Two stories this morning highlight what I think is a key question about President Obama’s speech tomorrow in Cairo. The first is the news that, “under pressure from the United States, the Secretariat-General of the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament invited ten members of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc to attend Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on Thursday.”
The delegation will include Dr. Saad Al Katatni, leader of the bloc, who said that the invitation “came as a compromise solution between the American administration and the Egyptian government, considering that there is increasing pressure on the administration from the American press on the necessity of meeting with all members of opposition and other influential forces.”
Though Katatni explicitly denied it, Al-Arabiya’s reporter Mustafa Sulaiman speculated that Brotherhood members may also be invited to a special meeting that Obama will hold with writers, politicians and members of Egyptian civil society.
The second is Al Qaeda’s attempt to pre-but tomorrow’s speech:
Shortly after Obama landed in the Saudi capital, the television network Al-Jazeera aired a new audiotape, reportedly from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, saying Obama was planting seeds for “revenge and hatred” toward the United States in the Muslim world, wire services reported. The taped message said Obama was following former Bush’s policy of “antagonizing Muslims,” and warned Americans to be prepared for the “consequences” of the White House’s policies. [...]
The tape follows a recent message from bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urging Egyptians to shun Obama during his visit, saying his Middle East trip was at the invitation of the “torturers of Egypt” and the “slaves of America.”
While it’s unclear precisely when these messages were recorded — or whether bin Laden’s was held back by Al Jazeera until it could have its greatest, most newsworthy impact — there’s already a lot of evidence that Al Qaeda find Barack Obama a far less perfect instrument for their propaganda than their dream candidate George W. Bush — and that’s great. It’s clearly a good thing for the United States when the President of the United States isn’t the most reviled person in the world. But while being not-Bush is obviously an advantage for Obama, it remains to be seen whether the president will take advantage of this better footing to really address some of the aspects of U.S. policy that give extremist propaganda such resonance — such as American support for corrupt and oppressive authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia — and begin to disaggregate America’s Islamist critics from America’s Islamist enemies.
In a recent BBC interview, the president described the “dialogue” he hoped to start with his Cairo speech, and said that message he hopes to deliver is that democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries.”
But, rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity. The danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture.
The invitation of the representatives from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the seminal Islamist organization in the Middle East, to the Cairo speech is an encouraging sign that the president is entering into this new dialogue genuinely. One of the greatest mistakes of the previous administration, in my view, was to take an unerringly hostile view of Islamism, which is far more diverse and vital than many American commentators are willing to recognize.
Encouraging President Obama to make democratic reform a central element of his Middle East policy, Brian Katulis and Michael Cohen write today in World Politics Review, “Islamist political movements play an integral role in advancing democracy.”
Too many U.S. policymakers have bought into the notion that equates democracy in the Arab World with conceding power to jihadist Islamic movements, ignoring the millions of people who support Islamist and democratic parties while opposing terrorism. So long as Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reject violence as a political tool and accept basic democratic principles, the United States should not shun them, but instead recognize their important role in advancing reform.
By conflating all Islamist movements together and treating these groups as hostile to democracy by definition, policymakers not only create more enemies for the United States, they also ignore the extremely valuable and vibrant debate that is now occurring among Islamic scholars as to the correct arrangement of society, a debate that has generated a deeply complex and compelling critique of Western-style politics. (At the risk of seriously oversimplifying, the key difference is that derived Western liberalism tends to see the goal of politics as the protection and expansion of individual liberty, whereas Islamism tends to see the goal of politics, and of society itself, as the pursuit of justice.) We shouldn’t kid ourselves: Islamism contains a significant challenge to many of liberalism’s assumptions. But it’s folly to think that genuine reform can occur in the Middle East while denying it a place at the table.
For various reasons, there is a deep misunderstanding and fear in the U.S. about Islamism. Discussions of it, to the extent that they occur in the major media, usually occur after some horrific act of violence, and are usually accompanied by footage of angry demonstrators or masked Hamas gunmen. It’s worth pointing out, however, the U.S. facilitated the establishment of the first Islamist-controlled government in the Arab world, in Iraq — even if the architects of the war are loathe to admit this. In that and other ways, the U.S. is already deeply engaged in this debate — my hope is that President Obama’s speech tomorrow will mark the beginning of a more forthright and productive engagement with it.
The problem has been that there has been a preference oftentimes on the part of these organizations to use violence and not take responsibility for governance as a means of winning propaganda wars or advancing their organizational aims. At some point though, they may make a transition. There are examples of, in the past, organizations that have successfully transitioned from violent organizations to ones that recognize that they can achieve their aims more effectively through political means. And I hope that occurs.
It will be very interesting to see if this comment signals a real shift in policy. It is a very good sign that eleven Muslim Brotherhood Parliamentarians have been invited to attend the Cairo speech, and Mohammad Saad Katatni, head of the MB Parliamentary bloc, has confirmed that they will attend. The Brotherhood has officially been publicly skeptical about Obama’s visit and his speech, but they declined to participate in the anti-Obama protest organized by the once relevant Kefaya movement, and some of its members have signaled openness to hearing what he has to say and — more importantly — whether those words translate into deeds. Exactly the kind of conversation-starter for which so many have been looking.