I have translated an article published recently at IslamOnline not because it is particularly useful or contains anything especially groundbreaking, but because it was quite a challenge to translate given that the Arabic source was so impenetrable; perhaps the gist of the text is more easily understandable in English.
In spite of its complexity, the text does offer us some basic categories for defining Islamist movements as viewed from a Western perspective; something that gives the text as a whole some residual value.
Western Strategy towards Islamism
By Rafiq Habib
How will the West deal with Islamic movements in the future? This is the question to which we will try to seek an answer: in spite of the present state of uncertainty and confusion in western attitudes towards the Islamic movement, we are witnessing a transitional stage in Western policy towards political Islamism. With this in mind, Western policy can be radically different for short periods and there is no consistent long-term strategy for dealing with political Islamism. Western policy mainly seeks to protect Western interests in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This can be achieved through political hegemony, securing Israel’s sovereignty and the alliance of the ruling elite in the region with the West.
However, Western policy towards Islamic movements changes according to the advice of policymakers seeking the most appropriate means to achieve their aims. It is evident that the West disapproves of the Islamic movement, which it views as a threat that must be kept under control.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, and especially after the 9/11 attacks, Western policy placed the disparate Islamic movements in the same basket as the foremost enemy of the West. When it was revealed that this policy encouraged disagreement, confrontation and hostility amongst a broad cross-section of the public, the West started to differentiate between extremist and moderate movements, dealing with each according to their classification. This tactic eventually spawned a draft Western strategy that gradually took shape in dealings with the Islamic movements.
Revising the Status of Islamism
The West initially tries to be an invaluable constituent in deciding the status of Islamism, so that it can influence it both domestically and abroad. This eventually leads to a fundamental shift in the Islamist situation and the outcomes for Islamic movements. Western policymakers realise that it is difficult to effect change on Islamic movements, so Western attitudes demonstrate concepts and models for the Islamic movement to follow and then exercise pressure on each movement to determine its attitude towards these Western models. The respective Islamic movement, accordingly, has only to declare itself either an ally or an enemy to the West. However, there are a variety of models, based mainly on the Islamic movement’s relative position on the map of the Muslim and Arab world, giving rise to various distinctions within each category of allies and enemies.
The Western policy seemingly deals with various models, without restricting itself to the narrow categories of friend or foe. The following are several representations highlighted by Western policies.
1 – The Islamic enemy:
This category consists of the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban Movement in Afghanistan, as well as the Pakistani Taliban Movement. It is apparent from the policy of President Barack Obama that this category constitutes the archenemy of the United States and the West. Any anti-US militant movement that opposes the US-allied regimes is also listed in this category. The war that the Pakistani government has launched against the Pakistani Taliban Movement has no connection with what happened on 9/11. It has been said that the Pakistani Taliban Movement supports the Taliban Movement in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda network, but that does not justify the intensification of the war in Pakistan in such a way that it may trigger a civil war. This war was actually launched against anti-US Jihadist movements who have been fighting US allies in the region. The salient feature of this category is its espousal of violence.
2 – Secularist allies with Islamic roots:
This category consists of any Islamic movement or Islamic ideologue that campaigns on a political platform or uses Islamist rhetoric under the guise of secularism, assuming that secularism is the optimum standard of democracy and human rights in the Western mindset. Any secularist approach on the political and public level is consistent with the Western understanding of politics, despite their being cultural and ethical differences. Islamists who campaign on a platform that embraces the secularist criterion of the modern state is actually committed to Western politics, where cultural differences reflect Western political models special features tailored for various local environments. An example of this model is the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), which constitutes a secular party founded by Islamists; that is ‘A party with Islamic roots’, without an Islamic source of authority. This is an example of a movement that can ally with the West, unlike the Islamic enemy.
