12:30 pm EDT - 2:00 pm EDT

Past Event

Changing Islamist Politics in the Middle East

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

12:30 pm - 2:00 pm EDT

The Brookings Institution

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

On Wednesday, June 4, 2008, the Saban Center at Brookings hosted a policy luncheon with this year’s Todd G. Patkin Visiting Fellow, Khalil Al-Anani. Al-Anani, who hails from Cairo’s Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, will be in residence at the Saban Center until September 15, 2008.

Al-Anani discussed recent leadership changes within the Arab world’s Islamist movements that signal renewed conservatism. He analyzed the implications of these trends for the future of the region and argued that American policy has exacerbated these trends. He argued for a change in American attitudes toward Islamist movements in order to safeguard the advance of more moderate Islamist politics in the region.

Al-Anani defined moderate Islamists as those who are willing to peacefully involve themselves in politics according to the rules laid down by their ruling regimes – though they may not always hold liberal views in the Western political sense. He said that such moderate Islamists are beginning to lose ground within mainstream Islamist movements, citing examples from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. For the most part, he noted, moderates have lost internal battles for dominance of local Islamist movements to more “salafi” activists. The salafis question whether Islamist movements should compete in the rigged politics of Arab states today, and argue that political engagement has not brought the movements or their constituents any real benefits.

Al-Anani outlined four tools that Arab regimes use to exclude Islamists from meaningful participation, and asserted that this exclusionary strategy strengthens conservative elements within Islamist movements. First, al-Anani noted, Arab regimes often include language in their constitutions to constrain or prohibit political parties with religious affiliations. Second, he said, regimes focus security tools on the Islamists, harassing and arresting members of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, preventing them from participating effectively in politics. Third, al-Anani asserted, Arab regimes target the businesses of religious party supporters, choking off their access to financial resources. Finally, he said, regimes use the legal system against Islamists, limiting the ability of the judiciary to monitor elections and aggressively prosecuting members of religious parties. He cited the recent trial of several Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt in state security court rather than a civilian proceeding.

Al-Anani said that the exclusion of moderate Islamists from the political process has negative results. These include: radicalizing moderate Islamists; expanding the appeal of Salafist ideas among those who look to Islamist movements; and depoliticizing the broader population. Moderate Islamists, al-Anani argued, feel pressured to radicalize because they see that engagement with the formal political process earns them only election losses and the ire of the state. Some have come to see political participation as a dead end, leading to the rise of what al-Anani labeled a “New Salafism.” Al-Anani defined Salafism as a particular reading of Islamic texts and history that encourages political passivity and cultural and social isolation from the rest of the world. Alone, he argued, salafism might not be a concern. But because the followers of today’s Islamist movements are already politicized and mobilized, he predicted, the rise of this isolationist, exclusivist ideology has the potential to transform into dangerous Salafi-Jihadism, in which those with very narrow-minded religious beliefs turn to more radical actions, including violence, to turn their beliefs into reality. Finally, government repression of Islamist political participation works to depoliticize Arab societies as a whole, as citizens begin to question the efficacy of and benefits to political participation. And when participation in the existing political system is seen as fruitless, this strengthens the arguments of those who promote more radical action.

Al-Anani said that the backlash from US efforts at democracy promotion in the region bears some responsibility for the rise in Salafist discourse. He said that US interests are better served by interaction with moderate Islamists than by encouraging a situation in which Salafists are likely to make further gains. He presented a series of recommendations for US action in support of democracy in the region: 1) the United States should support the principle of democracy in the Arab world, regardless of the outcomes. This includes defending the rights to peaceful political participation of all opposition groups, and criticizing Arab government repression whether it targets Islamists or liberals; 2) the United States should encourage its Arab allies to permit the inclusion of peaceful and moderate Islamists in the political process; 3) the United States should itself enter into dialogue with Islamist party leaders in an effort to understand their goals and their expectations from the United States. This could even be done, he argued, through Europe-based representatives of these groups; and 4) the United States should encourage non-governmental interactions between Islamists and Americans, whether through think tank-sponsored conversations, NGO conferences, or student exchanges. He concluded by arguing that the younger generation within the region’s Islamist movements had not yet fully evolved their political views, and were a good audience for more intensive engagement with the United States.

The discussion following Al-Anani’s presentation focused on how to evaluate the relative moderation, pragmatism, and commitment to democracy of moderate Islamist parties.

Al-Anani argued that there is no evidence to support the charge that moderate Islamist parties, once they gain political power, would change the rules and refuse to renounce it. Given the nature of existing regimes, he said, Arab citizens today face a choice between corrupt authoritarian regimes and authoritarian, but untested, Islamist movements. We must not compare Islamists to an unavailable ideal, he argued, but to the existing alternatives in Arab politics.

As regards Islamist attitudes toward democracy and toward US interests, al-Anani said that every moderate Islamist party in the region that gained meaningful political power – from Kuwait, to Morocco, to Turkey, to Yemen – acted strategically, in a very pragmatic fashion and in response to the opportunities of their environment. He therefore predicted that the pragmatism of these Islamist groups would extend to their relations with the United States, and that they would operate on the principle that state relations are predicated on the protection of national interests.