The British debate about "engaging Islamists"

Remember the leaked British Foreign Office memos about discussions between London and the embassy in Cairo on approaching the Muslim Brotherhood? Well, it seems there's a lot more where that came from.


The panda-eyed Observer columnist Nick Cohen -- a Hitchens-like leftist turned Defender of the Western Enlightenment, the Books of George Orwell and Secular Humanism against Islamic Terrorism (DWEEBGOSHIT) -- has a piece predicting outrage over a Channel Four documentary to air this Friday about how the Foreign Office wants to engage the MB:
This week will generate a lot of publicity for the longest and most revealing series of leaks from a government department I've seen in my career. For months, Martin Bright, the political editor of the New Statesman, has been receiving confidential Foreign Office documents almost daily with his morning post.

On Friday at 7.30pm, Channel 4 will screen a documentary by Bright, Who Speaks for Muslims, which shows how the Foreign Office views the Islamist far right as potential allies.

To accompany the programme, the Policy Exchange think-tank will publish 'When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: the British State's Flirtation with Radical Islamism', a pamphlet stuffed with enough state secrets to induce coronary arrests in previously healthy MI5 officers.

They describe the FO's attempts to woo the Arab Muslim Brotherhood, whose closest allies in Britain are the Muslim Association of Britain, and its south Asian counterpart, Jamaat-e-Islami, whose supporters are at the top of the Muslim Council of Britain. The mandarins reason that these groups are not part of al-Qaeda, which is true; that they are growing in power, which is regrettably true as well; and that they are composed of reasonable men with whom Britain can do business, which is palpable nonsense.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an imperialist movement that wants to establish a Muslim empire in which laws will come from an early medieval holy book rather than the parliaments elected by mortal men and women. It is sexist because its clerics justify the beating and circumcision of women. It is homophobic because it justifies the execution of homosexuals. And it is psychopathic because it justifies the murders of apostates, any Jew in Israel and any British or American soldier in Iraq.

Angus McKee, of the FO's Middle East and North Africa desk, thinks this gruesome record should be rewarded with large amounts of British taxpayers' money.'Given that Islamist groups are often less corrupt than the generality of the societies in which they operate,' he wrote, 'consideration might be given to channelling aid resources through them, so long as sufficient transparency is achievable.'

And since January 2006, the FO has been engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood abroad while providing free passes for its clerics at home.
There's more in the column, so you might want to read it fully before continuing below. Now, despite the admittedly cheap shot at DWEEBGOSHITs above, I do agree with some of their views (but none of their carefully cultivated and politically targeted indignation or support of the Bush administration.) Cohen is certainly right in pointing out that Qaradawi is no moderate and that his government should be less tolerant of soi-disant moderate sheikhs who preach the murder of homosexuals and other polices that no one would accept if a prominent priest or rabbi would use them (although, you know, these people also frequently do.) He has written about this kind of stuff before over the Red Ken & Green Youssef vs. Outrage! debacle.

But there is, in pragmatic diplomacy, a difference between this and a policy of engagement towards the Muslim Brotherhood -- especially when the Egyptian government, which doesn't khawagas to talk to the MB, has actually carried out in practice much worse human rights abuses than the MB is only occasionally talking about, and then not with one voice. The idea of engaging Islamists rather than isolating them makes some sense, even if one is uneasy about their ultimate intentions. Political movements of all sorts can be influenced, especially if they get international recognition, and they should be able to at least see the argument of dialogue rather than isolation. The experience of Egypt in the last eight months, when MB officials have made many conciliatory comments (and yes, others inflammatory and racist or worrying ones) precisely shows that the MB should be engaged, at least by domestic political actors. After all even a pro-American Egyptian liberal like Saad Eddin Ibrahim has advocating talking to the MB, while most of the left and liberal parties and groups have held some sort of dialogue. This is an elephant in the room you just can't ignore.

Policy Exchange, the center-right think tank Cohen mentions and which essentially backs the position that the FO is making a huge mistake, has links to a debate on this issue between Alastair Crooke, former masterspy turned advocate of engaging Hamas and the MB [PDF], and the think thank's director Dean Godson, who berates Crooke for his blindness towards Islamism [PDF]. Both have good and bad points, but in the end Godson seems to deliberately misinterpret Crooke's point of view. I also find the reference to "imperial guilt" distasteful, while the title, "Gone native," brings to mind the typical Zionist attacks against the State Dept.'s Arabist hands. You don't have to like the Islamists, or invite them over for dinner, to realize you're going to need to deal with them sooner or later. If you hadn't noticed, they've been winning elections. Trying to pull them away from the extremes while boosting liberals and leftists (who themselves can be a moderating influence) seems like a good idea -- the only other option is backing the dictators, and that one ran out of steam a long time ago.

What's interesting about this British debate is that it is taking place fairly openly. In Amreeka, from what I can tell from conversations with diplomats and Washington types there was a short window during which the engagement policy was discussed. The Egyptian MB's success, Cairo's and Tel Aviv's pressure and even more so Hamas' victory seems to have shut that window. And that is, ultimately, directly related to democracy promotion falling off the radar by the beginning of the year. So you see, DWEEBGOSHITs, the two -- dialogue with Islamists and democracy promotion in the Muslim world -- are directly related. You can't really have a policy of not dealing Islamists if they get elected, or one of miraculously converting every Muslim into a secular humanist who loves Animal Farm and 1984. Some of them might like Islamists, especially considering the alternatives. It stinks but that's the way it is. (And by the way, if you followed these ideas about moral rigor with everybody we wouldn't be buying nearly everything from the Chinese, who have concentration camps and persecute Christians and other religions, or India when the fundamentalist Hindu BJP gets elected, or in fact probably not a lot of people.) Despite what you think, it's not really a unipolar world where you can do what you like, people.

Another thing that strikes me about this controversy is the rampant leakage taking place at the FO. Clearly someone either close to John Sawers or Derek Plumbly is leaking all this stuff. If there is a controversy, heads might roll. The recipient of all the leaks, New Statesman editor Martin Bright, will be presenting the Channel Four documentary on Friday at 19:30 UK time. You can watch it online.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.