Events

Live Webcast--Engaging Islamists: The Evolving Policy Debate

October 24, 2005 // 3:00pm5:00pm

To watch the webcast, follow the links in the See Also box to the right of this screen.

Presenters: Daniel Brumberg, Special Advisor, United States Insitute of Peace, and Associate Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Amr Hamzawy, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Abdeslam Maghraoui, Director, Muslim World Initiative, United States Institute of Peace.

Commentator: Mona Yacoubian, Special Advisor, United States Institute of Peace.

This event is cosponsored with The Muslim World Initiative of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Amr Hamzawy discussed four topics: the increased relevance of engaging Islamists; reflections on the role of non-violent Islamists in the political process; concrete steps that have been or should be taken to facilitate the inclusion of Islamists into the democratic system; and doubts about the endeavor. He said that Islamist inclusion has become relevant in the West for one set of reasons while their significance within the region was based on a different set of circumstances. The U.S. and other external parties have had little success encouraging democratic reforms in the Middle East due to the basic dilemma of absent constituencies and the unreliability of ruling elites.

Within the Middle East, Islamist engagement is an aspect of normative processes, underpinned by three realities, Hamzawy said. First, it is difficult for politicians to stand for democratic reforms without allowing Islamist participation. Second, in contrast to Islamist philosophies of the 1980s which functioned outside the political forum, Islamist strategies toward political participation today increasingly include positions that appeal to reform camps in order to obtain political support. Finally, the absence of a well-defined opposition platform provides little nuanced alternative to the Islamist agenda. Hamzawy emphasized the distinction between violent and non-violent Islamists and advocated political inclusion only for non-violent actors.

Hamzawy went on to describe the dynamics of Islamist inclusion contrasting developments in Morocco and Egypt. He said the Islamist parties are influential along two lines: significance with religious institutions and influence over practices, discourses, and preferences. He concluded by sharing his doubts for Islamist engagement. It is easy to call for political integration or an opening of political space, but it is necessary to address the issue of safeguards. Whether in the form of a constitution or self-limiting practices by Islamist parties, safeguards must enable the sustainability of democratic structures.

Dan Brumberg shared an excerpt from an upcoming article in the Washington Quarterly entitled "Islam is not the Problem or the Solution." He drew the distinction between political liberalization and democratization, suggesting the Middle East has so far experienced the former and that it is now necessary to promote the latter. He envisioned a tripartite political structure containing the current regime, Islamist groups, and non-Islamist actors. The non-Islamist actors are an essential piece of the political puzzle that is currently absent, he said. Success in the development of a stable democracy in the Middle East is contingent upon the maturation of this third faction.
Brumberg discussed how to manifest an institutional compromise to separate church and state. Outside actors must help non-Islamists build genuine political parties—it is not Islam that should be fixed but politics itself.

Abdeslam Maghraoui said that institutional constraints might create more problems than they solve. Democratic processes must be inclusive if they are to be perceived as legitimate. He elucidated differences among Islamist groups, contrasting conservative, liberal, and pragmatic strands. He said the fundamental question is how to integrate these groups into the process without risking fundamental democratic ideals. Questions of oversight are paramount; it is difficult to discern where to draw the line between incentives and co-optation, he said.

Maghraoui emphasized that institutional constraints might not change the normative outlook of Islamists and indeed could backfire. He highlighted four risks posed by such constraints: their misuse by states in order to retard the democratization process; the delegitimization of moderate Islamists (who may be seen as co-opted); the ability of Islamists to circumvent such constraints; and the impediment of the democratic ideals that the constraints are designed to support. There is room for institutional checks and balances, Maghraoui said; however, constraints might be coercive and incentives might be co-optation. Efforts must be made to avoid the delegitimization of moderate Islamists. Normative engagement must utilize the practice civil liberties, freedom to worship, and women's rights to maintain core democratic values.

Mona Yacoubian provided a commentary to the other panelists' statements. She said the current debate surrounding the engagement of Islamists in the political process is itself a sign of change. She focused on the tension between inclusion of non-violent Islamists with the risk such participants may pose to the integrity of the democratic structures over the long-term. She said the central issue is whether or not these efforts by Islamists are "tactical appeasements" designed to access power through the democratic process only to be abandoned at a later date.

Yacoubian emphasized four key factors to assuage concerns regarding the motives of non-violent Islamists. First there is a need for strong, transparent institutions founded on the rule of law. From this perspective, the holding of elections should be one of the last steps in the implementation of a democratic system. Second, there must be clear "red lines" which serve as democratic restraints on Islamists and governing regimes. She said these safeguards could be implicit or explicit, referring to the Moroccan Justice and Development Party's voluntarily limitation to their participation in elections. There is also a need for the formation of secular Islamic alliances that foster sustainable coalition building. Finally, the opening of political space for general political competition could mitigate the risks posed by Islamist participation, Yacoubian said. This could encourage Islamist parties to reform toward the center of the political spectrum in order to enhance their chances of getting elected. U.S. policy should emphasize institutions more than elections, reach out to moderate Islamists, and support Islamist-secular dialogue.

Drafted by Stephen Hendrickson

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.