Since the events of 11 September 2001, there has been an explosion of interest in the many manifestations of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. Until fairly recently, analysts have understandably focused on those actors that operate at the violent end of the Islamist spectrum, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, some of the sectarian parties in Iraq and to a certain extent, political groups with armed wings like Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But this has obscured the fact that across the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, contemporary politics is also being driven and shaped by a more diverse collection of ‘mainstream’ Islamist movements. Many of these have publicly eschewed the use of violence to help realise their objectives at the national level by engaging in the legal political processes of their countries, even where they are discriminated against or repressed.
These non-violent Islamist movements or parties frequently represent the best organised and most popular element of the opposition to the existing regimes in each country. As such, western policymakers have started to question whether there is a constructive role that they might play in democracy promotion in the region. But this debate appears to have stalled on the issue of whether it would be appropriate to engage with these groups on a more systematic and formal basis, rather than on the practicalities of actually doing so. This attitude is partly linked to a justifiable unwillingness to legitimise groups that might hold anti-democratic views on women’s rights, political pluralism and a range of other issues. It also reflects pragmatic considerations about the strategic interests of western powers in the MENA region that are perceived to be threatened by the rising popularity and influence of Islamists. For their part, Islamist parties and movements have shown a clear reluctance to forge closer ties with those western powers whose policies in the region they strongly oppose, not least for fear of how the repressive regimes they operate within might react. However, the tendency of both sides to view engagement as a zero sum ‘all or nothing’ game has been unhelpful, and needs to change if a more constructive dialogue around reform in the Middle East and North Africa is to emerge.
Western policymakers should therefore be more proactive in creating channels for serious and sustained dialogue with non-violent Islamist parties and movements across the MENA region. Without giving Islamists preferential treatment, there is scope for more consistently involving them in debate about broader ties between Europe, the US and the MENA region alongside other non-governmental actors, including the region’s secular opposition politicians. Critically, this should engage with the political as well as the religious values of Islamist parties and movements. A solid basis for engagement cannot be built without some attempt to find common political ground, and so western policymakers should move away from their focus on ‘testing’ the democratic credentials of Islamist movements, and concentrate instead on discussion of the range of political, economic and social issues that concern these groups, many of which are shared by their western counterparts.
Any change in approach towards engaging in dialogue with mainstream Islamists should be set within a new strategy towards relations with leaders in the MENA region as a whole. Specifically, western governments need to be more even-handed in condemning all human rights abuses in the Middle East and North Africa, including those perpetrated against Islamists by the region’s authoritarian regimes. A better balance must also be struck between maintaining cooperative relationships with governing regimes around questions of international security and economic development, while also pressing them to move faster towards political reform pledges that they have already made.
Real democratisation, on a scale that will lead to significant change in the regional political status quo, will be a messy business. Islamist parties and movements may well be the beneficiary of any openings in restrictive political structures, which will undoubtedly pose uncomfortable dilemmas for western governments. It would be naïve to suggest that agreement with mainstream Islamist movements in the MENA region on key political issues is within easy reach. But an approach that seeks to ignore these political currents is no longer morally or strategically defensible. Decades of paying lip service to the idea of political freedoms while simultaneously propping up authoritarian leaders who lack democratic legitimacy has helped to create an environment that is not conducive to stability or development, yet both are urgently needed in order for western powers to protect their considerable interests in the region. A reorientation of policy along these lines is also urgently required if western powers hope to improve their tarnished image across the Middle East and North Africa, and become more credible advocates of political reform.
Alex Glennie is a Researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, and the author of Building Bridges. Not Walls: Engaging with political Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa which can be downloaded here.