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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Leading British diplomat: 'engaging Islamists will fail'

Sir John Jenkins, who has been ambassador in Riyadh, Baghdad and Tripoli, said he does not believe diplomatic engagement with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood has ever extracted concessions

London // A leading British diplomat and one of the country’s most experienced envoys to Arab states has warned that Western engagement with Islamists has uniformly failed to moderate the views of radical movements in the Middle East.

Sir John Jenkins, who has been ambassador in Riyadh, Baghdad and Tripoli, said he does not believe diplomatic engagement with a range of groups, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbollah, has ever extracted any real concessions.

“I cannot think of a single example where Western diplomatic or any other sort of engagement has produced any change in the position of any political Islamist,” Sir John wrote in a blog post for the Policy Exchange think tank in London.

Recalling a list of contacts he was involved with in Iraq over a decade, he listed a set of failed dialogues.

“Occasional attempts in Iraq to shape the thinking of Ahmad Al Fartousi, leader of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s militia and the Lebanese Hizbollahi, Ali Musa Daqduq (aka ‘Hamid the Mute’) together with the Khazali brothers, the leaders of the murderous Iraqi Shiite militia, Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, failed. They gamed us instead.

“We have seen the same with the Houthis in Yemen and over the years with Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza and Lebanon.”

The author of a never-published British government report into the Muslim Brotherhood and its network of allies in the UK, said claims there were exploitable divisions between moderates and hardliners inside Islamist factions were constantly proven wrong.

“People sometimes say that we need to identify moderates inside such organisations and detach them by engagement from their more extreme colleagues. I can’t think of a single example where this has actually happened.”

Borrowing from a German philosopher, he described the self-delusion engaged in by some diplomats as akin to a despair that they would never be able to communicate with a lion. “The problem is that in this case the Islamist lion understands us perfectly well. We simply persist in thinking he is not a lion.”

Such contacts continued as late as last week when the British minister for the region, Alistair Burt travelled to Tunisia where he met with Rashid Al Ghannouchi, the Muslim Brotherhood stalwart and leader of Ennahda, one of the country's biggest political parties. Sir John questioned a statement last year that Ennahda had repudiated the Muslim Brotherhood. “It remains unclear what it means, especially given Ghannouchi’s star status with global Muslim Brotherhood circles.”

Experience suggested a far more effective approach was to shun outfits that harboured ideologues.

“Indeed, it is often a refusal to engage that has the most effect, as it was for those elements of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s who eventually formed the moderate offshoot Al Wasat because they thought the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to be a political dead end and no one would talk to them otherwise,” he added.

“Much of the British Government’s policy work on the Muslim Brotherhood – and indeed Hizbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and even Iran – in recent years has been shaped by claims that we can influence the thinking of both Sunni and Shia Islamists if only we engage with them."

Sir John warned of the dangers of groups that used semantics to aim different messages at separate audiences. The programming of Al Jazeera Arabic and its English off-shoot illustrated the pitfalls of listening to only one channel.

Now teaching at Yale University and a director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Sir John took issue with last year’s call from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee for regular talks with Islamists to “encourage them to adopt certain more liberal interpretations of Islam".

Instead of offering a “warm diplomatic bath”, officials should take a clear-eyed view that dialogue could only be justified when both sides approached the table with fundamental clarity.

“It means making an effort to understand what Islamist equivocation disguises – the will to power. It means making sure we are absolutely clear what Islamist claims to value democracy [for example] or human rights mean in practice,” he said. “It means judging engagement not on fine sentiments but on practical outcomes. And it means selling engagement – which has a huge value for all Islamists – at its proper price not at a liberal discount.”

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