Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there has been growing American interest in checking the spread of radicalism in the Middle East by communicating more effectively with the region's Islamist political groups. At the annual conference of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, several scholars urged the U.S. to seek more constructive engagements with these Islamist groups. The goal, they said, should be to encourage them to adopt more pragmatic and democratic political agendas.
A recent study by the Center concluded that many secular Arab governments have used the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran to raise fears of a radical and potentially violent political Islam. And they have used that fear to justify their own autocratic governance on national security grounds. But the study found that the more these regimes have cracked down on political Islamist groups, the more popular these movements have become. The Center estimates that Islamist groups now represent about 30 percent of the electorate in Arab countries.
Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, told scholars at the group's annual meeting that the rise of Islamist political groups has prompted many policymakers in Washington and throughout the Arab world to think twice about democratic reforms.
Masmoudi said they are asking a fundamental question: "What is the end result of democracy if we have elections, and the end result is going to be that the Islamists or the Islamic movements are going to win the elections and come to power? Is this good for democracy or bad?"
Masmoudi added: "This is, of course, the reasoning or logic that has been used by many governments in the region to postpone elections, to postpone serious democratic reforms in their countries, using the fear of Islamists or the Islamic movements coming to power."
Masmoudi said the U.S. should not allow autocratic Arab leaders to portray themselves as the only alternative to radical Islamists coming to power. He said he worries that the U.S. push for democratization in the Arab world has tapered off. But Francis Ricciardone, the former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, insisted that American support for democratic reform in the Middle East has not weakened.
"All of the things that we were doing before, we continue to do," said Ricciardone. "We try to do them with skill and sensitivity and judgment. And we commit major resources to them so we are not retreating from the promotion of democracy, and I do not expect the next president of the U.S. be he or she, Republican or Democrat, to retreat from the promotion of democracy and human rights."
Ambassador Ricciardone admitted, however, that the U.S. is having difficulty dealing with a trans-national Islamic movement like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even though some 88 members of the group were elected to the Egyptian parliament as so-called "independents" in the autumn of 2005.
"We could hardly say that we would not see these members of the parliament if they wished to see us," the former Ambassador explained. "Our political officers see members of parliaments all over the world, in Egypt and elsewhere. It does not mean we have voted for them; we did not campaign for them; we did not promote them; and we very often disagree very strongly with their points of view."
Ambassador Ricciardone said an atmosphere of mutual distrust complicates relations between the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood. And he noted that U.S. contacts with the group have been strictly limited to avoid antagonizing the Egyptian government, which has outlawed this Islamist organization.
Emad Shahin, a visiting professor at Harvard University, predicted the U.S. will eventually adopt a more flexible policy in dealing with Islamist groups. "Usually, the U.S would come around when facts on the ground change," said Shahin. "In many cases, they would assess their interest and whether to deal or not to deal, so that is again a future issue. But I think if there is a process of building confidence, and conducting dialogue with political Islam in general, I think by the time they come to power there will be a lot of common ground that they could agree on."
Shanin added that this dialogue would promote the mutual interest of both sides because, as he put it, "I do not see them as necessarily opposed or in severe contradiction to each other."
One man who has worked hard to promote democracy in the Muslim world is Saad El-din Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American sociologist and human rights activist who was arrested by the Egyptian government in 2000 and spent 18 months in jail before being cleared of all charges.
At the Washington conference, he pointed out that two-thirds of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world are living under democratically-elected governments, for example, in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Turkey, Malaysia and India.
Ibrahim said the U.S. should focus its attention on the other one third of the Muslim population that is living under repressive autocratic regimes. And he said he is confident that through honest dialogue, the U.S. could win Islamists to its side. He recalled how his own dialogues with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in prison helped change their political approach.
"One of the things that really affected the dialogue with Islamists in prison," Ibrahim said, "was the elections in Turkey in the fall of 2002, which was followed also by elections in Morocco. And that advanced the dialogue."
Ibrahim said he encouraged Islamists who said the believed in "universal values" to "Come out for democracy without any reservations!"
The Turkish and Moroccan elections, he said "helped me to push the argument. And in fact, they agreed to adopt democracy -- western style pluralistic democracy."
Like other scholars gathered at the Washington Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Professor Ibrahim warned against any slackening of U.S. support for democratic reform in the Middle East, out of fear of radical Islamist gains. Such a stance only bolsters the power of autocratic Arab rulers, he said, and helps fuel Islamic radicalism.
Ibrahim added that the U.S. must work to dialogue with the many moderate Islamic groups in the region that, he said, believe in pluralistic democracy, peaceful transitions of power, the equality of men and women and the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims.