in the region.

The EU, on the other hand is more concerned with "ethical" issues that have to do with democracy and human rights. It has a distorted image of political Islam caused by the region"s regimes’ manipulation of the media, as well as the actions of some European Muslim immigrants. Some of those immigrants have isolated themselves and refused to integrate into their new societies. Also, the EU is less biased towards Israel, yet is not even-handed in its approach to resolve the conflict, which should be resolved according to international law, determined in the UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

It is important to understand that moderate Muslim movements as the Muslim Brotherhood do not have an ideological stance against the West. In fact, we welcome and support dialogue, and believe in the necessity of openness, acceptance of diversity and tolerance as key success factors for this dialogue. Nonetheless, there are several obstacles that hinder the development of a healthy dialogue between both sides, and both sides share responsibility for that.

The Western support for authoritarian regimes in the region is one of the major reasons behind Islamists’ growing skepticism of the West’s genuine commitment to promoting democracy in the region. Despite the discourse of promoting democracy and human rights, Western governments have remained silent with the continuous violations of human rights from the region"s regimes. The silence that followed the transfer of a large number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including deputy chairman Khairat el Shater and 2 other executive council members, to a martial tribunal, stands as a provocative example. A few days earlier, a civilian court had ordered the immediate release of these leaders, but they were rearrested inside the courtroom. When the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it is preparing a political manifesto, and other legal papers required for the establishment of a civil political party, the regime retaliated by arresting hundreds of our members, and freezing their assets. Again, Western governments have been silent.

Western governments have been silent again about the crime committed against humanity, democracy and human rights in Egypt. This time, it is not only Islamists that are being harmed, but rather every pro-reform, democratic group in the country. The constitutional amendments proposed by President Mubarak will undermine the basic human rights of every Egyptian citizen and violate his/her privacy. Further, the amendments will undermine the possibility of having free and fair elections, as they will alienate the judges from supervising the elections.

Western governments, especially the US Administration, need to clarify their stance regarding democracy in the Middle East. It is almost impossible to believe that Western governments are sincere in their promotion of democracy while they continue to support regimes that suppress their political opponents and violate human rights. This support for authoritarian regimes is destructive not only to the future of democratic reforms in the region, but also to international peace and security. Whereas moderate movements like the Muslim Brotherhood will continue their peaceful struggle for reform, their sentiment will become less relevant, and more people will be dragged into the radical discourse- which sees no possibility of peaceful reform, and calls for combating the oppressors, whether the regimes or their Western backers.

The West has to realize that the “one man, one vote, one time” notion is absurd. If the societies of the region are empowered, and are strong enough to bring Islamists to power, then of course they will be able to remove them if they disapprove of their policy. Islamists experience in professional clubs, student unions and syndicates presents empirical evidence that we are always willing to abide by people"s will, and peacefully step down if we are not reelected.

Finally, the West has to come to a realization that it is betraying its strategic interest by supporting the region"s dictators. Whereas those dictators are willing to unconditionally "cooperate" with Western governments, they could only exist by promoting the anti-West sentiment, so as not to appear as traitors. They defame any political opponent having any relations with the West as a traitor. This increasing anti-Western sentiment is harmful for Western security and long term interests in the region.

Addressing the real problems and "gray areas" with more acceptance of diversity is the key to success in the dialogue between Islamists and the West. Each side of the dialogue should be willing to revisit its stances, and look for alternative policies and positions so as to contribute positively to this dialogue. Otherwise, misunderstanding and tensions will grow, and will pose a real threat to everyone.

Dr. Saad  al-Katatny is the Chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc in Egypt

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