Discordant approaches to Islamic movements

As the US edges towards dialogue with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, neo-con rhetoric dominates British politics

    The US is understood to be opening dialogue with Egypt's Muslim brotherhood [EPA]

    A discordant trend is tearing apart the Western alliance and its Middle East policies. The armed intervention in Libya has highlighted this graphically, with the US giving only token assistance to the NATO-led strikes.

    Robert Gates, the outgoing US Secretary of Defence, roundly criticised European countries in a valedictory speech in Brussels for reducing their defence budgets. But it is not just the Libyan situation which exposes the dissonance between supposed allies. While the US has decided to be pragmatic in relations with the Middle East's Islamic movements, Britain remains entrenched in an ideological approach.

    Despite a long-standing hostile public posture, the Obama administration has edged cautiously towards dialogue with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in the region.

    Speaking in Budapest last month, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton confirmed that Washington had pursued a policy of "limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood" on and off for five or six years. With the political landscape of the region changing, she announced that the US would welcome a more open dialogue. Similar contacts have been made with the Tunisian Nahdah Party. 

    While a subtle change of direction has been witnessed in relations with the Brotherhood in Egypt, the same cannot be said about occupied Palestine, where Washington's policy has been ambiguous and restrained. There are two possible explanations for this, the first being the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on US policy in Palestine, while US ambiguity stems primarily from the fact that that, although the Pentagon prefers dialogue with Hamas, the State Department urges caution.

    Under the Bush administration, the US adopted a dual strategy toward Hamas intended to isolate the movement politically and defeat it militarily. This policy ended in failure in 2006-07 when Hamas won the parliamentary elections and the US became embroiled in an attempted coup to overthrow the government in Gaza.

    Since then, senior intelligence officers at the US Central Command - CENTCOM - have made no secret of the fact that they regard Hamas as a serious player which cannot be destroyed or ignored. CENTCOM's then head, General David Petraeus, articulated this in a report in January 2010.

    The following month, a US Foreign Service officer, Rachel Schneller, appeared on a panel with Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan at a forum hosted by the Al Jazeera Centre for Strategic Studies in Doha. White House officials and participants in the talks denied that the meetings were sanctioned by Washington.

    At the moment, it is clear that the Obama administration has gone as far as it can on Palestine. In his address to the AIPAC annual conference in May 2011, President Obama reiterated the official line that his government still regards Hamas as an obstacle to peace. His declared opposition to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement has since delayed the announcement of a new Palestinian government of national unity.

    Days before his AIPAC speech, Obama delivered a major speech on the Middle East, emphasising the need for dialogue.

    "Such open discourse is important", he said, "even if what is said does not square with our worldview. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy."

    Palestine is evidently the exception to this rule.

    Today the Brotherhood, tomorrow Hamas

    In the long-term, the US overtures to the Brotherhood may well be to Hamas' advantage. While welcoming dialogue, the Egyptian Brotherhood has made it clear how they wish to proceed. According to spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan: "We are ready for dialogue with the US administration, if it so decides, within a framework of mutual respect."

    The Muslim Brotherhood, he added, "hopes that the US administration has revised its previous policies and decided to side with the rights of the people and their demands and to stop supporting corrupt and tyrannical regimes, backing the Zionist occupation and using double standards".

    The revolutionary changes taking place in the Middle East have exposed and sharpened the dissonance between British and US policies.

    Though the British are world-renowned for shrewd pragmatism, the current government has locked itself into an ideological framework in its attitudes towards the Islamic movements. The demise of the neo-conservatives in the US has been countered by their emergence in the UK. Today, neo-con rhetoric permeates foreign policy discourse as much as it does on domestic issues.

    There are two dominant trends within the ruling coalition government in Westminster. A neo-con faction has a pernicious influence over Prime Minister David Cameron. Its leading advocates in the cabinet include George Osborne, Liam Fox, Oliver Letwin and Michael Gove, who is widely seen as their ideologue. Gove's 2006 book Celsius 7/7 was an attempt to define the domestic war on terror.

    The neo-cons face a rival "One Nation" faction, which includes the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the Conservative Party chairman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and the Attorney General Dominic Grieve.

    When Cameron announced his new counter-terrorism policy last month, the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle was delighted. According to Martin Bright: "This week's new prevent counter-terrorism strategy marks a victory for the Gove tendency in government. Despite resistance from civil servants and elements within the Liberal Democrats, the new strategy recognises that the totalitarian ideology of the radicals is a danger in itself. It is not enough simply to target violent extremism."

    For the neo-cons, it was important to reverse the influence of what they regard as pan-Islamist groups - such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Jamaat-i-Islami.

    Loaded with this ideological baggage as he is, it was no surprise that David Cameron refused to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood during his visit to Egypt just after the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship. When questioned about his decision, the British prime minister said he wanted young people to see there was an alternative to "extreme" Islamist opposition.

    To many observers, this was a missed opportunity to reach out to the forces that currently lead the process of democratic change in Egypt.

    Apart from its short-sightedness, it clearly reflected a gross misunderstanding, or more likely a deliberate misreading, of the regional political dynamics. Whether Cameron and his neo-con bag-carriers like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood remains one of the most influential political bodies in the Egyptian arena.

    'Change or be changed'

    One would assume that the Conservatives would be the first to grasp the meaning of the 19th century statesman Lord Palmerston's famous dictum: "Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests." But apparently they have not.

    With the exception of the courtship of Turkey's Justice and Development Party, the British government has demonstrated incredible hostility toward Islamic movements in the region. The arrest and detention of Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic movement in Israel, is the latest outrageous example of the government's policy.

    It was, as many on the far-right have asserted, a test case of the government's declared intention to enforce the neo-con agenda of political harassment. By adopting this rigid ideological line, however, the government has allowed itself to go against the democratic tide in the region. The medium and longer-term consequences will be interesting to observe.

    Meanwhile, since the signing of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a number of former leaders and diplomats have called for engagement with Hamas.

    They declared in a joint open letter to the EU and President Obama that there could be no peace in Palestine without the inclusion of Hamas in the process. Should Western governments continue in their obduracy, it is clear that crises will persist on many fronts in the region, most notably in Palestine.

    While the British government will receive "Brownie points" from the pro-Israel lobby for its current policies, it is Britain's international image and interests, not Israel's (it has little to lose in any case), which will be damaged in the Middle East and Muslim world.

    The lobbyists, after all, are in position to promote Israel's interests, not those of the United Kingdom. Cameron and his cohort should take heed of this very obvious fact before allowing themselves to be led by the nose towards ignominy.

    One of the main slogans of the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East is "change or be changed". The people of the region will not wait forever for the West to change its policies; there are emerging powers on the global stage to whom the new regimes in the region can and will turn in the search for genuine partners for the development of their countries.

    What's more, history and justice are on the side of the people.

    Dr Daud Abdullah is the Director of the Middle East Monitor in London.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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