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July 23, 2007 No.
373

Controversy Among Reformists in the Arab World Over Dialogue With Islamist Groups

Debate has recently reawakened in the Arab media over the initiative for dialogue between the West and the political Islam movements, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. The debate has resurged in the West due to renewed interest in the initiative, which was reflected in various articles published on the issue in Western papers and journals.[1]

The issue became the focus of public debate in the U.S. following several meetings that took place between members of the U.S. Congress and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the Egyptian parliament, Dr. Muhammad Sa'd Al-Katatni. In April 2007, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, heading a Congressional delegation to Egypt, met with Al-Katatni during a reception at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Cairo,[2] and in late May, a delegation of the House Commission for Democracy Assistance, headed by David Price, met with several Egyptian MPs, including Al-Katatni.[3]

The initiative for dialogue with the movements of political Islam emerged in the West in 2005. Its proponents argued that in recent years there has been an ideological turnaround in the political Islam movements, which have begun to adopt pragmatic approaches that follow the rules of the game of democracy. Consequently, they said, dialogue should be held with these movements, with an eye to involving them in the processes of democratization and reform in the Arab world. The political Islam movements, on their part, had mixed reactions to the dialogue initiative, with some movements supporting it and others expressing reservation.

The Western initiative for dialogue with Islamist movements also sparked debate within reformist circles in the Arab world. While some Arab reformists, such as Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, welcomed the initiative and even worked to promote it, others strongly opposed it and harshly criticized its proponents. The debate focused on the question of whether the Islamist movements, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, had indeed changed and adopted a pragmatic ideology that recognizes such Western principles as democracy and pluralism, or whether these groups remained extremist in their views and were merely exploiting the democratic system in order to gain power – and, once having done so, would then revert to their original antidemocratic methods.

This report will review the initiative for dialogue between the West and Islamist movements, as well as the attitude of the Islamist movements towards this initiative, and the debate on this issue within reformist Arab circles.

The U.S.-European Initiative for Dialogue with Islamist Movements in the Arab Countries

In 2005, two parallel initiatives were formulated by the U.S. administration and by the European Union for dialogue with moderate Islamist groups, in an effort to encourage them to participate in the processes of reform in the Middle East.

The dialogue initiative is based on studies by various Western research centers such as the Rand Corporation and institutes affiliated with Western foreign ministries.[4] These studies have pointed to an ideological change in the political Islam movements in recent years, and have stated that these movements have adopted a more pragmatic approach that expresses commitment to democratic principles – such as attaining power by participating in elections, recognizing pluralism, abiding by the rule of law, respecting the principle of separation of powers, and so on.

These studies further argued that Western efforts to spread democracy and reform in the Arab world will be ineffective without the involvement of these Islamist movements, which are very popular in the Arab street. This is particularly true in light of the Arab regimes' minimal willingness to carry out significant political reform, and in light of the marginal influence of the liberal opposition streams in terms of generating democratic change in Arab countries.[5]

Actually, since the 1990s, Western NGOs encouraging democracy in Arab countries have been conducting an ongoing dialogue with Islamist movements, and this dialogue did not stop even after 9/11.[6] But the initiative for a dialogue with official representatives of the Islamic movements has pushed ahead in the past year, following the success of the elections in Afghanistan (November 2004), Iraq (January 2005), and the presidential election in the Palestinian Authority (January 2005), which brought moderate elements into power, and also following some Islamist movements' linking up with non-religious opposition forces in the Arab world that are calling to institute political reforms in their countries, as in Egypt, for example.

Although this initiative was not officially adopted by the governments of Europe and the U.S., it has occasionally been referred to positively by senior officials in the West. The London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat reported that, according to European diplomatic sources, a number of European governments were interested in conducting dialogue with moderate Islamic forces in the Middle East, with the aim of facilitating reform and preventing extremists from exploiting the despair, frustration, and economic failure [in the Arab and Islamic world] and thus creating a new generation of suicide bombers. The daily reported that, at an unofficial conference of E.U. foreign ministers in Luxembourg in April 2005, a document was presented – prepared by E.U. Secretary-General Javier Solana, among others – which called to establish a dialogue with Islamic opposition organizations in the Middle East in order to encourage them to take part in the democratic process. [7]

Within the U.S. administration, there were mixed views regarding this initiative, with the U.S. State Department championing a view that favored including Islamic movements in the political system. A senior U.S. State Department official explained the support for the dialogue initiative as part of "Washington's desire to support democratic reforms in Arab countries by means of expanding political participation [in them], and in order to obtain the support of the moderate Islamic movements for the war on terror."[8]

However, following the Muslim Brotherhood's success in Egypt's parliamentary elections (November-December 2005),[9] and especially following the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council election (January 2006), the U.S. administration became less concerned with reform in the Arab world, and interest in the idea of dialogue declined as well. Nevertheless, interest in this idea has recently increased again in the U.S., especially in Democratic circles, presumably due to the upcoming presidential elections.

