Posts Tagged Islamism
A Muslim Brother, Muhammad Morsi, has entered Egypt’s presidential palace and taken his seat in the chair once occupied by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. This is a stunning development—a slow-motion Islamic revolution that few envisioned back in January 2011, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square.
The experts systematically underestimated the Muslim Brotherhood for a simple reason: they saw the revolution as they wanted it to be, not as it was. The distorted optic of the Tahrir stage seduced and misled them. But it was even more than that: the Muslim Brotherhood itself conducted a campaign of deliberate deception. They claimed they wouldn’t try to dominate the parliament, that they wouldn’t run candidates for every seat—and then they did. They said they wouldn’t run a presidential candidate of their own—and then they did. The credulous believed these reassurances—they seemed so rational and pragmatic. Marc Lynch, an estimable expert on these matters, actually chided the Brotherhood when it defied his analysis of its best interests and nominated a presidential candidate. It was, in his words, a “strategic blunder.”
In fact, it was a strategic master-stroke. From the beginning of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has understood that the fluid situation created by the fall of Mubarak won’t last forever, and that now is the time to seize every possible position they can, before alternatives take form. They want power, they crave power, and they won’t let it slip through their fingers by sitting out even a single contest. At the end of the day, all of the arguments for holding back have fallen by the wayside. They’re going for broke.
And have no doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood seeks to restore Egypt to the glory it once knew, by implementing Islamic social and legal norms. The translation of Islamic ideology into practice is the point of holding political power. The Brotherhood might not be able to effect an exact translation—that would be difficult—but a translation of ideology into practice it will be. This worries secular Egyptians, the international community, and Israel. At this early stage, many will say that such worries are overblown, that the Brotherhood will adapt and compromise. To consolidate power, it might. But at a later stage, many may regret having been so nonchalant.
No one can stop Brotherhood. You say: what about the military chiefs? The military, at times, has appeared to be winning. The revolution got rid of Gamal Mubarak, Husni Mubarak’s son and presumed successor, and that suited the military fine. The parliamentary elections, won by Islamists, demolished the liberals by revealing their weakness. That suited the military fine.
This left standing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Everyone assumed that they wouldn’t dare put forth a candidate for the presidency. The new president was to have been a consensus personality above party politics—an ElBaradei or Amr Musa. It was the Brotherhood’s decision to run a presidential candidate that threw the military off-balance, and they have been scrambling ever since. The first Brotherhood candidate, the formidable deputy-guide Khayrat ash-Shater, was disqualified—he would have won a sweeping victory. His replacement, Muhammad Morsi, basically a stand-in, had less appeal, and against him, the unlikely Ahmad Shafik stood a chance. But it gradually became evident that even the stand-in might defeat Shafik, hence the drastic measures by the military chiefs, stripping the presidency of most of its powers even before the first ballot was counted.
The military’s efforts to contain the Muslim Brotherhood, at this late date, can only buy limited time. The parliament has been dissolved, but it will have to be reconstituted, and then what? The rewriting of the constitution can be delayed, but the constitution will have to be written and approved by the legislature, and then what? And if the president isn’t to be the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces, then who will be? The simple truth is that Egypt isn’t going to revert to military rule—it’s too late, the polls show that a vast majority of Egyptians want a transition to civilian, constitutional rule. For the military, the question is, what are the terms of this transition? What will guarantee their economic enterprises? What will assure them that they won’t be prosecuted and purged? This is now the core of Egyptian domestic politics: the terms on which the military will exit. And with each passing day, the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood is strengthened in this negotiation, because it grows more legitimate and the generals grow less legitimate. There are those who think that the Muslim Brotherhood can still be outmaneuvered by gerrymandering the system. In the long term, it can’t. Egypt is headed toward populist Islamist rule, and it is just a matter of time before the Brotherhood checkmates its opponents.
So how will the Muslim Brotherhood rule? It is the misfortune of the Muslim Brotherhood that, having waited more than 80 years for power, they have come to it at perhaps the lowest point in the modern history of Egypt. The country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, the result of decades of bad decisions, corruption, and the absence of the rule of law. The Muslim Brotherhood is in a bind, because it has to deliver. For the masses of people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution wasn’t about democracy and freedom. It was about bread and social justice.
