Commentary Amr Hamzawy

The West Must Now Speak with Islamists

Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy argues that critical dialogue with Islamists would allow influence to be exerted on the most dynamic political groups in the Arab world, whose members have partly become religious democrats.

Photo: AP
Islamist in Baghdad

​​It is necessary to differentiate between moderate and radical Islamist tendencies; western governments and Arab regimes rarely do. When asked whether the Muslim Brothers would be included in the new national dialogue, the Egyptian Minister of Information Safwat al-Sharif replied: "Is there a movement in Egypt called the Muslim Brothers?"

He then made it clear that religious parties are not permissible in Egypt and that religious forces would not be admitted to the dialogue between the government and the opposition. Religion, said al-Sharif in an interview with the daily newspaper al-Hayat, is not part of politics; it is a private matter.

Different ways of dealing with Islamists

These remarks are typical of many Arab governments and their attitude to religious forces. Even though they know better, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia either dispute the political relevance of the mass phenomenon that is Islamism or merely dismiss it as a security problem.

Morocco and Jordan, on the other hand, have succeeded in dealing politically with Islamist movements. For several years, these countries have been trying to integrate Islamists. In both countries, Islamists are involved in government and parliamentary work, albeit in different ways. To date, the election of a moderate Islamist to the post of Prime Minister in secular Turkey has been the pinnacle of this development, which is significant for the entire Islamic world.

"Islam is religion and state"

On the other hand, we are seeing a dangerous radicalisation of religious groups, primarily in the Asian part of the Islamic world. This trend, which is now beginning to emerge, started with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the murder of the Egyptian President, Anwar al-Sadat, by radical Islamists. In many countries, the formula "Islam is religion and state" became the election slogan of religious movements and challenged secularly-oriented political systems.

private photo
Amr Hamzawy

​​Islamists demanded that the Islamic code of religious law, the Sharia, be introduced in order to fight westernisation and the decline in values. While economic development in the Middle East was positive at the time, the majority of the Arab-Islamic population felt excluded from the prosperity. The conclusion of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel was greeted with vehement criticism and resistance. From this point on, Arab governments were no longer considered capable of finding solutions that would live up to the expectations of the people.

During the search for new ways, which was increasingly taking place outside state structures, the general protest phrase "Islam is the solution" was coined in religious circles. In the 1980s, the fronts became increasingly entrenched. Governments took action against Islamist factions with a propensity to violence. Thousands of underground Islamists were imprisoned and many received lengthy prison sentences or were sentenced to death. The spiral of violence seemed unavoidable.

Moderates open to reform

In the second half of the 1990s, new trends emerged: As a result of the experience gained from dealing with authoritarian state powers, "parliamentary democracy" and "human rights" had gradually become important political targets within some Islamist factions. They began getting involved in civil society. In those cases where religious forces could not make their way into the political sphere, their moderate representatives became active by founding Islamic banks or modern welfare institutions.

Some radical movements like the Egyptian Jihad group renounced violence. The moderate Islamists’ openness to reform and social involvement have brought them considerable social recognition over the past few years.

Dialogue with Islamists?

The West often avoids answering the question as to whether dialogue with Islamist groups should take place or whether they should even be involved in the process of political reform in the Middle East. Both European and American intellectuals and politicians must ask themselves whether excluding these movements, which are of immense importance for the process of democratisation in the Middle East, is not counterproductive.

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These groups are often the only effective opposition to authoritarian Arab regimes. Moreover, from the current ruling elite, one can usually expect no more than a show of democratisation that is tailored to meet the needs of the West, or a reduction of democratic contents to technical issues like good governance and the fight against corruption.

Secular players in civil society such as human rights organisations and women’s associations are isolated and produce nothing more than expert discourse. While there is a lot of talk about democracy, no-one is actually being reached.

Demanding a change in attitude

Only moderate Islamist groups - both traditional and modern - are anchored in society and have the political clout to mobilise large swathes of Arab society. They are the true agents of democratic transformation, as long as they are not excluded and as long as their moderate tendencies are encouraged.

The time has come for the West to agree to a serious dialogue with these groups. Most governments in the Middle East will criticise such a change in orientation, and secular moralisers and political realists in the West will lift warning fingers. They will declare it irrational or caution against a destabilisation of the region. Nevertheless, the dialogue with moderate Islamists is the only way to unleash the momentum of democracy in the region.

Amr Hamzawy

© Qantara.de 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

Dr. Amr Hamzawy works at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin and is currently teaching at the University of Cairo.

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