Despite the June 2005 statement by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the U.S. administration "would not hold dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood,"[10] senior U.S. officials confirmed that there were contacts with Muslim Brotherhood parliament members, but not as representatives of their movement, which is illegal in Egypt. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack explained that "contacts are being held with the Muslim Brotherhood parliament members, not as representatives of the Brotherhood, but because there are contacts with all [Egyptian] parliament members."[11]

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, does not accept this distinction. Senior Muslim Brotherhood official Issam Al-Aryan recently said, referring to the meetings with the U.S. Congressional delegation: "The Muslim Brotherhood members did not meet with the [American] delegation as independents, but as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they have the right to meet with any [foreign] parliament member anywhere."[12]

It should be noted that it is not clear which movements come under the definition of "moderate Islamic movements," and whether they include terror organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah, since the U.S. and the Europeans are calling on these organizations to abandon the path of violence and to disarm, while at the same time the media is releasing conflicting information regarding contacts with these movements.

Mixed Reactions by Islamic Movements to Dialogue with the West

Reactions by organizations of political Islam in Arab countries to the European-U.S. initiative for dialogue have been mixed.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria unreservedly welcomed the initiative. Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Superintendent-General in Syria Muhammad Farouq Taifour called it "a positive move that reflects genuine change in U.S. policy. We have no objection to dialogue with the U.S.... We have no conditions for this dialogue, except that it should respect the sovereignty of our homeland and the freedom of our people, and not interfere in our religious, cultural, and social affairs."

According to Taifour, the Muslim Brotherhood has an interest in conducting a dialogue with the West: "A direct dialogue with the West will remove the many doubts created by the tyrannical regimes and their repressing [security] apparatuses with regard to the Islamist movements and particularly with regard to the moderate ones. Thus, for example, the apparatuses of repression in our country, Syria, supplied the Western apparatuses with the dossiers of thousands of Syrian opposition members residing outside Syria who [allegedly] have connections with the Al-Qaeda organization. [This was done] so as to enable the Western security apparatuses to accuse and persecute these opposition members... Direct dialogue between the Islamist movements and the West will put an end to the terrifying picture of the Islamist movements that is painted by the tyrannical regimes when they talk of the possibility of the Islamist movements participating in future democratic elections in their countries."[13]

The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which previously had strongly opposed dialogue with the West, is now presenting mixed views on the issue. Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Akef expressed reservations regarding the dialogue, which might be construed as sedition against the Egyptian government. He told the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi in April 2005: "We do not oppose the principle of dialogue with members of the media or civil society groups. But with regard to dialogue with governments, and particularly with the American and E.U. governments, any dialogue with them will be via Egypt's Foreign Ministry."[14] In an interview with www.islamonline.net, Akef explained his position: "I cannot conduct a dialogue with them unless I come to be part of the [Egyptian] regime – then, naturally, I will conduct a dialogue with them. There are now those who are saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is relying on the American regime, and I am not interested in this."[15] Akef reiterated this stance following the Muslim Brotherhood's success in the Egyptian parliamentary elections.[16]

In spite of Akef's determined position, members of the movement have lately been taking a different tone on the issue of dialogue with the West. Senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Dr. Issam Al-Aryan, considered to belong to the moderate faction within the movement, said: "We welcome [the idea of] dialogue with the West. However, the dialogue must be out in the open, and must have a clear and definite agenda. It must be conducted with the knowledge of the Egyptian government, which may participate in it, if it wishes." Al-Aryan said further: "We believe in the importance of dialogue, for it is a human value which the Koran itself calls to reinforce."[17]

According to Al-Aryan, the recent meetings between Muslim Brotherhood members and senior American officials "were held as part of a general policy formulated by the Brotherhood with the aim of cooperating with popular organizations on the basis of dialogue, mutual understanding, and [mutual] presentation of positions. On this basis, the Muslim Brotherhood can present its views, explain its positions, and urge parliamentary parties in various countries to act regarding issues [related to] the Palestinian problem and the American occupation in Iraq."[18]

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the Egyptian parliament, Dr. Muhammad Sa'd Al-Katatni – who had, along with other Egyptian MPs, met with senior American officials Hoyer and Price – said that "the Muslim Brotherhood has serious reservations about [conducting] dialogue with the Americans and is even opposed to it."[19] However, during a recent visit to Georgetown University, he stated that there was a need to hold dialogue with the West.[20] In an article on the Muslim Brotherhood English website www.ikhwanweb.com, titled "Dialogue between the Islamists and the West is a Must," he wrote: "One has to ask the most crucial question, [namely,] could there be a constructive dialogue between [the] Islamists, the United States and the European Union? If so, then how?...

"The answer to the first... question has to be yes. There is really no other alternative for the West or the Islamists but to engage in a constructive dialogue [in order] to reach a common ground based on mutual understanding and appreciation of diversity. For such dialogue to be fruitful, openness and sincerity on both sides are a necessity.

"Islamists need to revisit their views on the West. They have to... realize that different views can be present in one single Western society. Islamists have to realize that the West is not fundamentally anti-Islamic, and that some pro-democratic movements in the West are in fact willing to engage in dialogue and maintain relations with moderate Islamists, and [that they] accept the fact that Islamists and Islamic movements in general are the reflection of the people's true will…

"We should work together in a civilized manner to reach a common ground on our differences without resorting to arrogant force or hateful violence. Consequently, Western governments need to answer a decisive question: What do they really expect from Islamists? [On the basis of] what formula will the West accept Islamists as partners? The West needs to [set out] a clear set of conditions [under] which it is willing to deal with the Islamists instead of giving them an endless list of demands.

