x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

There is mistrust, but Islamists and the US need each other

A visit to the US this month by an Islamist political delegation was only a first step in establishing a relationship that necessity is forcing on both sides. Omar Karmi, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

WASHINGTON // A visit to the US this month by an Islamist political delegation was only a first step in establishing a relationship that necessity is forcing on both sides.

Analysts say the Obama administration has to deal with the emerging political realities in the Middle East, where the old order was overturned by the Arab Spring. And Islamist groups newly empowered by democratic mandates need to persuade the West that they will not misuse that power.

But there are reservations in the US over the intentions of groups that until recently were considered beyond the pale for normal diplomacy.

Questions abound: Will the Islamists, once in power, remain committed to a democratic process? What will be the role of Sharia?

How will individual, minority and women's rights be safeguarded? How will Islamists, especially the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, handle relations with Israel?

The Islamist "charm offensive" in Washington went only part of the way to answer such concerns, said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the Washington think tanks that hosted the delegation.

He said the representatives of the various political factions, including Ennahda in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, did not skirt the "hot button issues".

The visit was both necessary and politically shrewd, Mr Cook said. While there are people in Washington who are "predisposed not to believe what the Brotherhood says on anything", he said, Obama administration officials do not have the luxury "to play those kinds of games".

"Quite obviously, these are political groups that have become empowered and we need to adjust to that new reality."

Nevertheless, on the pro-Israel political right in America, the meetings between Islamist representatives and what the White House said were "mid-level" officials at the National Security Council and State Department, were fiercely criticised.

In the online conservative American Thinker magazine blog, Rick Moran said the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's "odious belief that Israel must be destroyed … makes a mockery of any claim they have to legitimacy". In the neo-conservative Commentary monthly, Jonathan Tobin wrote that the meeting showed the "depths to which the administration's Middle East cluelessness has sunk".

But the reality is that the Obama administration is unlikely to go too far in any outreach to Islamist parties. Barack Obama, the US president, is aiming for re-election this year, and the popular discourse in America on Islam in general and political Islam in particular has long painted Islamists as extremists, said Rasool Nafisi, a professor of sociology and comparative religion at Strayer University in Virginia.

A useful bellwether, he said, was Rick Santorum, until last week the main rival to Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination to challenge Mr Obama for the presidency in November.

Mr Nafisi said Mr Santorum was "the most rigid and zealous" of US politicians regarding "Islamo-fascism", a term the former senator helped to make part of the vocabulary in the US. Mr Santorum's "amazing success" in his challenge for the Republican presidential candidacy illustrated how deeply "anti-Islamic feeling, in the guise of anti-Islamic radicalism, exists in this country", Mr Nafisi said.

Washington has to try to engage with moderates in these emerging movements, in part to help prevent revolutions in Arab countries going the way of Iran, where a theocratic regime followed the popular revolution there, Mr Nafisi said.

"What is the other option? The other option is to side with the military and suppress them in the future. That led to a seven-year civil war between religious groups and the government in Algeria and society is still unstable," he said.

Foreign policy, said Mr Cook, "doesn't stop simply because it is an election cycle".

"The responsible thing from a foreign policy perspective is to understand who these people are and what they want. The bottom line is we don't really have any choice."

Both political Islamic groups and US policymakers will benefit from getting to know each other better, said Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which hosted a day-long conference on April 5 with Islamist representatives from Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia.

"We felt strongly that it was about time that these people came to Washington, both so that people here can listen to them, but also so they can understand how they are perceived outside their own country."

Ms Ottaway said she objected to the description of the visit as a "charm offensive", since it implied that "this was all bogus". Ultimately, the Islamist representatives did only what politicians in Washington do: they tried to make a good impression.

Did it succeed?

"If they were here to say 'look we don't have horns and a tail', they were successful," said Mr Cook. "I think what is ultimately going to be the thing that convinces people one way or another is what happens in Cairo."