The current wave of democratic uprisings in the Middle East is a welcome development. But it will almost certainly empower long-suppressed political parties inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. That movement—whose slogan reads, in part, “Koran is our law; Jihad is our way”—presents several urgent challenges for American policymakers: How can political parties that seek Islamic law through holy struggle be cajoled and pressured to respect the rules of democratic politics? Is political Islam even compatible with open, civil societies? And under what circumstances should Washington engage with such movements?
As it happens, a number of individuals in the U.S. government have grappled with these very questions in recent decades. Over the last few weeks, I spoke to some of them to find out what they had learned.
(Join Eli Lake and Richard Just for a Livestream discussion of what the Middle East revolts mean for political Islam at 4 p.m. EST this Thursday.)
America’s efforts to reach out to Islamists began in earnest after the 1979 Iranian revolution. By all accounts, Washington was caught flat-footed by the revolt. Part of the reason was that Iran’s dictator had urged the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to have no contact with Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters in Qom—the birthplace of his movement. David Mack, who was stationed at the time next-door in Iraq, recalls, “I was one of the people who felt very strongly after the Iranian revolution of 1979 that it had been basically diplomatic malpractice for our embassy in Tehran to go along with the Shah’s prohibition on contacts with the mullahs in Qom.” He added, “We were told not to do it. The Savak”—the Shah’s internal security service—“would report this if we did.”
Following the Iranian revolution, some individual diplomats and experts within the government began to meet with members of Islamist parties. When Mack was posted as the deputy chief of mission to the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, he pushed to set up meetings with the local Islamist party, then known as the Islamic Current. “Our ambassador was Steve Bosworth. He asked me, ‘What do you think we should do about it? We were blindsided in Tehran. We could miss it.’” Mack replied, “There is this pretty tame Islamist group. ... It’s disliked by the Tunisian establishment, but it’s legal and we should have contact with it.”
Mack went ahead and approved meetings between a junior economics officer and Abdelfattah Mourou, a lawyer who was the head of the Islamic Current. In the talks, Mourou emphasized that he and his allies merely wanted Tunisia—then under the rule of dictator Habib Bourguiba, a secularist—to accommodate religious Muslims. Their aim, Mourou insisted, was not to impose mores on the rest of the country. “His line was, ‘Look, we know Tunisia is basically a secular society and has a large secular system; we are not about to change that,’” Mack recalls.
But, according to Mack, the meetings rankled Tunisia’s rulers. The regime’s diplomats asked the State Department to cut off the contacts. Occasional meetings with Tunisian Islamist parties continued for much of the Reagan administration but were eventually pulled back by the embassy, which concluded they were causing too much trouble with the host government.
Another diplomat who pursued contact with Islamists was Edward Djerejian, an assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 1991, Djerejian began a dialogue with Hassan Al Turabi, a leader of Sudan’s ruling National Islamic Front. Al Turabi has since split with Sudan’s ruler, Omar Al Bashir, but at the time he was Al Bashir’s staunch ally.
When Al Turabi visited Djerejian, the diplomat recalls that he wore a three-piece suit and looked “like a Middle Eastern banker.” “The next time I saw him on television, he was ranting and raving with extremist rhetoric,” Djerejian says, “making fiery speeches, critical of the United States and critical of Israel.”
In December of that year, the Islamic Salvation Front won the initial round of Algeria’s first competitive legislative elections. Worried that the group—which had said openly that democracy had no place in Islam—would come to power, the Algerian military canceled the vote with the blessing of Washington. Djerejian, convinced that the United States needed a coherent policy toward political Islam, convened academics, intelligence experts, and diplomats, and asked them to write him a speech outlining what a U.S. policy should look like. The resulting address was delivered on June 2, 1992, in Washington. It was the first high-level articulation of the bargain every administration since has professed to want with political Islam. Djerejian denounced “those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance.” In the speech’s signature line, he said, “While we believe in the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ we do not support ‘one person, one vote, one time.’”
The speech barely registered in the United States. But, in the Middle East, it was a big deal. After the speech, Djerejian received a letter from Rashid Al Ghannushi, the Tunisian Islamist leader who at the time was exiled (and who returned to Tunisia in late January). “We entered into a correspondence,” Djerejian says. “The words were great. He said all the right things. He very cleverly was addressing his audience.”
Djerejian was convinced that men like Al Ghannushi and Al Turabi could be enticed into compromise over time, though it would be difficult. “I got the clear impression I was dealing with politicians who were seeking power, as opposed to a spiritual leader or an ideologue,” he says.
Not everyone in the U.S. government agreed. Harold Rhode—who was hired by the Pentagon in 1982, and eventually became a regional expert for the Office of Net Assessment, the department’s long-range strategy think tank—remembers meeting Islamists who had been sent his way by the State Department and others during the Reagan administration. “The general gut-reaction policy ... has always been the same at all levels of the government,” Rhode says. “The moment that someone says something that is not outlandish, we say, ‘I hereby anoint thee Sir Moderate.’” Rhode was not impressed with this habit. “We do this at our peril,” he says. “They learn to use the vocabulary that we want to hear.”
There were also more practical objections to engagement with Islamists: namely, that such outreach frequently interfered with U.S. priorities, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Michele Dunne, who was a political officer at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem beginning in 1991, recalls that, “when I first arrived, we were encouraged to make contacts with Hamas. But, by about 1992, orders came from Washington to cease such contacts.” It was the dawn of the Oslo process, and Israel and the West were forging a deal with Yasir Arafat to deliver peace for land. The peace that Arafat delivered was often measured by the number of violent Islamists he jailed.