"The West needs also to realize that, sooner or later, the will of the people will be victorious, as it was in various parts of the world, and [that the] Islamists will eventually come to power; yet they could come to power in completely different terms. If the West continues to support authoritarian and undemocratic regimes, [to] exclude [the] Islamists from the political process, [and to] strip them further of their ability to govern democratically, it will create unhealthy and hostile relations between the West and Muslim countries in which Islamists assume partial or total power. Mutual skepticism will turn into distrust, and the world will witness another phase of instability that threatens an imminent clash of civilizations.

"On the other hand, if the Islamists come to power in a context where there is a mutual understanding between them and the Westerners, there would be a larger possibility of building strong relations that [preserve] the interests of both sides.

"To conclude, we say that we are not satisfied with the status quo in the relations between the Islamists and the Westerners, [that we] strongly believe that a constructive dialogue is within reach, and [that we] should nourish these relations for the sake of humanity [in order] to create a better future for our children and [for the] future generations to come." [21]

The Hamas movement, which is on the U.S. list of terror organizations, likewise expressed its willingness to conduct a dialogue with the West. Hamas spokesman Mushir Al-Masri said that his movement was willing to conduct a dialogue with any international element, including the U.S. and Britain. According to him, his movement welcomes any dialogue – except with the Zionist enemy – if the matter meets the aspirations and interests of the Palestinian people.[22]

In a May 25, 2005 interview, Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mash'al told the Without Borders program on Al-Jazeera TV that his movement had an interest in dialogue: "Hamas is interested in presenting its stance, because we want people to hear about us from us [ourselves], not [from someone else], so that [our] view will be clear."

Mash'al noted that Hamas had for years been conducting a dialogue with senior European officials. According to him, "the dialogue with the Europeans was official, and began years ago, before the name [of Hamas] was on the terrorism list... [Even] after the E.U. placed Hamas on the terrorism list, many European countries conducted a dialogue [with it]... Official dialogues are still ongoing up to this very moment with diplomats from various countries in Europe – not only with one country." According to Mash'al, the main reason why the Europeans are conducting a dialogue with the Islamist groups is "so the world sees that the Zionists' military security option for overcoming the resistance has failed, rather than succeeded, in putting an end to the resistance movements, first and foremost the Hamas movement. Every U.S. blockade, pressure, and persecution of [Hamas'] sources of funding, and even of the [the movement's] charity activity that serves the Palestinian people, has also failed. They discovered... that there is a need to think of another alternative – which is to cope with the facts on the ground... When you are strong in the field, others must pay attention to you. Therefore, this is the real path, not the path in which you lessen your own value, ask for favors, and give up your principles and the rights of the Palestinian people in order to please others." Mash'al denied, however, that any dialogue was being conducted with the Americans. [23]

Debate in Reformist Circles on the Dialogue Initiative

Proponents and Promoters of the Dialogue Initiative: Political Islam Movements Should Be Included in the Democratic Process

The dialogue initiative was welcomed and even promoted by some Arab reformists, who claimed that these Islamist movements had indeed adopted a pragmatic ideology, and therefore should be incorporated in the political process.

The chief promoter of the initiative for dialogue with the Islamist movements – including Hamas and Hizbullah – was prominent Egyptian reformist Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo.

In an article published May 21, 2005 in The New York Times, Ibrahim explained that the Arab world was witnessing the emergence of democratic Islamist movements, and that if these movements expressed commitment to the principles of democracy, they must be included in the political process in the Arab world:

"Based on 30 years of empirical investigation into these parties – including my observations of fellow inmates during the 14 months I spent in an Egyptian prison – I can testify to a significant evolution in political Islam. In fact, I believe we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim parties that are truly democratic, akin to the Christian Democrats in Western Europe after World War II…"

"Clearly, on grounds of principle and pragmatism, Westerners should not be dismayed at the thought of allowing religious parties a role in the emerging political structures of the Arab world. For one thing, as citizens, Islamists are entitled to the same basic rights as others. It would therefore be hypocritical to call for democracy in these countries and at the same time to deny any groups wanting to peacefully contend for office.

"Second, Islamists tend to be fairly well organized and popular. Yes, some of these movements have formed armed branches, ostensibly to resist foreign occupation (Hizbullah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Palestine) or in response to authoritarian regimes. But in all cases, a moderate, less-violent Islamist core exists. Excluding these religious parties from the political mainstream poses a risk of giving the upper hand to their armed factions, at the expense of their more moderate cores…"

"Of course, this is not to say that we should expect Hizbullah or Hamas to turn into Western-style democratic parties overnight. While countries opening themselves to democracy should work to bring Islamists into the system, they should not – and the West should not pressure them to – allow these groups into the [democratic system] if they are unwilling to abide by certain [basic] rules."[24]

In an interview, Ibrahim told the German website www.qantara.de that the initiative for dialogue with the Islamist movements was a "positive" one, and added: "I call on everyone interested in democracy to conduct a dialogue with the Islamist movements… These Islamist movements are a fact that cannot be ignored. It would be hypocrisy to demand democracy but to prevent members of these movements from fully taking part in it. They are citizens. And it is fitting that they be given all the civil rights that others are given. Moreover, movements such as Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Muslim Brotherhood have attained popular legitimacy, since they have served [the people] and expressed political positions that are broadly supported."[25]