The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.
If you think this is pie in the sky, then it isn’t difficult to imagine the “Plan B” of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is to find ways to raise the rent Egypt collects from the West and rich Arabs for its geopolitical position. Call it a shakedown, call it a bailout, it doesn’t matter. The message Egypt is sending is that it’s too big to fail, and that the world, and especially the United States, owes it. The deputy guide, Khayrat ash-Shater, put it directly: “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.” Egypt, which is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, is thus owed compensation.
A key part of this narrative is that Mubarak sold peace with Israel on the cheap. In Egypt it is believed that the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives a year in military aid, and hundreds of millions more in economic aid, are just a portion of what Egypt’s adherence to peace is worth. To get more, the plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to persuade Washington that it can’t take Egypt for granted. The strategy will be to stimulate crises that will be amenable to resolution by the transfer of resources. No one can predict what those crises will look like. It’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t involve Israel.
So the question the United States faces will be this: is Egypt indeed too big to fail? Is the United States now not only going to talk the Muslim Brotherhood—which it is already doing—but actively work to help it succeed? The question comes at a time when the United States has become frugal. And there is no superpower rivalry that Egypt can exploit. When John Foster Dulles informed Nasser in 1956 that the United States wouldn’t finance his great dam at Aswan, Nasser went to Moscow. Today there aren’t any alternatives to the United States.
That being the case, the only way for Egypt to get the attention of Washington is to threaten to spin out of American orbit and into the opposing sphere of radical Islam. At no point will it be indisputable that the United States has “lost Egypt.” But at every point, Egypt’s loss will seem imminent. In that respect, the Muslim Brotherhood has already made its mark on history: from this day forward, Egypt can’t ever be taken for granted again.
For future reference, Marc Lynch stands by his analysis:
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 24, 2012
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 29, 2012
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 10, 2010
This is Martin Kramer’s review of William L. Cleveland, Islam Against the West: Shakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism, published in Middle Eastern Studies, October 1987, pp. 529-33.
Shakib Arslan, the “Prince of Eloquence,” was a master of self-promotion. As a publicist and self-publicist, Arslan kept his name in print between the world wars by producing a journalistic and literary corpus of formidable proportions: he wrote twenty books and two thousand articles. His polemical periodical, La Nation arabe, had an avid readership in Europe, among sympathizers and critics alike.
It is all the more striking, then, that Arslan should have eluded thorough study in the West, which he made his battleground for Islamic independence. William Cleveland, the author of the first Western biography of Arslan,1 points to one explanation for this neglect: the Islamic unity championed by Arslan was defeated by secular nationalism. His efforts were spent in vain, earning him posthumous obscurity. To this one must add the unwillingness of Arslan’s family to permit access to his voluminous papers. Even Arslan’s Arab biographers, who were competent but never critical, failed to win their full cooperation. Neither did Cleveland, who was told in 1974 by Mayy Junbalat née Arslan that her father’s papers had been sent off to Morocco, where they languish in government custody. To write a subject’s life without his papers is an enterprise fraught with dangers. Yet Cleveland has met the documentary challenge with such resourcefulness that one doubts whether a radically different truth could ever emerge from Arslan’s own papers. Their concealment has now become all the more pointless.
Shakib Arslan was a man of one vocation and many careers. Born in 1869 to a powerful Druze family in the Lebanese Shuf, he might have anticipated a long career as chief of a clan, defending the interests and honor of his kin and folk, and rallying them to arms whenever persuasion failed. This is precisely the role of Arslan’s grandson, Walid Junbalat, who today guides the small Druze community of Lebanon in and out of confrontations with various militias, states, and world powers. Arslan did try his hand at chieftainship, mostly out of a sense of noblesse oblige. But his education, eloquence, and literary ability cultivated within him a sense of mission too ambitious to ever find satisfaction in the service of his sect. Arslan was touched at a precocious age by Afghani and Abduh, and drank from the literary fountains of Istanbul and Cairo while still a youth. In this heady world of ideas, he learned the dimensions of Islam’s crisis, and fixed upon the Ottoman Empire as the last bulwark against the subjugation of Islamdom to an insatiable West. As the nineteenth century closed, Arslan chose as his vocation the defense of all Islam, becoming a fiercely patriotic Ottoman and a cosmopolitan pan-Islamist.
