The Middle East Channel

The unexceptional Islamists

For decades U.S. foreign policy discourse has been haunted by the idea that there is something categorically different about Islamist political parties. So much so that they need to be thought about, treated, and engaged differently than other political groups with equally strong ideological commitments — like capitalists, leftists, or green parties. In practice this ...


For decades U.S. foreign policy discourse has been haunted by the idea that there is something categorically different about Islamist political parties. So much so that they need to be thought about, treated, and engaged differently than other political groups with equally strong ideological commitments — like capitalists, leftists, or green parties. In practice this has led to an assumption that the United States has generally been unwilling to do business with Islamists as a matter of policy. While Iran’s 1979 revolution no doubt looms large as a specter here, the policy orientation in question actually traces back most directly to a famous dictum offered by Ed Djerejian — then Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs — in 1992. This was in the aftermath of an Algerian election in which Islamists had been poised to win a landslide victory only to see the results annulled by the country’s army. An Islamist victory at the ballot box, Djerejian argued, would likely have proven to be a case of "one man, one vote, one time." That is, Islamists would make instrumental use of elections to capture the state, but then dismantle the democratic system once in power to ensure they could never be removed.

The reality of U.S. policy practice around the question of Islamist engagement, however, has always been more complex. We tend to remember and point to those incidents and moments that seem to confirm the general rule of U.S. animosity toward Islamists. Washington’s reaction to the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, in which Hamas won a controlling majority, is frequently cited as a prime example of this orientation. But even here things are more complicated than they perhaps seem. While many observers saw the U.S. reaction as evidence that the United States cannot do business with Islamists, the consternation in Washington actually stemmed from a combination of the fact that a legally designated terrorist group was poised to form the Palestinian Authority’s government — with all manner of entailing complications for U.S. financial assistance and diplomatic relations — and the usual concerns about Israel and the collapse of the United States’ preferred Fatah faction.

And what about the much-vaunted policy of no contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that the U.S. administration has now seemingly had to revise? Viewed in the bigger picture of U.S. ties with the Brotherhood, the approximately 10 years during which this no-contact policy was in place actually represents an exception rather than the norm. During the 1980s and even part of the 1990s, U.S. diplomats in Egypt had fairly regular meetings with Islamists. The change in policy in the later 1990s was the result of a direct request from the Egyptian government asking that the United States cease contact with the Brotherhood in order to help the Mubarak regime discredit Islamists in the eyes of the Egyptian public. In other words, this shift tells us more about the cozy, quid pro quo relationship between Washington and Cairo than it does about official U.S. attitudes toward Islamist ideology.

In fact, regular engagement with Islamists has been a fact of life in U.S. foreign policy for a couple of decades across both Democratic and Republican administrations. U.S. embassies in countries like Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Kuwait, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia have long had routine meetings with representatives of those countries’ Islamist movements and parties. Several of those same parties have even participated in training and technical assistance programs funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The U.S.-funded NGOs that run these seminars have often told me that the Islamist parties are commonly their most diligent and committed partners. There is even something like a "party international" for Islamists called the International Union of Islamic Parliamentarians. When I asked its founders back in 2007 where they got the idea from, they told me that it came in part from a U.S.-funded political training seminar they had attended (U.S. democracy promoters often encourage political parties to establish transnational ties to democratically-oriented parties in other countries with similar visions and platforms). So if the United States is worried about the formation of something like an Islamist Comintern, it needs to recognize that U.S. NGOs are the ones pushing the idea.

The reason why U.S. relations with Islamist parties, once you scratch below the surface, turn out to be more "normal" and mundane than one might expect are not difficult to discern: these are, for the most part, normal political parties. They contest elections, enter parliaments, form coalitions with other (often non-Islamist) parties, compromise when necessary to get things done, and, when voted out of office, step down and prepare to run again. Recent commentary about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt at a "power grab" — that is, seeking the presidency on top of the near majority they had attained in recent parliamentary elections — has therefore sounded oddly out of tune with reality. Seeking power is what political parties do. One can certainly question whether this course of action was in the best interests of Egypt’s political development or even perhaps a strategic miscalculation on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that is quite a separate issue.

None of this is to say that there aren’t good reasons to be concerned about the recent rise of Islamists in certain countries. These groups vary considerably across the region and are shaped by the political environments in which they operate. There are factors in play that mean, for example, that the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, or the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait are subject to different kinds of constraints than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. And even where the latter seems to have made a clear commitment to the procedural aspects of democracy such as elections and due process, the fact remains that the Brotherhood’s commitment to universal standards of human rights and genuine political pluralism — particularly as regards the equal status of women and religious minorities — is unproven at best. And there have been some worrying signs. The more Egypt’s constitutional discourse veers in the direction of creating legal categories based on religious identity — even when the ostensible purpose is to ensure the rights of Christians to live according to their own family law — the further the retreat from the ideal of a civil state that can guarantee the full and equal rights of all citizens according to a single standard. The Brotherhood also seems to be re-engaging some of the unpopular ideas it had dropped from its 2007 draft platform, including the possibility of creating a council of religious scholars to ensure the compliance of legislation with Islamic law. And is the United States totally confident that if and when further incidents of sectarian violence perpetrated by Salafis in Upper Egypt occur, that the Brotherhood will not hesitate to condemn them swiftly and loudly?

There are, of course, also ongoing concerns about Israel and regional security arrangements. Strong anti-Israeli sentiment is hardly unique to Islamists. It is pervasive in the Arab world, regardless of political stripe. That said, it is still the case that in Egypt at least, the foreign policy values and priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood do not align with those of the United States. President Mohamed Morsi will likely be tempted to find or create opportunities to demonstrate that Egypt’s foreign policy is no longer a function of U.S. interests in the Middle East. This could have serious repercussions not just for bilateral ties, but also U.S. policy in the broader region where the support of a once reliable ally can no longer be taken for granted.

But when it comes down to it, the primary worry the United States should have about the Islamists is whether they are up to the job. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has spent decades in opposition relying on vacuous slogans ("Islam is the solution!"). Can they transform into problem-solvers capable of addressing Egypt’s dire socioeconomic malaise? Can they reform a stagnant and ineffective public sector deeply steeped in an ethos of graft and unaccountability? These are the chief challenges facing Islamists today. And in this, unfortunately — as in many other regards — they appear wholly unexceptional as political actors in the Arab world.

Peter Mandaville is director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies at George Mason University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Author of the book Global Political Islam, he is also a former member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff where his work focused on U.S. policy toward Islamist groups.

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