Amr Hamzawy, Doctor of Political Science and senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, claimed, in statements similar to those of Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, that reformist elements had a marginal effect in the Arab countries, and that consequently, in order to promote democracy, the West had no choice but to cooperate with the moderate Islamist movements that are highly popular in the Arab street. In an article in the Lebanese English-language Daily Star, he wrote:

"Western democracy-promotion policies and programs of the past several years have looked toward Arab liberals as strategic partners, anticipating that they will be able to gradually contest the dominance of authoritarian regimes and force democratic concessions…

"The dilemma of Arab liberals, however, is their marginalization back home. Contrary to their celebrity status in the West, in the 'real world' of the Arabs liberal actors remain incapable of reaching out to large constituencies in their societies or of substantially influencing political developments. That's why, faced with ruling elites primarily interested in preserving their power and weak liberal opposition actors, the U.S. and European states have no choice but to try collaborating with other forces on the Arab political scene if they are serious about promoting democracy in the region.

"Non-violent Islamist movements such as the Egyptian and Jordanian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Moroccan Justice and Development Party are well rooted in the social and cultural fabric of Arab countries, and possess therefore a great potential for forging broad alliances for political transformation. On the other side, recent changes in Arab Islamist political movements have made it easier for Western countries to engage some of them. Throughout the last decade, the mainstream of Islamist movements has been moving toward more pragmatism, based on prioritizing gradual democratic reforms as the way ahead for their political integration and as the only viable strategy to challenge the persistent authoritarianism in the Arab world…

"Democratic opposition platforms are by far more effective with Islamist participation than without it. The United States and Europe should move forward in the same direction of engaging moderate Islamists. The cause of political transformation in the region is best served by bringing in Islamist movements and their popular constituencies."[26]

At a June 2006 conference of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Radhwan Al-Masmoudi, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said that the currently ruling regimes in the Middle East are unsustainable, and that Islamist parties will become increasingly important. Thus, he said, it is crucial for outsiders to support the people's democratic aspirations and to build relations with Islamic parties. Al-Masmoudi added that it is impossible to entirely separate religion and politics, and that democratic system in the Middle East will necessarily reflect the Islamic character of its society.

Today, he said, Islamists are the main opposition groups, and their slogans resonate with the same masses that overwhelmingly support democracy, especially the youth. The main impediment to reform is the regimes, whose repression and failure to provide for their populations lead to an extremely dangerous mix of anger, lack of education, and large numbers of unemployed youth.

While Masmoudi stated that Islamists are more moderate once they are in power, he also acknowledged that precautions should be taken against the monopolization of religion for political purposes.[27]

In a Washington Post article titled "Support Freedom in the Arab World," Al-Masmoudi and Hamzawy wrote: "Democratic participation is the only way to combat extremism and pressure all groups, including Islamists, to moderate their stance in order to maximize their share of the vote. The United States should continue to press for an end to repression by governing regimes of democratically minded liberal and Islamist groups, and it should emphatically distance itself from such repression and condemn it in the strongest terms whenever and wherever it occurs. We are confident that if Arab citizens are able to have their choice, they will choose democracy, freedom, peace and progress.[28]

Some reformists characterized the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as one of the moderate Islamist movements with which dialogue should be held. For example, Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian reformist living in the U.S., claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had undergone an essential change in its ideology, and that today there was a new political stream called the Neo-Brotherhood, which was led by members of the new generation in the movement, such as Issam Al-Aryan, Muhammad Al-Sayyid Habib, and Abd Al-Mun'im Abd Al-Futuh.

In an article in the Qatari daily Al-Raya, Al-Nabulsi wrote: "If we monitor the pragmatic political steps of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in recent months, which ultimately led to the appearance of a new political stream within this movement that we call the Neo Bros, we will discover that this stream has carried out a 'white revolution' in the Brotherhood's political discourse... The Muslim Brotherhood movement is no longer considered a religious movement; rather, it has turned strictly political... It has fully adopted Western political ideas such as democracy, elections, political freedoms, struggle for constitutional change, the establishment of a civil society, the establishment of a civil and not a religious state, and so on."[29]

Opponents of the Initiative: No Ideological Change in Islamic Movements – So No Dialogue with Them

Other Arab reformists were harshly critical of the dialogue initiative and of the inclusion of certain political Islam movements under the heading "moderate." They claimed that these movements had not changed their extremist ideology and did not believe in the values of democracy and human rights. Some conceded that certain movements of political Islam have lately begun to display more "pragmatic" positions, but argued that this pragmatism was mere show motivated by political considerations, and did not reflect a real transformation. It was also argued that dialogue with the Islamist movements would not alleviate their hostility towards the West, which is an essential part of their ideology. The following are some of the arguments.

Political Islam Movements Are Not "Moderate"

Dr. Shamlan Yousef Al-'Issa, political science lecturer at Kuwait University, claimed that the definition of a moderate Islamist group was hazy, and that movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood were not moderate at all. In an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, he wrote: "The Europeans and the Americans reiterate that they will conduct a dialogue with the moderate Islamist groups. And in this context, we ask: Are there any moderate Islamist groups? Who represents them? What is the agreed-upon definition of 'moderateness?' For example, in the Muslim Brotherhood movement – which is the most widespread, wealthy, and influential Islamist organization in the Arab homeland – there are different views. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt recognizes giving political rights to women, while the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, influenced by its desert region and tribal conventions, bans this...