Cleveland adroitly sets the scene for that most fateful of Arslan’s choices: his support for the Ottoman Empire’s entry into a world war that would destroy it and send Arslan into permanent exile. Few Arabs rendered as many services to the Ottoman war party and its German ally as Arslan. His belligerent ardor was matched only by his contempt for those who plotted with the British to foment Arab revolt. A romantic intellectual without a dash of military judgement, Arslan adored the reckless Enver, whom he continued to serve after final defeat, during Enver’s ill-fated exile in Berlin and Moscow.
Enver’s demise cut Arslan adrift. In the prime of his own life, Arslan saw his empire divided, his military idols smashed, his homeland occupied by a foreign power. In his determined defense of Islam, he would have to draw up a new personal order of battle. While others continued the struggle on native soil, Arslan chose to pamphleteer on colonialism’s doorstep, in Switzerland between the two world wars.
Agitprop in Geneva
It is here that Cleveland’s sources become rich and his narrative vivid. Arslan took it upon himself to represent the Arabs before the League of Nations, and especially before the League’s Permanent Mandates Commission. He held his formal brief from the fractious Syro-Palestinian Congress, but actually answered to no one in his campaign against the French and British mandates. He soon became a tremendous nuisance. Arslan bombarded the Mandates Commission with petitions, attended meetings of assorted oppressed peoples, hosted known agitators in his home, and published his views in any journal which would print them. Police and intelligence files bearing his name grew thick with reports of his doings and his intercepted mail. Cleveland makes thorough use of this material, particularly the files of the Swiss, who were compelled by French pressure to keep close a close watch on Arslan’s activities. With Arslan’s publication of La Nation arabe, beginning in 1930, his views found a regular and influential outlet, adding still more to his fame and notoriety.
Cleveland argues convincingly against the claim of Arslan’s Arab biographers that Arslan embraced Arab nationalism during this period, and narrowed the aim of his campaign to Arab independence. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence for a deepening of Arslan’s interest and involvement in the wider struggle of all Muslims against foreign rule. Arslan never made the full passage to Arabism, but formulated an all-embracing Islamic nationalism, which included but transcended the Arab cause. La Nation arabe was misleadingly titled, for it carried dozens of articles on subjects remote from Arab concerns then and now.
It must remain an open question whether this unwillingness to give some focus to his struggle enhanced or diminished its effect. Arslan came to exercise a vast influence in North Africa, and tirelessly sought support in the wider Muslim world for the defense of Islam’s western flank. This campaign reached its apex with his famous agitation against the Berber dahir, and much of Arslan’s later reputation he owed to his success in exciting the Arab East over this dire threat to Islam in Morocco. On the other hand, he sank nearly as much effort into the cause of the Balkan Muslim minorities, whose plight (at the time) failed to fire the imagination of wider Islam. But for Cleveland, this Islamic nationalism is important as evidence for the underlying continuity in Arslan’s values and beliefs, which made him a man of unvarying principle and integrity. He was no precursor, but he did reformulate the familiar message of Islamic solidarity in a rich language that many Muslims found inspiring.
Still, Arslan did not attempt to reformulate Islam itself, a point which Cleveland rightly underlines. Why this hesitation, in a man whose outspoken opinion knew no other limits? Cleveland suggests that Arslan lacked an interest in theology. But to this one must add Arslan’s own awareness that his very standing as a believer was not beyond question.
It is not clear whether Arslan remained in any sense a Druze, having declared quite early that he regarded himself a Muslim like all Muslims. Even so, he was schooled in a climate of religious relativism, and was deeply influenced by radical reformers and freethinkers. Cleveland makes allowance for these influences in describing how Arslan presented Islam to others, but is too wary of his evidence to ask whether Arslan genuinely believed in Islam as religious logic. Did Arslan need the crutch of personal belief? In a chapter on Arslan’s view of tradition, Cleveland seems poised to answer, but he chooses not to leap into the void, and one is left to draw the conclusion that Arslan was satisfied with his claim that modernity and belief could be reconciled.
