Meeting in the Middle

Islamist opposition groups need the United States more than they can admit. But they've got a little homework to do before the United States can offer help.


Now that President Barack Obama has reframed U.S. policy on democratic development in the Arab world, the Islamist opposition movements of the region must decide how to react. Although they represent the most popular force for democratic development in the Middle East, their success will largely depend on the kind of relationship they pursue with the new U.S. administration. What signs have they sent so far — and what should they do next?

In light of new U.S. policy, it’s a timely question. The United States, Obama indicated in his June 4 speech in Cairo, will no longer pursue regime change; it will respect all peaceful governments elected by their people. It will support human rights and democratic ideals around the world. Obama was speaking to Islamist opposition movements in particular — and he is probably listening for their responses.

So far, most of them have been ambivalent. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party said Obama’s speech was "certainly positive," but questioned U.S. diplomacy with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood criticized Obama for ignoring the "authoritarian regimes and corrupt systems" in the region. Others restated familiar criticism.

But a few positive signs have recently emerged. In an interview two weeks ago, Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas’s political bureau, welcomed Obama’s "new language towards the region." And before that, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniya, came out in support of "a Palestinian state on 1967 borders." Even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood later qualified its previous criticism by admitting U.S. policy could change on the ground, saying: "Let’s wait and see."

Unfortunately, halfhearted support is not enough to accomplish the goals Islamist movements hope to achieve. Islamist movements need the United States more than they are ready to admit. They seek international recognition as serious political forces. And they want the United States to apply real pressure on Arab regimes to implement political reforms: strengthening checks and balances, improving electoral systems, and granting greater autonomy to civil society. Although very few Islamist movements would say so explicitly, they imply it when they criticize the United States for not backing up its words on democratic development with more action.

To capture U.S. attention, however, Islamist opposition movements need to address two core U.S. concerns. Do their positions on key international issues value stability? And do their positions on key domestic issues reflect a commitment to democratic ideals and procedures?

In foreign capitals, the greatest concern is that Islamist movements would aim to disrupt the international system. Would they honor their countries’ obligations under existing international agreements? Would a government controlled by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, abide by the terms of the Camp David accords and maintain diplomatic relations with Israel? Would the Brotherhood in Jordan respect its country’s peace treaty with the Jewish state? Can Hamas commit to the Oslo framework and recognize Israel’s right to exist? There should be no doubt that failing to recognize their countries’ treaties would perpetuate the pariah status of these movements in the eyes of the United States.

Domestically, Islamist movements need to clarify their stances on several issues. On the role of Islam in politics, Islamist movements cannot repudiate their commitment to sharia laws. But they could allay many fears by being clearer about which principles of sharia they consider to be central.

Islamist movements also need to address their dual identities as both religious movements and political actors. Some movements, like Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, have already established political wings separate from their religious ones. But others, like the powerful Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, though prevented by the government from forming a political party, are nonetheless reluctant to commit to one in principle.

Religious movements deal with absolutes — issues of good and evil, right and wrong — and can demand conformity from their members as long as membership is voluntary. Political movements, by contrast, make — or participate in making — decisions that affect all citizens and thus must respect basic principles shared by all. They must tolerate dissent, be open to compromise, and abide by domestic laws — even those of which they do not approve. Movements that fail to separate their political and religious identities risk ending up betwixt and between, casting doubt on their democratic credentials.

Finally, Islamist movements must clarify their stances on women and minorities. It is not enough to issue general statements about their respect for women and minorities within an Islamist framework — they need to clarify their position on the rights of women vis-à-vis male family members and treat women and men equally in the public space. Many Islamist movements have also shown little clarity regarding the rights of religious minorities to hold public office.

Addressing these concerns would go a long way toward persuading the United States to engage Islamist movements in making the Arab world a better place. Of course, at the end of the day, it is the authoritarian rulers themselves who must reform. But a pragmatic collaboration between the new U.S. administration and peaceful Islamist movements could spur such rulers toward a more pluralistic Arab world. The ball is in their court; Islamist opposition movements should run with it.

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