"Let us assume that there is a moderate Islam. Will [its believers] relinquish their arrogant view towards the West – seeing as how the Islamists divide the world into Dar Al-Harb and Dar Al-Salam and do not prefer loyalty to the country over loyalty to the religion when the two clash? Dar Al-Harb refers to the non-Muslim countries and peoples, whose lands are considered to be up for grabs. How is it possible to conduct contacts with parties that have no broad humanist perception? Are they willing to relinquish their narrow factional view, which includes extremist ideas? Are they willing to respect the other ideologically, religiously, and existentially, and to regard the other as their equal to themselves?[30]

Similar criticism came from Egyptian author and human rights activist Farida Al-Naqqash. On Al-Jazeera TV's Open Dialogue, she said: "...I do not think that there are any moderate Islamists... There are Islamists who believe that they alone are the absolute adherents to the truth, and that they have an absolute right to rule over the Arab and Islamic societies, albeit this happens to differing degrees. The source for this perception is [the belief] that they speak in the name of Allah. When a political group speaks to you in the name of Allah, you must be silent, because it is always right. Only this movement is the adherent to the truth, and you must obey it.

"We can examine the positions of political Islam in the Arab homeland with regard to the main issues on the agenda, such as democracy and women's liberation. The issue of women's liberation in particular is a highly complex issue for political Islam... In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood opposes giving political rights to women... and it was only recently that the government managed to give them the right to participate in municipal elections. We find the same thing in Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from participating in the municipal elections in the name of Islam...

"An[other] important issue is the renewal of the religious discourse. Intellectuals who spoke about this have been distanced or murdered in the wake of fatwas [issued] by people called 'moderates.' [For example,] Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali, who is considered by the Muslim Brotherhood to be the imam of the moderates in Egypt, issued a fatwa calling to murder Islamic intellectual Faraj Fouda [just] because he told a simple truth... namely that the period of the Four Righteous Caliphs was not a golden age..."[31]

Intellectual Makram Muhammad Ahmad also wrote, in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, that the Muslim Brotherhood had not changed its ideology and had not abandoned violence: "The Muslim Brotherhood movement is now claiming that it has abandoned violence and has begun to represent the stream of moderateness. But no one can believe this, because the movement wants to be both a party and a movement – a party that represents the political aspect and a religious movement that has a secret organization within it. Can there be a ploy more despicable than this?... Many groups in [Egyptian] society do not believe that this group has abandoned violence and has begun to agree to multi-party pluralism as a basis for a democratic society, in the framework of an overall change in its political view. The movement still refuses to condemn its blood-soaked history full of crimes of violence, and refuses to apologize for them..."[32]

The Islamic Movements' Espousal of Democratic Values is Mere Show – in an Attempt to Gain Power

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of Al-Arabiyya TV and former editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, who is one of the leading reformists in the Arab world, expressed concern that, after rising to power by democratic means, the Islamist movements would attempt to retain their power by undemocratic means. In an article titled "Is Democracy Also a Right of the Islamists?" he wrote: "The problem is not in giving power to the Islamists – the problem is that [afterwards], it will be impossible to take it out of their hands by democratic means... Today, when they are in the opposition, they call for the principle of regime change, complain about how they are distanced [from the political game], base their demand to hold elections on religious [arguments], and demand equal political rights. All these calls make them the most democratic party in the world – while their ideology [actually] opposes this. A [proper] state, by their criteria, is one in which you stay in power for 30 years and in which you hound your [political] rivals by accusing them of unbelief and by means of [various] prohibitions. Look at [the example of] Iran. When the [Islamist] rulers were in the opposition, they complained about being distanced [from politics] and about the lack of democracy. After they became the rulers, their democracy became an Athenian democracy that believes in regime change [only] within a limited group that enjoys the privileges [of power]...

"Perhaps Secretary [Condoleezza Rice] does not know that the most democratic Arab countries are the ones in which fundamental [human] rights have been expropriated by the parliaments. They have censored many books and cancelled many artistic festivals. That is, those elected by the people are above the constitution, and have changed it in the name of the majority. This is dictatorship of the majority...

"The problem is not that Muhammad Mamoun Al-Hudhaibi [Muslim Brotherhood leader who died in January 2004] will be Egypt's president, that Muhammad Sayyid Habib [current deputy Muslim Brotherhood leader] will be interior minister, or that Muhammad Moursi [another Muslim Brotherhood member] will be foreign minister in a future Muslim Brotherhood government. This is their right, if they win the elections, and on this there is no disagreement. The fear is of the essential changes in the sphere of fundamental human rights, and of the laws that their representatives – the representatives of the majority – will legislate. They have the right to be in power, but they must first respect the laws that brought them there."[33]

In an April 2006 critique of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni said that the moderate statements made by the Brotherhood are politically motivated and do not indicate a real change in the movement's positions: "When did the Muslim Brotherhood stop accusing civil society of heresy? When did it stop persecuting the supporters of civil society with accusations of treason against the homeland and with murderous rumors? All this, while the Muslim Brotherhood itself does not recognize the homeland and the national flag...