3 – Islamists allying to fight extremism:
This occurs where special conditions require the sealing of alliances with an Islamic party, without imposing unjust conditions, for the purposes of combating another Islamic party. This is what has happened in Somalia, where the West allied with one wing of the Islamic Courts Movement, which ruled Somalia for a few months, against another faction in the same movement. This resulted in the confrontation between the Western-backed Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as President of Somalia, and his friend in the Islamic Courts Movement Tahir Awes. Certainly, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was not promoting secularism. They also allowed him to request the application of the Islamic Shari’ah and he was given the freedom to fight the Islamic opposition. In this particular case, we observe an Islamic ruler and an Islamic opposition. We observe that Western policy is based on getting rid of ‘an extremist movement’ and replacing it with a movement that the West perceives as more moderate. We even anticipate a tragic end for such an approach, resembling the end of the mujahideen movements in Afghanistan.
If Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s coalition managed to eliminate the so-called extremist movements, seen as embracing the ideology of the Al-Qaeda network and its leader Osama bin Laden, Western powers will then oppose it in an attempt to eliminate it as well and search for a completely secular ally; this is unless they find a secular tendency within the Islamist movement of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. This occurred with Afghan militants as they faced a confrontation with those who were formerly among them after the end of their role in the war against the former Soviet Union. This is presumed to be the catalyst for al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, to wage war on America. Similarly, there have been other occasions when Islamic movements have been tolerated for specific purposes, as was the case with support for the Iraqi Islamic Party in return for its participation in the political process during the US occupation of Iraq.
4 – Recognition of Israel:
This approach appears in the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. The Hamas movement is asked to adopt policies that safeguard the existence of an Israeli state in return for its own international recognition, the acknowledgement of its political role, and allowing it to share power. This is a deal between the resistance and the recognition of the movement which is in fact a compromise between all the constituents of the movement and the constituents of the Palestinian people. Therefore, such deals and the compromises they require are not likely to succeed because what they ask of the Hamas movement or Hezbollah to commit popular suicide. If the Hamas movement abandoned its supporters and electorate, the movement would disappear leaving a void to be filled by yet another movement.
The problem here is that the West thinks that what happened with secular resistance movements can happen with Islamic resistance movements, which is plain wrong. Secular resistance movements can compromise and change the fundamental nature of their struggle because their founding tenets are only political views; yet, the doctrines of Islamic resistance movements, which are religious and cultural by nature, are principles that cannot be restricted or changed. Hence, Western policy towards the Islamic resistance movements will progress in a vicious circle: the West will hold dialogue with them without reaching a final settlement. This means that dialogue with Islamic resistance movements is only a means to a temporary understanding with the resistance, because the status quo cannot be disregarded. Therefore, a dialogue will be maintained with those movements to gradually soften their attitudes, in the hope that this may eventually lead to an accommodation or transformation.
5 – Keeping them away from reins of power:
An example of this phenomenon is the Muslim Brotherhood movement, present in several Arab and Muslim countries, and particularly in Egypt, where we find that Western policy does not favour an Islamic movement achieving power. Any Islamic movement that has an Islamic platform is considered unacceptable as a partner with the West. However, the West does not want a confrontation with all of the Islamic parties at once. We observe this policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood group based on its refusal of secularism and its rejection of Israel. It also calls for a unified Palestinian state. The West will move towards controlling its external power, as an alternative to confrontation and exclusion. The Western policy will focus on not allowing the Muslim Brotherhood movement to achieve power, whilst allowing it to function and take part in the political process.
According to the aforementioned categories, Islamic movements are considered as the terrorist enemy, the secularist ally, the temporary moderate Islamic ally confronting Islamic extremism, the Islamic resistance that wishes to change its attitude, and the Islamist movement kept from power as long as it refuses to be secularized. The most important feature of this strategy is that it has no permanency; it may change from time to time. It also widens gaps between the Islamic movements, and deals with them by means of giving them the carrot of power for those accepting secularism as a political goal, and the stick of military force against those fighting US hegemony or those hostile towards US allies in the region. The aim is to widen the gap and even cause a schism between the Islamic movements in such a way as to trigger confrontations amongst them, causing these movements to get involved in proxy wars on behalf of the West.
The most complicated aspect is the dialogue with the Islamic resistance movements in Palestine; in particular Hamas. Holding a bilateral dialogue has the aim of exerting pressure on it to recognise the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, and to denounce the resistance, which is considered ‘terrorism’. This is impossible. Therefore, the results of the dialogue with the resistance movements will remain an important and effective factor in Western attitudes towards the Islamist movement in general, and may even lead to Western policies changing towards them.