But if evidence for religious doubt ever does come to light, as it did when Afghani and his papers became the object of critical scrutiny by scholars, the careful reader of this biography will not be surprised. Cleveland has warned us that Arslan preferred to leave the defense of Islam as a theological system to others. When Arslan wrote of Islam, he meant to evoke a sense of group solidarity which could inspire mass resistance to foreign encroachment. Religion was useful since it strengthened that solidarity, and infused it with power. This is a position which has been reconciled as often with agnosticism as with belief, and it is interesting that Cleveland offers no comment on the degree of Arslan’s personal piety. From this account, it would seem that political integrity, not religious piety, was Arslan’s strong card.
Philosopher and Kings
Yet how did he maintain this integrity when faced with the need to raise funds for his work? Subsidies kept Arslan afloat during these years, and he became indebted to many patrons. All of them had political aspirations, regarded him as a good investment, and expected a return on their money. Cleveland is quite right in determining that Arslan could not be bought by such subsidies. But Arslan became expert in misleading his patrons to believe that he could.
Consider Arslan’s relationship with the ex-Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, one of Arslan’s most important patrons between 1922 and 1931. There can be no doubt that Abbas wanted to use Arslan to build support for his bid for the throne of an independent Syria. Arslan knew it. But Cleveland maintains that it was Abbas who deceived Arslan, by concealing his true ambitions for close to a decade. Here Cleveland has relied upon Arslan’s own published apologia, which, like all of Arslan’s accounts of his ties to patrons, smacks of self-justification. No added credibility in lent to this account by its appearance in Arslan’s letters to Rashid Rida (released years ago for publication not by Arslan’s family but by Rida’s heirs). Truth in these letters is twisted by the fact that Arslan dreaded Rida’s moral judgment even more than public ridicule. Theirs was not simply the intimate friendship described by Cleveland, but a relationship infused with moral and religious tension, and worthy of deep analysis.
For an accurate impression of Arslan’s relationship with Abbas, one must turn elsewhere, to file 118 of the Abbas Hilmi Papers at Durham University Library. This file, which somehow eluded Cleveland, contains some 300 pages of Arslan’s letters to Abbas, and here the picture becomes clear. Arslan massaged the ex-Khedive’s vain ambition in a masterful way, leading his patron to believe that Arslan would declare himself for Abbas—when the right moment came. When Abbas finally made his bid, in 1931, and Arslan was called upon to return interest on Abbas’s investment, he naturally defaulted. The relationship ended. Abbas could never have owned Arslan, but Arslan intentionally led him into thinking he could, an Arslanian ruse which the “Prince of Eloquence” would employ whenever it suited him.
Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud also extended his patronage to Arslan, and Cleveland accurately describes the many ways in which Arslan exalted the new king, by publishing praise of Ibn Saud’s regime at every turn. Cleveland tends to regard Arslan’s attachment to Ibn Saud as a complete devotion, inspired by the Arabian monarch’s Islamic fervor and martial prowess. Arslan was so enamored of his hero, claims Cleveland, that Arslan favored Ibn Saud as head of a possible confederation of Syria, Iraq, and Arabia. Cleveland quotes a letter to Rida in 1931 in which Arslan declared that “I prefer no one over Ibn Saud, not even Faysal.”