"When have they ever recognized that a Muslim has a homeland? And when have they ever recognized the flag or the national symbols? Don't they belong to the nation of 'There is No God but Allah,' that does not recognize the flag or the national symbols, as their spiritual leader has always declared?... How can they speak of the constitution and of the need to change its content when they have always refused to recognize the constitution, claiming that it is a secular innovation?...

"The Muslim Brotherhood has never spoken… any language other than the language of Koranic punishments and of rigid, cruel Salafi Islamic violence. They have always been opposed to Islam that is merciful, peaceful and beautiful, since, in their opinion, it is not Islam – the only [real] Islam and the only truth are those of the Muslim Brotherhood...

"So what is this new transformation, which [Muslim Brotherhood founder] Hassan Al-Bana, and [the movement's prominent intellectual leader] Sayyed Qutb would have never considered or accepted had they still been alive?... Are the new international circumstances playing a part in this transformation? Was it caused by the existence of certain forces in the region that have allied with the American leadership, and by the [American] pressure to establish democratic governments in the Islamic world?

"Do you not realize that the Muslim Brotherhood is renouncing everything that it has said in the previous century and in this century, and [adopting] the political structure demanded by the U.S., which [they refer to as] the Great Demonic Tyrant? What happened to Islam as they used to present it, and which was their reason for founding the movement? Gentlemen, [the Muslim Brotherhood is interested] not in Islam, but in gaining power, and this is why they have changed [some of their statements]...

"[According to Senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Issam Al-Aryan], 'the Muslim Brotherhood has declared that before the constitution is amended, freedoms must be granted, so that we will have a genuine People's Council that expresses the people's will and is elected in free and fair elections.' [But,] like other Muslim Brotherhood [members], Al-Aryan is interested only in elections, and not in the principles and values on which they are based, [since these principles and values] are not recognized by the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, does Al-Aryan recognize a Muslim's right to convert to another faith? That is a simple and straightforward question in every country of the world, but in our [country] merely [raising] the issue is a crime..."

"The Muslim Brotherhood must choose: It can join the democratic process – a purely civil process that has nothing to do with Islam or with any other religion, and which does not involve any sacred [concepts] but only human beings who, being human, may be either right or wrong – or it can choose to remain the Muslim Brotherhood, and [refrain from] speaking to us in a [foreign] language that they themselves have rejected throughout their long history..."[34]

In an article in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousuf, intellectual Abd Al-Fattah Asaker stated that the Muslim Brotherhood recognized the democratic game only so that it could attain power – and that after it had done so, it would abolish all the democratic gains that had been made in Egypt: "If the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds in attaining power, there will be destruction and ruin in all Egypt. Every intellectual will either be murdered or be forced to flee abroad from the hell of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has not been very long since the assassination of president [Anwar] Al-Sadat. He let them out of the prisons and opened the door to freedom and democracy to them – and [in exchange] they plotted against him and murdered him. To anyone who claims that Al-Sadat's assassins were [from] another group, we say that this is a lie. All the groups – whatever their name – are satellites of the Muslim Brotherhood...

"In one of his articles, Hassan Al-Bana said, 'Islam does not recognize the existence of parties' – meaning that they oppose political parties. They use them as a means of realizing their goals, and when they come to power, they will break up the parties and abolish all the democratic achievements. Our lives will then become an unbearable hell until they eliminate all of us."[35]

The Islamic Movements Will Remain Hostile to the West Because This is Part of Their Extremist Ideology

Among those opposed to dialogue were some who argued that the Islamic movements would continue their hostility towards the U.S. even after conducting dialogue with them. Abdallah bin Bajjad Al-Uteibi, a Saudi researcher specializing in Islamic movements, wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "America and the West are mistaken in thinking that they will win their gamble on the card of political Islam, because this is a dangerous game. According to all precedents on the Arab and international level, the outcome will be to the detriment of the one who tries to play [this card]. The Arab Afghans, who were created in Afghanistan by the American-Arab-Islamic coalition, turned back to attack the U.S. and the West in New York, Washington and Madrid. Likewise, they went back to their countries [of origin] to fill them with fire and destruction. [Egyptian president Anwar] Al-Sadat's experience with the Islamic groups led to his death; [former Algerian prime minister] Al-Shadhili bin Jadid's experience led Algeria into a civil war that consumed everything. What, then, makes the West think that this time [the experience] will be better?

"In the past, America conducted contacts with the Islamists, justifying this [with arguments connected to] its interests and [political] views. But the Islamists never, not even for a single day, acknowledged conciliation with America, and their ideological and political discourse was based, to a large extent, on war with the West and everything connected to it..."[36]

In an article titled "Help Me So I Can Be Your Enemy," popular Egyptian playwright and satirist Ali Salem wrote in the Qatari daily Al-Raya: "A center for research in Middle East affairs submitted a document to the American administration that recommended conducting contacts with Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya in Egypt in order to assure its friendship in case it came to power... The reasoning of this research document is: 'If we help them now, we will have their friendship later.'