Aaron David Miller, an aide to Secretary of State James Baker during this period, was skeptical that the talks with Hamas were worthwhile. “I would argue this was a key to an empty room,” he says. Indeed, Miller doubts that U.S. outreach to Islamists was ever a wise idea. “When we muck around in the opposition of governments we support, we end up pissing off just about everyone,” he says. “We end up having to stop the dialogue with the Muslim Brothers, which pisses them off, and then we end up pissing off the regime for doing it in the first place.”
Nowhere were the dilemmas involved in outreach to Islamists more stark than in Egypt. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had been founded in 1928, but split several decades later. The radical faction—including Ayman Al Zawahiri, who would become the second-in-command of Al Qaeda—embraced political violence. The less radical faction eventually renounced violence against the Egyptian government (though not against Israel) and instead vowed to pursue the goal of an Islamic state by persuading Muslims to turn toward Islam. Beginning in the 1970s, these moderates engaged in an uncomfortable dance with the secular Egyptian regime. Hosni Mubarak allowed them to participate unofficially in parliamentary elections, and, by the 1990s, they were involved in most aspects of Egyptian public life. “In the 1990s, because the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in all facets of the society, from labor to NGOs, if you wanted to talk to different segments of Egyptian society, you would have to run into the Muslim Brotherhood,” recalls Emile Nakhleh, who was hired by the CIA in 1990 as a scholar-in-residence of political Islam.
Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a former youth leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who left the group in 2008, and Essam El Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, both acknowledge that the United States reached out to the group over the years. El Houdaiby says the Brotherhood leaders and American diplomats were often wary of one another. “I would say the main characteristic of these talks, there was lots of mutual skepticism,” El Houdaiby says. “Both sides were very skeptical of going into talks. Both sides had lots of worries about the possible outcomes. The concern was how the meetings themselves would provoke the Mubarak regime.”
In 1998, Mubarak abruptly canceled the talks, according to two former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the discussions. One former U.S. intelligence official says, “Mubarak did not want to give legitimacy to the Brotherhood by having the U.S. contact these groups. In his view, and perhaps correctly, the meetings were giving them more legitimacy. He did not want to give any group legitimacy other than the Mubarak regime.” The CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo complied with his wishes.
But that was hardly the end of U.S. contact with Islamists. In 2004, Nakhleh, a Palestinian-American Christian who was born in Nazareth, founded the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, which quietly reached out to Islamists. By Nakhleh’s own account, he has visited more than 30 countries through the years and interviewed hundreds if not thousands of Islamists—moderates, radicals, sympathizers of the Taliban, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In his meetings with various Islamists, Nakhleh says he was most often asked why the United States supports regimes that repress Islamist parties. “The regimes were the top issue,” he says.
Some in the Bush administration agreed that the United States needed more contact with these groups. After the 2005 Egyptian elections, in which Brotherhood-affiliated candidates won 88 seats in the national assembly, the U.S. Embassy began to reach out to the new parliamentarians. “The Muslim Brotherhood was illegal in Egypt, but certain parliamentarians who were connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were, we felt, worth talking to,” says Elliott Abrams, who was a deputy national security adviser.
This engagement did not necessarily equal endorsement; there was a recognition that, as Rhode had suspected, Islamists could be simply telling the United States what it wanted to hear. Mary Habeck, an expert on political Islam who worked at the National Security Council during the Bush administration, says, “The Muslim Brotherhood has been so persecuted from day one, they are unbelievably secretive and deceptive. This is why many people who study the movement have trouble believing them even when they say they are dedicated to democracy.”
The election of Barack Obama raised the hopes of those who had advocated for rapprochement between political Islam and the United States. And Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech—in which he said that “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people”—echoed the formula for political participation of Islamists that Djerejian had proposed in 1992. The embassy ensured members of the Muslim Brotherhood were in attendance.
In mid-2009, a young, Stanford-trained political scientist named Quinn Mecham arrived at the State Department and was placed in charge of a working group that would take stock of U.S. outreach to Islamists. “We were figuring out where our contacts did exist,” one person familiar with the group says. “Were they useful? What were we learning?” The group concluded that the United States did not have a coherent approach to engaging with Islamists. And it recommended increased contact with these groups, particularly in Egypt.
Since the revolt began in Egypt, Obama has not said whether the United States will take this advice. And the Brothers say they are uninterested for now in a formal channel to the United States. “Not now. We are very, very busy,” El Erian told me from Cairo last month. “Our strategy is an Egyptian concern.”
For all of the U.S. contact over the years with political Islam, no one has ever been able to truly answer the question of whether Islamists can accommodate themselves to democracy. If Djerejian is right, then political Islam is a largely pragmatic movement; if Rhode is right, then Islamists may just be saying the right things about democracy on their way to seizing power. Recent history—from Indonesia, where Islamists participate in a relatively stable democracy, to the Gaza Strip, where the rule of Hamas has been devastating for Palestinians and Israelis alike—certainly provides examples to support both arguments. As to the question of whether to speak to Islamists: It may or may not be wise for America to engage; but it seems clear that, too often in the past, this decision was effectively made for the United States by autocratic governments. If Obama is smart, the days of letting dictators tell Washington who its diplomats can and can’t talk to should now be over for good.
Correction: This article originally stated that Mack approved a meeting between a junior political officer and Abdelfattah Morou. It was actually a junior economics officer.
Eli Lake is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.