Engaging with Islamists: what makes us think it will ever work?

August 8, 2017

I was struck a couple of days ago by a tweet from Ennahda, the largest Islamist political party in Tunisia showing its leader, Rashid al Ghannouchi, meeting Alistair Burt, who was recently reappointed as a Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During my time in the FCO I worked closely with Alistair: I admire and respect him. I also have respect for Ghannouchi, with whom I sat and talked extensively in Tunis in the summer of 2014 when I was preparing the Muslim Brotherhood Review, an internal review of the global Islamist movement for the British Government.

Coincidentally I had just watched two interesting recent filmed interviews with other Islamists. The first was a Brookings interview with the former leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in exile, Ali al Bayanouni, conducted by two distinguished scholars of Political Islamism, Shadi Hamid and Will McCants. For the benefit of non-Arabophones, Hamid and McCants speak in English: al Bayanouni responds in Classical Arabic.

The second – a year or so older – was a long and lively discussion in several parts and far more colloquial Arabic conducted by the Palestinian Islamist in exile, Azzam al Tamimi, with the Emirati Hassan al Duqqi, formerly a senior member of the Islamist group Al Islah and by his own admission a member of the International Shura Council of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Duqqi is now associated with the Ummah Party of Hakim al Mutairi, a Kuwaiti, who holds views not so very different from those of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State and has reportedly given financial backing to Ahrar al Sham, one of the largest Islamist militias operating in Syria.

I have no idea what Burt and Ghannouchi spoke about. Last year there were reports suggesting Ennahda was reshaping itself to become a normal political party and repudiating its links to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a smart move. But it remains unclear exactly what it means, especially given Ghannouchi’s star status within global Muslim Brotherhood circles. Al Bayanouni fielded a set of tame questions put to him – not quite along the lines of “would you like to tell the viewers about your achievements, Prime Minister?” but not far off. In contrast al Duqqi – speaking to another highly sympathetic Sunni Islamist versed in Islamist discourse – is frank and revelatory.

This caused me to reflect on the appropriate level, purpose and utility of Western engagement with political Islamists. This has always been a tricky question, given the nature of Islamism and its – at best – socio-revolutionary ideology. It was something the enigmatic diplomat (and future scholar) James Heyworth-Dunne and his colleagues at the British Embassy in Cairo struggled with in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s. And it has become an even thornier issue in the last five years in the aftermath of the Arab Spring with the emergence of fundamental differences between key state and other actors in the region on precisely this point.

Much of the British Government’s policy work on the Muslim Brotherhood – and indeed Hizbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and even Iran – in recent years has been shaped by claims that we can influence the thinking of both Sunni and Shia Islamists if only we engage with them. In the last Parliament, the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in its report on ‘Political Islam’ (sic) and the Muslim Brotherhood Review  urged the FCO to engage with political Islamists and encourage them to adopt certain more liberal interpretations of Islam over others (sic).

I’m always happy for members of that Select Committee to correct me. But I cannot think of a single example where Western diplomatic or any other sort of engagement has produced any change in the position of any political Islamist. Deniable channels of communication may sometimes be wise, for example when we have kidnappings to resolve or to ensure the physical security of diplomats (both of which we had to do in Gaza when I was HM Consul General in Jerusalem).

But our decisions publicly to engage with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after 2000 and in 2008 to re-engage diplomatically with Hizbollah’s political wing produced absolutely no shift in their thinking. Instead we tended to shape our own actions to avoid a negative reaction from Hizbollah in Lebanon, by for example failing sufficiently, in my view, to condemn the egregious murders of their opponents (for example, senior security official Wissam Hassan in late 2012 and diplomat and former Finance Minister Muhammad Chatah a year later). Again, occasional attempts in Iraq to shape the thinking of Ahmad al Fartousi, leader of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s militia and the Lebanese Hizbollahi, Ali Musa Daqduq (aka ‘Hamid the Mute’) together with the Khazali brothers, the leaders of the murderous Iraqi Shia militia, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, failed. They gamed us instead. We have seen the same with the Houthis in Yemen and over the years with Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza and Lebanon.

I’ve seen this movie before. People sometimes say that we need to identify moderates inside such organisations and detach them by engagement from their more extreme colleagues. Again I can’t think of a single example where this has actually happened. So-called moderates rarely represent the core of any Islamist operation. In conflict they are dominated by their armed wings. And in any case, most Islamist groups from the Muslim Brotherhood onwards have a history of expelling, not accommodating reformists. Indeed, it is often a refusal to engage that has the most effect, as it was for those elements of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s who eventually formed the moderate offshoot Al Wasat because they thought the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to be a political dead end and no one would talk to them otherwise. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood flourished in the 1970s precisely because the experience of Nasser’s prisons had convinced their mainstream that there was no future for the moment in violent revolution.

Similarly, the partial international boycott of Hamas since 2006 has not helped them gain popularity with ordinary Palestinians or noticeably compromised western interests in Gaza, Ramallah or Tel Aviv. Sustained and serious western engagement with Hamas would have encouraged them to believe they could resist international pressure. It would not have stopped them seeking funding from Iran or Qatar or Turkey: they would simply have concluded we would do nothing about it. What matters is service delivery, peace and Israel, not us. War with Israel tends to lead to a surge in Hamas’ popularity. But that is standard at times of conflict. Polling afterwards consistently shows a reversion to the mean.

And finally there is the issue of language. Islamists notoriously use different discourses for different audiences. Just watch Al Jazeera’s English and Arabic language coverage of key events in the region for some excellent examples: even the old Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee picked up on this. More important there is the phenomenon dubbed by at least one commentator in Arabic, fiqh al mafahim – ‘the jurisprudence of concepts’ or what an early 17th Century Jesuit would have recognised as equivocation. I encountered serial examples of this when asking Muslim Brothers and other Islamists to explain a civil state in the framework of the Sharia or Islamic democracy, both common concepts but ones that Islamists surround with deliberate ambiguity in order to disguise their intent. I recall with undimmed admiration for his chutzpah sitting with Libyan politician and rebel commander Abdul Hakim bil Hajj in Tripoli in 2011 as he sought to convince me he was a committed Lockean. And I am irresistibly reminded of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: Wenn ein Löwe sprechen könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen (“if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him”). The problem is that in this case the Islamist lion understands us perfectly well. We simply persist in thinking he is not a lion.

Does this mean no engagement is possible? Not at all. But it has to be on our terms if it is our engagement. That means consistently asking the sort of probing questions that Islamists put to other Islamists, not the gentle lobs served up by western liberals: a fierce Socratic scepticism aiming precisely for aporia – an expression of doubt not a warm diplomatic bath. It means expecting proper answers not some lecture about the past. It means making an effort to understand what Islamist equivocation disguises – the will to power.

It means making sure we are absolutely clear what Islamist claims to value democracy (for example) or human rights mean in practice. That demands a fundamental clarity about how far the words we use occupy a common semantic space and how far they disguise a radical divergence. It means judging engagement not on fine sentiments but on practical outcomes. And it means selling engagement – which has a huge value for all Islamists – at its proper price not at a liberal discount.

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