The panel discussion "Engaging Political Islam" took place at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.
Engaging Political Islam
November 14, 2006
Maysam al-Faruqi, Richard Murphy, S. Abdallah Schleifer, Akbar Ahmed
In the conference panel 'Engaging Political Islam', the three panelists and moderator analyzed the prospects and difficulties for the West in engaging political Islamists. Abdallah Schleifer focused on the evolution of political Islam as a movement, and its distance from Islamic spiritualism. Maysam al-Faruqi discussed the historical roots of political Islam and the use of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to further Islamist movements. Ambassador Richard Murphy analyzed political Islam through the lens of a diplomat, critiquing the inability of the U.S. to openly engage political Islamists and providing recommendations for the future.
Professor Akbar Ahmed opened the panel by critiquing the West’s approach to political Islam. According to Ahmed, political Islam has become the dominant discourse in the Muslim World as a direct response to the failure of the relationship between moderate Islam and the West. Had democracy and construction of civil institutions occurred, more extreme elements of Islam would have been contained.
He warned that Western policies of ignoring, clashing with, and bombing Islamists have not contained political Islam, but instead have given rise to more extreme variants. Such an approach has not only strengthened extremists, but has further weakened moderate Islamic leaders. Professor Ahmed concluded that a more moderate approach is needed in order to constructively engage Islamists in the political sphere and reverse this trend.
Mr. Schleifer drew on his personal experiences as a Muslim and a journalist to highlight the rise of increasingly violent Islamist movements. As a journalist he was struck by the hospitality of Palestinian Fedayeen and militia in Lebanon. These groups had an abstract ideological attachment to nationalism, yet were devout spiritual Muslims with a true commitment to Islamism. Mr. Schleifer argued that contemporary Islamist movements no longer reflect the typically Islamic values of hospitality and civility. With the focus on violence, the intrinsic spirituality is gone and an ideology has filled that void. Islam remains as rhetoric, not as a spiritual and social guide. While these contemporary groups are nominally Islamists, in Schleifer’s view they are essentially ideologues.
To further illustrate this trend, Schleifer compared the treatment of captives held by Islamic oriented guerilla movements in the past three decades. Schleifer stressed that there is a distinct difference between Islamic organizations committed to the political process and those that are in principle committed to the sanctification of violence and terrorism. Although their tactics may be appalling, terrorist groups should still be engaged by diplomats. Pointing to the militant actions of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Yassir Arafat, Schleifer reiterated that groups considered to be terrorists today will not necessarily be terrorists in the future.
Maysam al-Faruqi, the second panelist, argued that if Muslims are given the opportunity to freely chose their governments, they will create institutions that reflect their Islamic identity—a reality that the West is unable to accept. While culturally constructed Western structures are effective in the West, they are not the best model for other regions. Pointing to the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and segregation, al-Faruqi asserted that the Western model of democracy is not sacrosanct.
Colonialism destroyed the traditional state, cultural and social structures. In al-Faruqi’s opinion, political Islam is the natural resistance to the artificial structures left behind by colonialism and perpetuated by authoritarian rulers. As a result, Islamists are embroiled in internal and external struggles: internal struggles against the imposed institutions and ideologies, and external struggles against Western intervention in internal political, economic, and military affairs. Al-Farqui also argued that extreme Islamist movements are a result of political issues and not of religion. Opposition groups have become increasingly radical as Muslim populations are being oppressed in Bosnia, Chechnya, and in the Palestinian territories. Muslims who normally oppose the use of violence, see these violations as the work of the West and as a justification for retaliation. She insisted that these urgent political issues must be addressed in a constructive manner in order to provide stability and reverse the rapid trend of radicalism.
The final panelist, Ambassador Murphy began his statement by admitting that the United States’ ability to engage political Islamists has been severely constrained in the last 30 years. In his opinion, three barriers prevent diplomats from understanding and making recommendations to shape U.S. policy towards political Islam: diplomats are more favorably disposed toward secular political movements; they are constrained by their state-centric view of international relations; and they must weigh the benefits of engaging political Islamic groups against the costs of damaging their relationship with the host government.
In order to overcome these obstacles, Ambassador Murphy provided a number of recommendations for current and future American policymakers. He emphasized that the West must resist treatment of all Islamist parties as an undifferentiated group. In contrast to al-Qaeda, most Islamists are in fact local and nationalist. He also suggested that American policymakers begin to explore the common ground between America and emerging Islamist leaders who have disavowed violence. American refusal to engage in dialogue reinforces the perception that America supports their exclusion from the political process. Ambassador Murphy concluded by arguing that the U.S. should refocus efforts into tackling issues such unemployment, corruption, and monopoly of political power. Once these grievances are addressed, only then will the attraction to extreme political Islam subside.
About this Event
Akbar Ahmed, Maysam al Faruqi, Ambassador Richard Murphy, and S. Abdallah Schleifer offered these remarks at the National Press Club Room in Washington, DC on November 14, 2006. The panel was part of the Middle East Institute's 60th Annual Conference.
This event summary is written by Taylor Luck. Taylor is a senior at Beloit College, majoring in international relations with a focus in the Middle East. He is currently an intern in the Communications Department of the Middle East Institute. Rosalind Piggot peer edited this summary. She studied International Relations at the London School of Economics and is currently an intern at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center and a research intern for Scholar in Residence Dr. Marvin Weinbaum.