Not even Faysal? Arslan’s declaration to Rida that he preferred Ibn Saud came in a letter written to persuade Rida that Faysal should have the throne; it was a rhetorical flourish, meant to disarm Rida’s objections. In fact, Arslan’s well-know flirtation with Faysal in the early 1930s led Ibn Saud to cut off Arslan completely. Arslan revealed this in a letter which he wrote some years later to Haj Amin al-Husayni (preserved in a collection described below). When Arslan visited Faysal during the latter’s stay in Bern in 1931, Arslan urged him to unify Syria and Iraq under one throne, on which Faysal would sit. “You needn’t promote yourself,” Arslan told Faysal. “We will handle the promotion.” When Ibn Saud got wind of Arslan’s role in a scheme which would have greatly strengthened his rival, “I lost all my standing with him.” wrote Arslan, “and he cut off relations with me. I had received heavy subventions from him because, the truth be told, he was generous to an extreme. And all this was lost because I called for the unification of Syria and Iraq; that is, I put general Arab interests before my personal interests.” Khaldun S. Husry has published the gist of a remarkable letter by Arslan, in which he actually tried to convince Ibn Saud that Faysal’s occupancy of a combined Syrian-Iraqi throne was in Ibn Saud’s best interest! Ibn Saud understandably could not follow this sort of logic, and shut off the money supply. With the failure of the confederation plan, Ibn Saud relented, but Arslan admitted that he never again enjoyed the same standing with Ibn Saud as before.
The episode confirmed how little personal devotion Arslan felt, even to his most generous patron. To advance his sacred cause, he needed the support of more powerful men, and brilliantly led them to believe they could guarantee his loyalty through their patronage. They inevitably felt cheated in the end. Much more remains to be done in exploring Arslan’s alliances with Muslim rulers, for they resemble Afghani’s in their complexity and volatility.
In the Axis
Cleveland has worked from a more substantial dossier in reconstructing Arslan’s most dangerous liaisons, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. If the British and French were to be ousted from Muslim lands, popular resistance would never suffice. Arslan had seen popular revolts put down time and again. On his own initiative, he sought an alliance with great but disinterested European powers, who would guarantee Arab and Muslim independence in return for Arab and Muslim support in the event of a general war. Cleveland has drawn upon official German and Italian archives to follow the diplomatic dance which produced the understanding between Arslan and the Axis powers.
Obviously, Arslan’s services were needed more by Italy than Germany, since Italy, colonizer of Libya, hardly had the image of a disinterested power in Muslim eyes. Arslan’s campaign to cast Italy in a favorable light (for which the Italians showed their appreciation by occasional donations) opened Arslan to severe criticism, even by his admirers. But Arslan would not relent. Through his dealings with Mussolini, he had concluded that Italy’s Mediterranean ambitions could help to rid the region of the British and French. Once that end had been achieved, Germany could be relied upon to check the Italian colonial impulse. With this in mind, Arslan assiduously cultivated old friends in the German Foreign Office, who thought it useful to hear him out from time to time. Those of his co-religionists who could not fathom the genius of this scheme, and so accused Arslan of selling himself for a few lire, became his worst enemies. Under the hail of their criticism, Arslan became obsessed with the defense of his personal integrity. Cleveland treats this most compromising of Arslan’s liaisons with admirable insight and sensitivity, concluding that Arslan again acted on principles, which he again followed straight into disaster.
It was Arslan’s last shred of sound judgment which kept his feet firmly on neutral Swiss soil during the war. Failing health and force of habit also made a move to Berlin or Rome unthinkable. But the Swiss authorities had become strict with him. They banned publication of La Nation arabe, and informed Arslan that he would not be readmitted if he left the country. Cleveland shows us an ailing and frustrated old man, sliding into debt and bereft of real influence.
It may prove possible to modify this assessment on the basis of a source which was beyond Cleveland’s ken and reach when he conducted his research: the complete collection of Arslan’s wartime correspondence to Haj Amin al-Husayni in Berlin exile. The Americans found these letters with the Mufti’s other papers in Austria, where he had abandoned them during his flight from fallen Germany. The Israeli foreign ministry had the papers microfilmed in their entirety many years ago, and the materials were finally deposited in the Israel State Archives in 1984. The collection contains 370 pages of correspondence from Arslan to the Mufti, conveyed via the German diplomatic pouch.
