TCS Daily

Operation Charm Offensive Towards Islamists

By Olivier Guitta - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

In the past few weeks, the Arab media have been buzzing with shocking news: the West is engaging in open talks with Islamists. While this is not really unexpected coming from the European Union, which has always been quite appeasing with Islamists, it is all the more surprising coming from the Bush administration.

It all really started with reports in the Arab press of a "secret" meeting in Beirut on March 22 between US officials and representatives of terrorist organizations. In attendance: Musa Abu Marzuk, Sami Kheter and Osama Hamdan from the Palestinian Hamas; Nawaf Mousawi from the Lebanese Hizbullah; Ibrahim al Masri and Assad Harmouche from the Lebanese Gamaa Islamiya; and three representatives from the Pakistani Gamaa Islamiya. Eli Lake from the New York Sun is among the only journalists in the US media who has reported at length about this meeting.

At the same time, the European Union was on the same active path of engaging dialogue. At an EU meeting in Luxembourg on April 16 foreign ministers decided it was high time to get into talks with "moderate" Islamists. They regretted that in the past they only dealt with the seculars in the Middle East.

Finally, some Arab newspapers -- including Al Quds al Arabi, TelQuel and At Tajdid -- reported that another "secret" meeting occurred between April 17 and 21 in Marrakech, Morocco, between US officials and members of the Islamist opposition, in particular leaders of the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Interestingly a passionate debate on Saudi TV Al Arabiya on April 19 -- translated by -- touched on this new dialogue. One of the panelists was the Islamist, Azzam Al-Tamimi, head of The Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. Tamimi, who took part in that now infamous Beirut meeting, made clear that it was an all-Western initiative. He explained this American change of heart by a new realism: Americans know that in a democratic process, the Islamists will win.

Then, Hizbullah's Nawaf Mousawi clarified that the Beirut meeting was just a prelude and that he has to build a common platform with the Americans. Another panelist, Mohammed Bacheri, president of the Islamic European Congress, explains that this dialogue is quite advanced and that, for instance, the German and British foreign ministries are creating a section exclusively devoted to relations with Islamist movements.

Then perhaps most surprisingly, Neil Livingstone, a terrorism expert, agreed, arguing that since Hizbullah is part of the political landscape in Lebanon, it is fine to engage dialogue with them. What about if Al Qaeda became a political party and ran in elections in Saudi Arabia? Would we engage dialogue with them? Where would be the difference?

What We're Dealing With

Let's look at who it is we are really talking to.

First, Hizbullah. Before September 11, Hizbullah was the terrorist organization which had killed the largest number of Americans. Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State had labeled it "the A team of terrorists while Al Qaeda might be the B team." On February 24, 2004, ex-CIA Director George Tenet warned that Hizbullah had cultivated an extensive network of operatives on American soil and an "ongoing capability to launch terrorist attacks within the United States." Jordanian King Abdullah recently warned the US and Israel that Hizbullah may launch attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, thus derailing the already faltering peace dialogue. Hizbullah's leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, said in March 2003: "Death to America was, is and will stay our slogan."

The Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas -- whose charter calls for the destruction of our staunchest ally in the region, Israel -- is on the US and EU list of terrorist organizations. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri gave an interview to the French daily Liberation on May 6 where he declared that attacks against civilians are not terrorist attacks but merely "martyr operations". Also as Daniel Pipes noted in a recent article, President Bush stated in June 2003 that "the free world, those who love freedom and peace, must deal harshly with Hamas" and that "Hamas must be dismantled."

Last but not least, the Muslim Brotherhood. Just a few recent facts about them. Al Qaeda's number 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri is a Muslim brother. Bin Laden's mentor is none other than Said Qutb, the leader of the Brotherhood in the 1950's. Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, the head of the European Muslim Brotherhood, called in a fatwa for the killings of all Americans in Iraq, civilian or not. MEMRI reported that a recently arrested Saudi terrorist in Iraq followed this very fatwa.

MEMRI also had a translation of an article published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa by Ahmad al Baghdadi, a professor of political science at the University of Kuwait. In it, he called for outlawing and disbanding the Muslim Brotherhood organization, and confiscating its sources of funding. He is also very critical of the US, he writes: "Perhaps the most puzzling thing is the US's silence regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that this organization supports terrorism, whether by supporting Bin Laden...or by publishing terrorist fatwas, or by calling to destroy democracy."

Some would like to make us believe that the Muslim Brothers are "moderate" Islamists.

Is there such a thing as a "moderate" Islamist?

Indeed, as Rifaat al Said, the President of a leftist opposition Egyptian party, said it:" The moderate Islamists do not exist. To be moderate is to accept the Other. And the very Muslim Brothers' doctrine is based on the non respect of other religions." Said deemed it a major mistake to think -- like Europeans and Americans do -- that democracy in a Muslim country has to go through a "moderate" Islamist power phase.

It is true that by strongly pushing for democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration is taking some risks. One of them being bringing to power our very own mortal enemies: the Islamists like Hizbullah, Hamas or the Muslim Brothers.

Some realists or cynics are posing the question: Is there a good alternative to dealing with Islamists? Yes, as Robert Satloff, of the Washington Institute, recently advocated: "The goal of US policy should be to undermine and defeat Islamists by identifying, nurturing, and supporting a wide coalition of non- and anti-Islamists." Also, there must be another option than just the tyrants in place and the Islamists: just look at how many non-Islamist political parties were formed in Iraq after the 2003 liberation.

At least, before engaging Islamists, the US should wait that they stop, once and for all, terrorism and lay down arms. By dialoguing with our very own enemies so early in the War, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. The Bush administration is on a very slippery slope: how can you justify speaking with Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood? Where is the "We don't negotiate with terrorists."? What kind of credibility will the US have? If on one hand, we are fighting terrorism but on the other we are talking to these very same terrorists...We went from "Shock and Awe" to "Charm and Talk" and thus we just handed ourselves our first defeat in this war.

Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specializing in the Middle East and Europe.


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