Marc Lynch

Obama’s subtle shift on Islamism

 I’m really not going to pre-game The Speech. But I do want to note that without making a big deal about it, President Obama has already introduced a subtle and potentially extremely important shift into American discourse about Islamism. In an interview with NPR, Obama offered these comments on Hamas:  "With respect to Hamas, I ...

 I'm really not going to pre-game The Speech. But I do want to note that without making a big deal about it, President Obama has already introduced a subtle and potentially extremely important shift into American discourse about Islamism. In an interview with NPR, Obama offered these comments on Hamas: 

"With respect to Hamas, I do think that if they recognize the Quartet principles [referring to the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations] that have been laid out — and these are fairly modest conditions here — that you recognize the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate, that you abide by previous agreements, that you renounce violence as a means of achieving your goals — then I think the discussions with Hamas could potentially proceed.  

And so, the problem has been that there has been a preference oftentimes on the part of these organizations to use violence and not take responsibility for governance as a means of winning propaganda wars or advancing their organizational aims. At some point though, they may make a transition. There are examples of, in the past, organizations that have successfully transitioned from violent organizations to ones that recognize that they can achieve their aims more effectively through political means. And I hope that occurs."

 I’m really not going to pre-game The Speech. But I do want to note that without making a big deal about it, President Obama has already introduced a subtle and potentially extremely important shift into American discourse about Islamism. In an interview with NPR, Obama offered these comments on Hamas: 

"With respect to Hamas, I do think that if they recognize the Quartet principles [referring to the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations] that have been laid out — and these are fairly modest conditions here — that you recognize the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate, that you abide by previous agreements, that you renounce violence as a means of achieving your goals — then I think the discussions with Hamas could potentially proceed.
 

And so, the problem has been that there has been a preference oftentimes on the part of these organizations to use violence and not take responsibility for governance as a means of winning propaganda wars or advancing their organizational aims. At some point though, they may make a transition. There are examples of, in the past, organizations that have successfully transitioned from violent organizations to ones that recognize that they can achieve their aims more effectively through political means. And I hope that occurs."

 On the surface, this simply repeats the long-standing position that Hamas must meet the Quartet pre-conditions. But looking at it more carefully, it suggests that Obama is prepared to adopt violence, and not Islamist ideology, as the key issue determining American attitudes towards such organizations. This may still pose an insurmountable obstacle to Hamas, at least in the short-run.  But it opens the door to engagement with groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which are Islamist but have clearly and consistently rejected terrorism and the use of violence. 

  This would seem to repudiate the arguments such as those offered by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the U.S. should consider such non-violent Islamist movements as "conveyor belts" who "don’t explicitly endorse violence but contribute to the underlying problems."  And it would seem to side with those, such as myself, who have called for disaggregating views of Islamist movements and recognizing their real internal differences.   We’ve come a long way from those dismal days when the President of the United States used the fever-swamp term of art "Islamofascism" in a speech.

  Obama’s comment seems to signal a recognition of these important distinctions among Islamists and that the use of violence, not Islamist ideology per se, should be what matters.   Most Arabs already understand those distinctions — for instance, an interesting new public opinion survey by Steve Kull’s PIPA found that "64% of Egyptians express positive views [of the Muslim Brotherhood], 19% say they have mixed views and just 16% express negative views… only 22% think that it is still too extreme and not genuinely democratic."   Any push for democratic progress in Arab countries will have to deal with the reality that such non-violent mainstream Islamist groups are generally the most popular and well-organized political opposition forces.

 It will be very interesting to see if this comment signals a real shift in policy.  It is a very good sign that eleven Muslim Brotherhood Parliamentarians have been invited to attend the Cairo speech, and Mohammad Saad Katatni, head of the MB Parliamentary bloc, has confirmed that they will attend.  The Brotherhood has officially been publicly skeptical about Obama’s visit and his speech, but they declined to participate in the anti-Obama protest organized by the once relevant Kefaya movement, and some of its members have signaled openness to hearing what he has to say and — more importantly — whether those words translate into deeds. Exactly the kind of conversation-starter for which so many have been looking. 

 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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