Here we have Arslan’s running commentary on the course of the war, and his tireless admonitions to the Mufti to pursue this or that line of political action. Arslan exercised an elderly mentor’s influence over the Mufti, who kept Arslan going with occasional subventions. These letters also provide evidence, which Cleveland found lacking, for the wartime appearance of La Nation arabe. By 1943, four issues had been published in cooperation with the German Foreign Office. After an interruption, the journal reappeared in 1944 in Budapest, the product of the same collaboration. According to Arslan, the periodical carried many articles on such subjects as Muslim cooperation with the Axis powers and the “plots of the Jews.” Cleveland’s conclusion that Arslan published very little during the war must therefore be revised. Arslan’s letters relate that one of the journal’s wartime issues ran to one hundred pages, and that he wrote ceaselessly, despite his doctor’s advice against such mental exertions.2
In concluding this balanced and elegant portrait of a controversial life, Cleveland chooses to regard Arslan’s last few years until his death in 1946 as tragic. Arslan was “impoverished, ill, and ignored,” and Swiss police reports “revealed an aging man living apart from his wife and son in a residence hotel, passing the days in tearooms with his newspapers, seeing few visitors other than his son, and spending an inordinate amount of time frequenting his bank.” So he appeared from a distance, to those assigned to tail him. But in a letter to the Mufti, we learn of an inner reflection which gave Arslan satisfaction during his last years. His enemies had “died in my lifetime. . . . I take no malicious joy in death, for I will die as they did. But God made allowance for me, that I might witness the deaths of those who incited aggression and made slander against me.” A strange thought in which to find tranquility, and a stranger one to commit to writing; but perhaps not, for a Druze chieftain.
1. William L. Cleveland, Islam against the West: Shakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1985).
2. I have yet to discover copies of these wartime editions, which would have been published in very limited press runs in the last days of the war. They are not included in the reprint edition of 1988 by Archive Editions in four volumes.
If I consulted with quadrupeds
Think what fun we’d have asking over crocodiles for tea!
Or maybe lunch with two or three lions, walruses and sea lions
What a lovely place the world would be!
—Bobby Darin, lyrics from Talk to the Animals
You know things are headed downhill fast when Alastair Crooke warrants a profile in the New York Times, for his long-term project of “engaging” Hamas and Hezbollah. The profile flags his importance in these words: “Talking to Islamists is the new order of the day in Washington and London. The Obama administration wants a dialogue with Iran, and the British Foreign Office has decided to reopen diplomatic contacts with Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group.” And so on.
In 2005, I debated Crooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. This seems like a perfect opportunity to point to my remarks: here. The CSIS summary of my remarks and his: here.
Martin Kramer delivered these remarks on September 24, on a panel entitled “Islam, Islamism, and U.S. Foreign Policy.” He shared the podium with the French Arabist Gilles Kepel, author of a new book, The War for Muslim Minds. The event took place at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
On September 11, the Washington Post published an article entitled “In Search of Friends Among the Foes.” The subject was the debate over whether the United States should begin a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and other so-called “moderate” Islamists. The very next day, the newspaper ran a lengthy opinion piece, arguing that the United States should do just that: “We need to listen to the bad guys too to understand where the fissures—and opportunities—might be.”
Reading the article, I had a pervasive sense of déjà vu. A similar debate took place in the early- and mid-1990s, among many of the same participants. The question of dialogue is a perennial one, arising whenever it looks like Islamists may be gaining ground. The debate a decade ago was prompted by the Islamist surge in Algeria and Egypt. That surge subsided, and so did the debate. The renewed debate is prompted by a forboding that Islamists may come out on top in Saudi Arabia or Iraq.
Today, there is an added incentive for pursuing such dialogue. Even if these so-called “moderate” Islamists are not about to take power, they might be useful as a counter to the jihadists. After all, for several decades, the United States looked to “moderate” Islamists to help counter the Soviet threat. Miles Copeland, CIA operative, wrote in his book The Game of Nations about how the United States, circa 1950s, tried to find an Iraqi “holy man” to carry the anti-Communist message. And there was the cooperation with Islamists that flourished after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the U.S. so effectively played this card against the Soviet Union, why not play it against Al Qaeda? There are rivalries there, so we are told; why not build on them? “You want in a Machiavellian way to have fundamentalists do [our] dirty work,” one veteran of the old battles tells the Washington Post.