"This reasoning makes sense, but it disregards [the fact that] an extremist thinks and acts differently than ordinary people. Academics and political scientists find it difficult to think in a way that contradicts simple logic. Only psychologists and criminal investigation officers can understand the principle of 'beware the evil of those to whom you have done good...'

"America helped [Egyptian president Gamal] Abd Al-Nasser get rid of the [British, French and Israeli] occupation armies [in 1956], and then the American president and all subsequent presidents sat and waited in the Oval Office of the White House for shows of friendship from those whom they had helped. Acknowledgement of a favor soon came – [but it was] acknowledgement of the favor by the Soviets, who saved Egypt from the triple aggression with the famous threat by [U.S.S.R. prime minister Nikolai] Bulganin that he would attack the capitals of the West with atom bombs...

"Members of the revolutionary regimes are certainly extremist. The values of the various extremists are completely different from those of the ordinary man. Help him today to gain power, and after he does so, expect nothing of him besides hatred and hostility. This is for the simple reason that he is an extremist, and his mind works in extreme ways – not in the way that the rest of the world thinks...

"We have much to learn from the West and from the research centers, [but] there are also many things that the research centers of the West must learn from us." [37]

Attacks on Arab Reformists Advocating Dialogue

Those opposed to the dialogue initiative have criticized its proponents among the Arab reformists, saying that these reformists have been deceived into believing that the Islamist movements should take part in the democratic process.

Egyptian reformist intellectual Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni harshly criticized Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim who called to let the Muslim Brotherhood participate in the elections. He wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "[Ibrahim's statements] demonstrate that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that some of the champions of civil society – whom I admire as [veritable] saints – are not what I believed them to be, which is a sore blow to my idealized image of secularism and its representatives... [Ibrahim's] call to let [the Muslim Brotherhood] take part in the elections, when they have not published a clear statement with guarantees that they have changed [their positions] regarding their terrorist history, is the way towards disaster...

"Dr. Sa'd defends the [Muslim] Brotherhood with his mind, his spirit, his heart, his pen, and his soul, and he exaggerates and gushes so much that he becomes more Muslim Brotherhood that the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Muslim Brotherhood has never renounced its old positions, and has never published a single [statement] condemning these positions. They have never even said that these are old positions, or positions held only by some [members of the movement], as Sa'd claims. [They have never said this] because their ideology is a cohesive whole, and anyone who renounces part of it renounces all of it...

"Sa'd Al-Din has not been hiding a Salafi sheikh inside him for the last quarter of a century. This [transformation] occurred during his oppressive imprisonment alongside Muslim Brotherhood [members]. The Egyptian regime is guilty of turning Sa'd into a Salafi Muslim. The Egyptian regime did to Sa'd exactly what the leader of the gang of drug [dealers] did to the respectable officer from the drugs squad who resisted all attempts to tempt and bribe him and continued to pursue the gang. The gang's 'big boss' had no choice but to kidnap him, imprison him and inject him with drugs every day, until the respectable officer turned into a [drug] addict who [no longer] posed a threat [to the gang]. Sa'd has been injected with 'the opiate of the masses.' What a pity for Sa'd Al-Din. What a pity for Egypt."[38]

Egyptian researcher and author Kamal Gabriel was harshly critical of his fellow Arab reformists, who, he says, "woo" the Muslim Brotherhood in hope of persuading them to change their discourse. He said that this was not a realistic approach, because if the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements made such a change, they would lose their power base among the public. In response Shaker Al-Nabulsi's article, he wrote in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in an article titled "The Muslim Brotherhood and the Dreaming Brotherhood," that such reformists "are deceiving themselves with the claim that their liberalism enables everyone to take part in the political process, whatever his ideology." According to him, "they are misreading the perceptions of the other – [i.e.,] the Muslim Brotherhood – and are deceived by the Brotherhood's temporary tactics that are based on their known principle of taqiya [hiding true beliefs out of fear of repression]. Does loyalty to liberalism demand that the Muslim Brotherhood be integrated into the political arena?"

Gabriel added that the Arab liberals "are wooing the Muslim Brotherhood in order to persuade them to change their discourse in a way that will enable them to enter the liberal circle." He wrote, "If the movement complies with these changes, it will not be the same group with power and influence over the public; it will become an orphaned and powerless group like ours – the neo-liberals. The public's gathering around the Muslim Brotherhood is not a gathering around the movements' leaders, but around [its ideas]... What will remain of the Brotherhood's political discourse [after it changes]? Will it then change its name from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Liberal Brotherhood?... Or will my brothers, the dreaming liberals, stop their impossible attempts, or perpetrate their propaganda under its real name – that is, preach liberalism in order to eliminate political Islam..."[39]

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] For some articles on the subject published in the West, see: J. Stacher and S. Shehata, "Hear Out the Muslim Brotherhood," The Boston Globe, March 25, 2007; M. Morrison, "Talk to the Brotherhood," The National Interest, Nov. 29, 2006; J. Traub, "Islamic Democrats?" The New York Times, April 29, 2007.

[2] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 7, 2007.

[3] The Egyptian authorities expressed displeasure about these meetings. Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad pointed out that the Americans' decision to meet with "members of an illegal group" (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood) on the grounds that they were members of the Egyptian parliament contrasted with the U.S. policy of avoiding contact with Hamas after its victory in the 2005 PA elections. (Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, May 27, 2005; www.alarabiya.net, May 28, 2005).

