On the Record

Think tank director says American-Islamic dialogue has reached a pivotal point

Martin S. Indyk

Martin Indyk is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and co-convenor of the Project on U.S. policy toward the Islamic World. He has served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and was U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. He was interviewed in Doha, Qatar earlier this week during the 2005 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, an annual event cosponsored by the State of Qatar and the Brookings Institution.

DAILY STAR: Where are we in this American-Islamic dialogue and what are the aims of the Brookings Institution in this effort?

INDYK: The whole idea of trying to promote dialogue came after September 11, 2001, when a chasm opened up between the United States and the Islamic world, who were talking past each other on key issues such as terrorism, Palestine, reforms, poverty, and others. There was a sense that people from the Islamic world had launched war on the U.S. in an unprovoked way, and we were going to launch war in return. There may have been a feeling in some parts of the Islamic world that in some ways we deserved it. So there was a huge gap between our sense of innocence and the region’s in that respect. We launched the U.S.-Islamic world dialogue aiming to see if it was possible to talk and bridge the gap. After three years, it’s not clear if we’re at a turning point or a tipping point, whether we’re moving toward greater convergence and agreement on an agenda of political, educational and religious reform, or whether, in fact, the policies being pursued are going to result in chaos, disintegration, greater hatred and more terrorism.

DAILY STAR: Why is it not clear?

INDYK: It’s certainly not clear in my mind, and one can make the argument either way. We’re in the eye of the storm in many ways and it’s hard to know which way things will go. There are certainly many reasons to believe that what September 11 provoked was fundamental rethinking in America’s approach, and also what was important to people in the Arab and Islamic world, including their willingness to look again at the sickness within their own society. If (U.S. President) George W. Bush did one important thing it was to remove the exceptionalism in our policy toward the Middle East and toward authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world more generally—that they should no longer be exempted by the argument that if they were removed from power extremist Islamist groups would take over. That was a fundamental paradigm shift in the basic assumptions that underpinned U.S. foreign policy. That has had a dramatic impact, because the regimes can no longer depend on the U.S to support them just because they are the alternatives to Islamic extremist regimes. But, there was a reason for that concern and for why we listened to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and others who said that if they were removed they would be replaced by extremists. We listened to these regimes, because the Islamic groups are the best organized and able to take advantage of the openings we are trying to create politically. There was a feeling that Islamic groups could fill the space that opens up with democratic reform, as, in effect, we can say is happening in Lebanon and Palestine, and perhaps could happen in Syria and Egypt.

DAILY STAR: Not to mention that the new prime minister of Iraq is a member of the Dawa Party, an established Islamist group.

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INDYK: Yes, that also. So I’m ambivalent. There’s a big question mark as to whether things are going forwards or backwards.

DAILY STAR: There seems to be a greater American willingness to accept Islamists if they win democratically and play by the rules.

INDYK: That is certainly what has emerged in Iraq. We’ve embraced the results of the elections not because of the nature of those who have done well or because we don’t have great reservations about the Dawa Party, but because we have to show that we’re making progress and things are going well in Iraq. The same kinds of contradictions in our position are manifesting themselves with Hamas and Hizbullah, in Palestine and Lebanon. This is a policy question that is being dealt with in a kind of inadvertent way and it confronts us with the questions of whether we can accept Islamist parties in power and work with them? Will the fact of their achieving power change their approach to things? It’s not clear. We’re on this very steep learning curve, because the U.S. has characterized these parties as terrorist groups and in the past we had wars that made it impossible to deal with them or speak to them.

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DAILY STAR: What’s the best that you think could emerge from this sort of dialogue?

INDYK: There are various activities that are now emerging as spin-offs from the core dialogue. This year we have scientists from the U.S. and the Islamic world, and educators, talking in their own dialogues, looking at means of cooperation for the mutual benefits of both societies. We’re trying to establish an economic forum as a spin-off, and in the autumn we will organize a dialogue focusing specifically on Central Asia. So a variety of different products have emerged from the dialogue. As for the central dialogue we are now institutionalizing it and setting up a Brookings office in Doha, which I hope will be the genesis of a Doha-based think tank for this dialogue between the United States and the Islamic world, and we’ll have people working in Doha and Washington at the same time, looking at common issues and establishing a symbiotic relationship between the two sides. The issues and differences between our societies will continue for some time, regardless of whether we’re heading towards a positive or negative future, so there’s continued value and importance in keeping contacts and discussions going. When you think back to when we started this in 2002 there was very little common ground on core issues in the wake of September 11. I suspect that at least in terms of defining the way to build positive relations between the two societies, there’s a lot more common ground now.