Add to this the sense that the U.S. paid a price for not having some Islamic leverage on its side during the Iranian revolution. About 20 years ago, a State Department veteran, Ambassador Hermann Eilts, made the case for dialogue before Congress:
We must develop new modes of diplomacy, potentially involving Islamic leaders, for possible use in crises situations. During the Carter Administration, efforts were made by President Carter to persuade estimable Islamic leaders, respected by Khomeini, to intercede with the Ayatollah for the release of the hostages. It did not work because no Islamic leader could be found with the stature to confront Khomeini on an Islamic level or a willingness to stick his neck out for the U.S. But this type of contingency, that is, soliciting intercession on an Islamic level, should be kept in mind and planned for well in advance. Hence, the desirability of sustaining close and constant dialogue with senior Islamic figures everywhere.
Whenever I hear the word “dialogue,” I ask myself the question: dialogue about what? What does the United States have to say to the Muslim Brotherhood in a “close and constant dialogue”? What does it hope to learn?
There is a facile argument that it is good to hear their ideas first-hand. But there is nothing that cannot be learned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions from readily available sources. A good analyst, relying on the mass of openly available texts, will have no trouble eliciting the worldview of, say, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s actual paramount guide. Tell me you want to meet with an Islamist to tempt him with a cash-stuffed envelope, that is one thing. But meet him to sound him out? If you have done your homework, he will tell you nothing you do not know already.
Quid pro quo. The point of dialogue is give-and-take. It is here that the problem arises, and it is this: Islamists would give us very little, and take from us a great deal.
What would the so-called “moderate” Islamists demand from such a dialogue? Here is the laundry list:
- Visas for activists seeking refuge or asylum or the chance to proselytize in the United States.
- The freedom to raise money in the United States, ostensibly for widows and orphans, for school lunches and prayer rugs (i.e., access to cash-stuffed envelopes).
- U.S. agreement to urge or compel Arab-Muslim regimes like Egypt’s to open space for Islamist political activism which is now suppressed.
- A U.S. repeal of its Middle East policy, including its support for Israel.
And what do the “moderate” Islamists offer in return?
- Condemnations of the jihadists for actions like the September 11 attacks, the March 11 attacks in Madrid, and the slaughters in Bali and Beslan.
- The implicit promise that once the United States throws open its doors to Islamist activism, it will be accorded immunity from further attacks. (The implication is that, to improve one’s immune system, one should allow freedom of operation to an even wider range of Islamists.)
Any dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood or its appendages must inevitably develop along these lines. This is the core deal, the very substance of any “close and constant dialogue.” And there is ample precedent: there are several European governments that have engaged in such dialogue and cut this deal, either in whole or in part.
Let me explain why, to my mind and from the point of view of the United States, this is a raw deal.
If the United States has one achievement to show for the war on terror, it is this: there has not been a repeat of a 9/11-style attack on any scale, even in miniature, on U.S. soil. There are those who claim that U.S. policy has escalated the terror war, and that it has been unsuccessful. But this ignores the fact that the continental United States remains the prime terrorist target. This country’s enemies have been unable to strike it, partly because of the stringent measures of homeland security put in place after 9/11. Why would the United States endanger this indisputable achievement by opening itself up to Islamist penetration? Why would it run the risk of becoming another Londonistan? In return for what?
For we know from experience that Islamist “condemnations” of other Islamists tend to be hedged and conditional. And we know from experience that the money raised for the widows and orphans often gets diverted to assassins and bombers. And we especially know that Islamists use the freedoms of the West to attack precisely those in the East who are willing to work with us closely, whether they be regimes or liberals. This offends Muslim anti-Islamists mightily, and it makes us appear like wavering allies.
And even if, for the sake of argument, we wanted to play this tune in a minor key, there is no certainty that we would know who the “moderate” Islamists are. If there is anything more simplistic than lumping Islamists together, it has been the attempt to divide them into the neat classifications of “moderate” and “extremist.” Gilles Kepel in his book has a crucial passage on the branches of salafism, the pietistic and the jihadist. He comments on
how porous the two branches of salafism really are: to pass from one to the other is quite easy. The intense indoctrination preached by the sheikhists [e.g., the Saudi-style imams] reduces their flock’s capacity for personal reasoning, which makes these followers easy prey for a clever jihadist preacher. The first stage of brainwashing occurs at the hands of a pietistic salafist imam. Later they encounter a jihadist recruiting sergeant, who offers to quench their thirst for absolutes through a bracing activism.