The U.S. Congressmen, for their part, downplayed the importance of these meetings, denying that they constituted the beginning of a dialogue between the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood, and stating that they had met with Al-Katatni as a member of the Egyptian parliament, not as a representative of his movement. Hoyer's spokesperson stated that Hoyer and his delegation had indeed met with Egyptian MPs, including Al-Katatni, at the reception, and that Hoyer had spoken briefly with Al-Katatni, just as he had spoken to many other guests. She emphasized that it was the Egyptian parliament speaker who had selected the members of the Egyptian parliamentary delegation that met with the Americans. (Al-Ahram, Egypt, April 10, 2007).

Al-Katatni said, in a similar vein, that he was not representing the Muslim Brotherhood at the meeting and had no authorization to speak for the Brotherhood, but was present only as an MP. He added that "the Muslim Brotherhood was strongly against dialogue with the Americans." Al-Katatni also stated that Egyptian Parliament Speaker Fathi Srour had introduced him to American delegation with the following words: "Dr. Muhammad Sa'd Al-Katatni is, in practice, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in parliament. However, the Muslim Brotherhood MPs are legally designated as independent [MPs], since [the Muslim Brotherhood] has no [official] political party." (www.islamonlin.net, April 7, 2007; www.ikhwanonline.com, April 8, 2007).

Conversely, another Muslim Brotherhood official, Issam Al-Aryan, claimed that the movement members had not met with the American delegation as independent MPs but as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that this was in accordance with the Brotherhood's policy. (Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, May 27, 2007).

[4] For the Rand Institute report, see http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2004/RAND_MG246.pdf.

See also R.S. Leiken and S. Brooke, "The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood". Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007; "Dialogue with the Islamic World," a Publication Series of the Federal Foreign Office, Germany, http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/diplo/de/Infoservice/Broschueren/Islamdialog.pdf.

[5] See Hussam Tammam, "Does America Really Accept the Islamists?" www.islamonline.net, April 12, 2005.

[6] See Amr Hamzawy, "The West and the Islamic Movements – Complicated Song Rhythms" in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 4, 2007.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), April 17, 2005.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), June 22, 2005.

[9] The Muslim Brotherhood gained 88 out of the 444 seats in the Egyptian parliament. The movement's representatives ran as independent candidates, since the Muslim Brotherhood does not have the status of a legal party in Egypt that can officially present candidates of its own.

[10] www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2005/48352.htm.

[11] The New York Times (U.S.), April 29, 2007. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt explained, in a similar vein, that the meetings between U.S. Congress members and Egyptian MPs, including Al-Katatni, do not constitute interference in Egypt's domestic affairs, since the Congressmen had met with Al-Katatni not as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but as an Egyptian MP. He added that there was need for contacts between the U.S. administration and the Egyptian parliament despite the criticism, and that such contacts are "only natural." He stressed that the American administration is avoiding holding contacts with the "illegal" Muslim Brotherhood movement out of respect for Egyptian law. Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), May 23, 2007.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 27, 2007.

[13] www.islamonline.net, May 3, 2005.

[14] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), April 30, 2005.

[15] www.islamonline.net, April 17, 2005.

[16] In an interview, Akef told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "If the American administration or any European government want to hold dialogue [with us] – the only way to reach us is through the Egyptian foreign ministry (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, December 11, 2005).

[17] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 8, 2007.

[18] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 27, 2007.

[19] www.islamonline.net, April 7, 2007.

[20] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 14, 2007.

[21] www.ikhwanweb.info, December 15, 2006.

[22] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 23, 2005.

[23] www.aljazeera.net, May 25, 2005.

[24] The New York Times (U.S.), May 21, 2005.

[25] www.qantara.de, May 24, 2005. However, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim wrote that even though he had been "among the first to call for integrating the Islamists into the mainstream of Arab political life," he was now harshly critical of the Islamists who had recently come to power or shared in it. He said that, in light of the "barbaric bloody manner" in which Hamas had taken over the Gaza Strip, it was understandable that people were raising questions about the relationship between Islam and terrorism. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1646, "Egyptian Intellectual, Civil Rights Activist Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim: I Supported Hamas' Right to Run For Election – But They Are Behaving Barbarically," July 6, 2007, Egyptian Intellectual, Civil Rights Activist Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim: I Supported Hamas's Right to Run For Election – But They Are Behaving Barbarically.

[26] The Daily Star (Lebanon), June 15, 2005.

[27] http://www.carnegieendowment.org/events/index.cfm?fa=eventDetail&id=900&&prog=zgp&proj=zdrl,zme .

The Washington Post (U.S.), October 10, 2006. [28]

[29] Al-Raya (Qatar), June 14, 2005.

[30] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 26, 2005.

[31] www.aljazeera.net, April 23, 2005.

[32] Al-Musawar (Egypt), May 13, 2005.

[33] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 22, 2005.

[34] www.metransparent.com, April 3, 2006.

[35] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 3, 2005.

[36] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 2, 2005.

[37] Al-Raya (Qatar), June 9, 2005.

[38] www.metransparent.com, April 2, 2007.

[39] www.elaph.com, June 15, 2005.