What today's Islamists want
By Ibrahim El Houdaiby
First Published: November 9, 2007
CAIRO: What exactly do Western governments and policymakers want from Islamists, i.e. individuals and groups who believe that their system of government should be based on Islamic principles? As a moderate Islamist keen to build bridges of understanding and communication with different people in the West and elsewhere, I find it difficult to answer this question.
Over the past couple of decades, a moderate discourse has developed within political Islam, reconciling Islamic teachings with modern life after decades of stagnation and resulting in Islamically-acceptable solutions for several contentious issues. Today's moderate Islamists fully endorse democracy, and their discourse illustrates a clear respect of civil liberties and human rights.
This contemporary discourse is not inherently anti-Western. True, it does take different stances on some issues, but it is a balanced discourse that makes clear distinctions between governments and civil society organizations. It is a discourse that realizes that the West is not a homogeneous bloc and that a number of significant differences exist therein. Nonetheless, most — if not all — Western official circles have been very hesitant in their response to this development in political Islam.
Whereas intellectuals and think-tanks have been keen to pursue opportunities for dialogue with moderate Islamists, very few state officials have shown interest in joining such discussions despite having participated in many lectures and talks about them.
I understand that Western policymakers have security concerns in mind when dealing with Islamists. But I think it is legitimate to assume that these policy-makers are intelligent, knowledgeable and mature enough to realize that not all Islamic activists are terrorists, and that terrorist groups are as critical of peaceful, moderate groups as they are of the West. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda, and the political discourses of Khayrat El Shater, the deputy chief of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ayman Al Zawahry, a leading ideologue of Al Qaeda, have hardly anything in common.
In fact, this diversity within political Islam should encourage Western policymakers to deal with moderate groups, whose empowerment could significantly undermine the radicals' contention that the doors for peaceful reform are closed. They should engage in talks with moderates, and allow their participation as elected representatives in the political systems of their respective countries.
I also understand that some Western democracy activists are skeptical of the Islamic democratic sentiment, and are still afraid of the concept of "one man, one vote, one time", which suggests that if Islamic politicians are democratically elected to government, they will make sure no other party is provided that same opportunity after them. Nonetheless, empirical evidence proves the exact opposite. Professional syndicate elections in Egypt and parliamentary elections in Turkey and Morocco, for example, clearly show that parties rooted in Islamic politics do respect the systems in which they choose to compete. The more integrated Islamists are, the more respectful of the processes of democracy they prove to be.
Some Western policymakers and civil society advocates are also worried about political Islam's attitude towards human rights and civil liberties. Again, this is a misconception caused by lumping all Islamic political activists together and failing to see the differences between them. In fact, some moderate groups are more capable of protecting and promoting human rights in the Muslim world than the contemporary regimes. Most contemporary regimes face eroding popularity, and compensate by using extralegal measures and violating human rights to silence their opposition.
Of course, Western and Muslim states will not agree on every issue. Even Western politicians disagree about how specific human rights issues, such as the right to life when it comes to capital punishment and abortion, should be translated into law. Many such decisions are made based on the values of the majority in particular societies. What matters is that the basic human rights put forward by international covenants are respected and endorsed. The real concerns for human rights activists in the region today should be the mounting statistics about torture, crackdowns on newspaper editors and media outlets, military tribunals for civilians, illegal detentions, violence against women, poverty, and lack of democracy.
Contemporary moderate Islamic politicians fully endorse democracy, support freedom of the press, and believe in equality as the basis of citizenship. That alone should resolve most human rights issues in the Middle East.
One should not judge the Islamists' stance on human rights by assessing the attitudes of some right-wing Islamic groups. The writings of Islamic scholars like Youssef Al Qaradawi, Tariq El Bishry, Selim El Awwa and others have shown a high level of respect for human rights and civil liberties.
I find it very difficult to understand what makes Western governments, unlike civil society organizations, skeptical about engaging in healthy dialogue with moderate Islamists. I find it very difficult to understand their awkward silence in the face of ongoing violations of such activists' human rights by their authoritarian regimes — banning them from political participation, and sending them to prisons by the hundreds. I find it even more difficult to comprehend the clear bias and lack of even-handedness illustrated by the Western silence regarding the ongoing military tribunals for moderate Islamists acquitted by civilian courts in Egypt.
Western government officials should respond positively to the positive steps taken by moderate Islamists. By shunning dialogue with the moderate voices of political Islam, Western governments are gradually handing victory to the radicals both they and moderate Islamic politicians are keen to undermine.
Ibrahim El Houdaibyis a board member of IkhwanWeb.com, the Muslim Brotherhood's (Ikhwan) official English-language website and is working towards an MA in Islamic studies.