The Myth of Excluding Moderate Islamists in the Arab World

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani Senior Fellow - Arab Center Washington DC

March 8, 2010

Executive Summary

The United States has long shown confusion in its policies toward Islamist political movements in the Middle East. By conflating moderates and hardliners, and believing that moderate Islamists pose a threat to U. S. strategic interests in the region, the United States has opted to support regimes that limit democratic participation. American administrations have backed, with limited exceptions during the presidency of George W. Bush, authoritarian regimes that not only impose restrictions on, and enact regulations against, political participation, but use intimidation and violence against Islamist groups and parties.

In reviewing this current state of affairs, and examining the effects of excluding Islamists from the political arena, it becomes clear that the policies have numerous negative repercussions, particularly relating to U.S. national security interests. The historical experience in the Arab world indicates that despotism produces extremism. Ultimately, political repression increases citizens’ feelings of exclusion and diminishes preferences for moderation and peaceful political participation. Today, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, there is a clear rise in extremist Salafi movements of various types, some of which are the result of regimes’ exclusionary policies.

The United States should therefore consider policies that promote engagement with moderate Islamist groups in the Middle East. This paper defines moderation as the extent to which Islamist groups accept peaceful political participation, do not rely on militias, and accept the values of democracy. Many groups fulfill these requirements, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen, as well as the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD).

The United States has long resisted engaging with moderate Islamists because of several unfounded beliefs. Key among these is that allowing moderate Islamists to enter the political arena would undermine stability in the region. But a principal reason for unrest and instability in the Middle East is the failed economic and social policies of the autocratic governments in power. In a number of countries, such as Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, collective anger and discontent is the result of poor economic and social conditions produced by “stable” regimes. Many in the United States also believe in the fallacy that moderate Islamists will use democratic participation as an entryway to take over the state. History has shown otherwise. Indeed, many shakeups in the region, particularly in Iran in 1979, Sudan in 1989, and Afghanistan in the 1990s, were not the result of Islamists gaining power through the ballot box. In addition, numerous cases have shown—particularly in Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan—that when moderate Islamist parties do participate in the political system, they tend to become more pragmatic and moderate in their political discourse and policies.

There are benefits for the United States in engaging with moderate Islamists. Islamists have a wider appeal across the Arab and Islamic world than radicals, and are well positioned to challenge Islamic extremism. In addition, dialogue with Islamists would bolster public opinion of the United States within several countries where religion is part of the fabric of the political arena. The United States should aim for face-to-face dialogue with moderate Islamist parties by promoting the following policies:

  • Rethink the Basic Understanding of Moderate Islamists. The first step for the United States is to reassess past approaches and begin to see moderate Islamists not as threats but as possible partners. In order to do this, the United States must understand how moderate Islamists think, and what their expectations are of the United States.
  • Understand the Internal Dynamics of Islamist Movements. The United States should understand the nature of the internal conflicts and divisions within moderate Islamist organizations, particularly ongoing disputes between conservatives and reformers, as well as the relative influence of each wing.
  • Do Not Treat Democracy Promotion Solely as a Response to Terrorism. The United
    States should not link the spread of democracy in the Arab world with the war on terrorism. Any American policy that views democracy primarily as an instrument of U.S. national security is destined to fail since it will only reinforce Arab perceptions of American hypocrisy; Arabs have the right to political freedom and democracy like the rest of the free world, regardless of any single nation’s security concerns.
  • Capitalize on the New Generation of Moderate Islamists. The United States should invest in building strong relationships with younger Islamists who will become future leaders of their movements. This generation’s activists differ from their predecessors in their more pragmatic orientation; their ideological openness to liberal democratic values, such as freedom, pluralism, equality, accountability, and transparency; and their willingness to engage with the West.