Even if, as Kepel writes, such a migration to jihadism is not inevitable, we cannot know in advance or even in real-time when it is occurring. So why would we take a chance?
Engaging Islamists in a common cause against the Soviets was one thing: the Soviets were unbelievers. Even so, the anti-Soviet partnership was fraught with risks, culminating in the blowback of 9/11. Here we would be engaging Islamists in the hope that they would counter their own radical offspring. The risks here, in trying to turn Islamist against Islamist, would be greater by magnitudes.
Europe’s bind. So the advantages of dialogue are not at all clear, while the disadvantages are obvious. If one needs more evidence, one might look to Europe. Kepel’s last chapter is called “The Battle for Europe,” and he opens with these words: “With events in Madrid in spring 2004, Europe emerged as the primary battlefield on which the future of global Islam will be decided.” This is the same Europe that cut a deal with Islamists years ago, offering visas and asylum on the understanding that Europe was neutral ground. If it is now the “primary battlefield,” as Kepel describes it, it is because the United States has successfully pushed back the front line since 9/11, and because of decades of complacency of European elites.
What Europeans are discovering is that deals with Islamists, once cut, don’t always last. The U.S.-Islamist deal over Afghanistan did not last, and the European-Islamist deal is coming apart now. Europe’s unique dilemma is that Islamism is so thoroughly implanted in vast emigre communities (17 million), that it may be necessary for Europe to cut still another deal, even less favorable than the previous one. Kepel has an interesting section on how some Muslims have come to consider Europe part of dar al-Islam, the abode of Islam. The trade-off these Islamists now offer is a forgoing of violence in return for implementation of Islamic law for Muslims on European soil—nothing less. And when Europe balks at this, as France did when it banned headcarves from schools, it finds itself held hostage.
In fact, dialogue with Islamists has never provided the iron-clad immunity Europeans thought it would. For example, it was from a Paris suburb that Khomeini conducted his campaign against the Shah. When he returned to Iran, an Air France jet carried him home. The French, by their hospitality and solicitude, were quite certain they would enjoy an inside track with the revolutionary regime.
Did they? Over the next few years, their troops were blown up in Beirut by Iran’s clients, their nationals were abducted in Lebanon at Iran’s behest, and Iranian assassins wantonly killed dissidents on their territory. Agents of Iran even subjected Paris to a bombing campaign, which prompted the so-called war of the embassies, during which both countries laid siege to one another’s embassies. In short, the French got the same treatment as the Americans, if not worse, despite a policy that had effectively coddled Iran’s Islamists on their march to power. This has been replicated today: despite France’s opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, Iraqi Muslim extremists have seized French hostages, and have resisted all appeals for their release.
The wrong Muslims. If some of the Islamists today were on a march to power, the case for dialogue might be more compelling. But where are these Islamists? Where is the Khomeini of Saudi Arabia or Iraq? Skeptical as we may be about the prospects for the Saudi monarchy or the Iraqi government, it is difficult to see Islamists who could replace them. And what would we talk about in a dialogue with the kinds of Islamists who seek to seize power in Saudi Arabia or Iraq? Would not such a dialogue merely antagonize and alienate those forces for stability that still have a chance to see the crisis through? And do we really think that were we to facilitate the ascent of any of these groups, they would be grateful for it? Any more so than the Afghan mujahideen?
In sum, dialogue with “moderate” Islamists, far from undercutting the jihadists, would undercut their opponents. It would muddle the message of the war on terror—the message that there can be no middle ground, and that Muslims must choose. Islamists not only wish to create a middle ground in the Middle East, but they seek to extend it to American soil. Few things could undermine the war on terror more thoroughly than dialogue with them, because it would facilitate just that.
The United States has no use for equivocating Islamists. The United States does have use for dialogue with believing Muslims—those who share its vision of a Middle East that is free, and free of terror.