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.