Three reasons why it’s dangerous to talk to armed Islamists
Last Updated: May 13. 2009 7:28PM UAE / May 13. 2009 3:28PM GMT
You know an idea is making headway when The New York Times finally picks up on it. Two weeks ago the newspaper profiled Alastair Crooke, a former British spy who co-founded Conflicts Forum, a non-governmental organisation that engages in dialogue with Islamists and encourages western governments to do likewise: In this time of “engagement” in the Middle East, dialogue evidently substitutes for policy.
The head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, was also afforded space in the paper recently. His interviewers must have been charmed, for they broke a cardinal editorial rule and wrote something amusing, namely that “apart from the time restriction and the refusal to accept Israel’s existence” Mr Meshaal’s terms for peace with Israel “approximate the Arab League peace plan”. The plan’s core is Arab recognition of Israel, so someone missed a beat. Mr Meshaal did not, however, when he said that Hamas would “help” if there was “international and regional will to establish a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders”. Mr Meshaal’s message of accommodation was directed at the Obama administration, and not surprisingly came shortly after Bashar Assad, president of Syria and Mr Meshaal’s host in Damascus, said the US had to talk to Hamas.
Nevertheless, there are three reasons (other than Mr Assad’s backing) why engaging Islamists, particularly armed Islamists, should be viewed with caution, their words of reassurance and those of their western apologists notwithstanding.
Conflicts Forum offers a clue to the first reason: its website tells us that “encounters with political Islam – with both non-violent and armed resistance groups – lead us to conclude that Islamism is above all political”. Putting aside that the opposite of “non-violent” is “violent”, not “armed resistance groups”, we can derive considerable meaning from this statement of the obvious. Islamic doctrine little distinguishes between religion and politics, which complement each other. But for any dialogue to work, the aims of one side must somewhere be reconcilable with the aims of those on the other side of the table. How often is that the case?
For example, Hamas’s primary goal is to become the leading interlocutor on all matters related to the Palestinians. Mr Meshaal knows that once the West engages Hamas it will undermine the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, a key step in allowing Hamas to fulfil its dream of taking control of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. No wonder Mr Assad wants the US to deal with Hamas. What the movement gains, Syria and Iran gain too, as both have substantial sway over Hamas decision-making.
Is that an objective western states should help to advance? Recently the British government resumed a dialogue with Hizbollah at a moment of dangerous polarisation in Lebanon before elections in June. Forget that a dialogue existed several years ago and led nowhere; this latest step implied that Hizbollah’s Lebanese political adversaries, who are closer to positions the British government advocates, were losing ground. In fact, engaging Hizbollah made that outcome more likely. The foolish decision caused an angry reaction, irritating the US especially, which may be why the UK has now backtracked.
If Islamist movements pursue well-defined political ends, then their western interlocutors must think in the same way. Dialogue is not a strategy. Parties engage in dialogue if it advances their aims, not if it hinders them. If the ambition is to reach an “understanding” with Islamists, as Conflicts Forum claims, then it is possible that no such understanding is possible or desirable. Dialogue is not a default position towards which states or parties need to gravitate.
This leads to a second reason why engaging with armed Islamists should be viewed with caution, even scepticism. The search for common ground usually pushes engagers to adopt the mindset of the Islamists themselves, at the expense of alternative voices. This is not a case of going native. It is a case of trying too hard to make the engagement agenda work by going overboard and giving Islamists a central role in Arab political discourse, when the reality might be very different.
On its website, Conflicts Forum writes that “Islamism has emerged as the most significant indigenous political force in the region”. Maybe it has, but would Mr Crooke and his colleagues care to prove that sweeping statement, and define its implications? Islamism is doubtless significant, but there are many other forms of expression in the Arab world, political and otherwise, including a thwarted quest for democracy and modernism. By talking to armed and autocratic Islamist groups, engagers, in the name of boldness, tilt the parameters of debate away from those rejecting violence and seeking pluralism.
A third reason western interlocutors must tread carefully when dealing with Islamists is to avoid betraying their liberal values. At the heart of political realism – and the engagers are realists – is the notion that in negotiations mutual interests are best served by avoiding introducing values into the discussion. These only complicate matters, leading to an uncomfortable tendency to impose one’s own on others.
Except Islamists never compromise on values because they define their legitimacy. Hamas refuses to recognise Israel, since it considers Palestine a religious endowment. Hizbollah considers “resistance” absolute, rejecting the very principle of disarming in favour of a sovereign Lebanese state. In contrast, the engagers urge western governments to shed their principles because by not doing so they supposedly revive the spectre of neo-colonial arrogance.
So the arms must be on one side and the guilt on the other; the values on one side and a willingness to abandon them on the other; political hardball on one side and the imperative to be flexible on the other. That imbalance won’t make dialogue work, but it will surely give armed Islamists a new vitality, while silencing Arab and Muslim voices that might aspire to a liberalism the West fears to mention.
I guess you could sum up the reasons as: by reaching out to the extremists, you valorize them, devalorize your natural allies, and betray your own values. Soooo… what’s so appealing about it? Maybe we should ask Jimmy Carter.