Engaging with Islamists: What Makes Us Think It Will Ever Work?

(Policy Exchange-UK) Sir John Jenkins - In 2014 I prepared the Muslim Brotherhood Review, an internal review of the global Islamist movement for the British Government. Much of the British Government's policy work on the Muslim Brotherhood - and indeed Hizbullah, Hamas, the Houthis and even Iran - in recent years has been shaped by claims that we can influence the thinking of both Sunni and Shia Islamists if only we engage with them. But I cannot think of a single example where Western diplomatic or any other sort of engagement has produced any change in the position of any political Islamist. Our decisions publicly to engage with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after 2000 and in 2008 to re-engage diplomatically with Hizbullah's political wing produced absolutely no shift in their thinking. Attempts in Iraq to shape the thinking of Ahmad al Fartousi, leader of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's militia, and other Iraqi Shia militias failed. They gamed us instead. We have seen the same with the Houthis in Yemen and over the years with Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. People sometimes say that we need to identify moderates inside such organizations and detach them by engagement from their more extreme colleagues. Again, I can't think of a single example where this has actually happened. So-called moderates rarely represent the core of any Islamist operation. And in any case, most Islamist groups from the Muslim Brotherhood onwards have a history of expelling, not accommodating, reformists. Sustained and serious Western engagement with Hamas would have encouraged them to believe they could resist international pressure. It would not have stopped them seeking funding from Iran or Qatar or Turkey: they would simply have concluded we would do nothing about it. Engagement is possible, but it has to be on our terms. That means consistently asking probing questions. It means expecting proper answers, not some lecture about the past. It means making an effort to understand what Islamist equivocation disguises - the will to power. It means making sure we are absolutely clear what Islamist claims to value democracy or human rights mean in practice. It means judging engagement not on fine sentiments but on practical outcomes. The writer became Executive Director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies - Middle East in 2015 after a 35-year career in the British Diplomatic Service. He was British Consul-General, Jerusalem (2003-06), Ambassador to Syria (2006-07), Ambassador to Iraq (2009-11), Ambassador to Libya (2011), and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2012-2015).

2017-08-18 00:00:00

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