Whenever I hear the word “dialogue,” I ask myself the question: dialogue about what? What does the United States have to say to the Muslim Brotherhood in a “close and constant dialogue”? What does it hope to learn?
There is a facile argument that it is good to hear their ideas first-hand. But there is nothing that cannot be learned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions from readily available sources. A good analyst, relying on the mass of openly available texts, will have no trouble eliciting the worldview of, say, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s actual paramount guide. Tell me you want to meet with an Islamist to tempt him with a cash-stuffed envelope, that is one thing. But meet him to sound him out? If you have done your homework, he will tell you nothing you do not know already.
Quid pro quo. The point of dialogue is give-and-take. It is here that the problem arises, and it is this: Islamists would give us very little, and take from us a great deal.
What would the so-called moderate Islamists demand from such a dialogue? Here is the laundry list:
1. Visas for activists seeking refuge or asylum or the chance to proselytize in the United States.
2. The freedom to raise money in the United States, ostensibly for widows and orphans, for school lunches and prayer rugs (i.e., access to cash-stuffed envelopes).
3. U.S. agreement to urge or compel Arab-Muslim regimes like Egypt’s to open space for Islamist political activism which is now suppressed.
4. A U.S. rebalancing of its Middle East policy, including its support for Israel.
And what do the “moderate” Islamists offer in return?
1. Condemnations of the jihadists for actions like the September 11 attacks, the March 11 attacks in Madrid, and the slaughters in Bali and Beslan.
2. The implicit promise that once the United States throws open its doors to Islamist activism, it will be accorded immunity from further attacks. (The implication is that, to improve one’s immune system, one should allow freedom of operation to an even wider range of Islamists.)
Any dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood or its appendices must inevitably develop along these lines. This is the core deal, the very substance of any “close and constant dialogue.” And there is ample precedent: there are several European governments that have engaged in such dialogue and cut this deal, either in whole or in part.
Let me explain why, to my mind and from the point of view of the United States, this is a raw deal.
If the United States has one achievement to show for the war on terror, it is this: there has not been a repeat of a 9/11-style attack on any scale, even in miniature, on U.S. soil. There are those who claim that U.S. policy has escalated the terror war, and that it has been unsuccessful. But this ignores the fact that the continental United States remains the prime terrorist target. This country’s enemies have been unable to strike it, partly because of the stringent measures of homeland security put in place after 9/11. Why would the United States endanger this indisputable achievement by opening itself up to Islamist penetration? Why would it run the risk of becoming another Londonistan? In return for what?
For we know from experience that Islamist “condemnations” of other Islamists tend to be hedged and conditional. And we know from experience that the money raised for the widows and orphans often gets diverted to assassins and bombers. And we especially know that Islamists use the freedoms of the West to attack precisely those in the East who are willing to work with us closely, whether they be regimes or liberals. This offends Muslim anti-Islamists mightily, and it makes us appear like wavering allies.
And even if, for the sake of argument, we wanted to play this tune in a minor key, there is no certainty that we would know who the “moderate” Islamists are. If there is anything more simplistic than lumping Islamists together, it has been the attempt to divide them into the neat classifications of “moderate” and “extremist.” Gilles Kepel in his book has a crucial passage on the branches of salafism, the pietistic and the jihadist. He comments on
how porous the two branches of salafism really are: to pass from one to the other is quite easy. The intense indoctrination preached by the sheikhists [e.g., the Saudi-style imams] reduces their flock’s capacity for personal reasoning, which makes these followers easy prey for a clever jihadist preacher. The first stage of brainwashing occurs at the hands of a pietistic salafist imam. Later they encounter a jihadist recruiting sergeant, who offers to quench their thirst for absolutes through a bracing activism.
Even if, as Kepel writes, such a migration to jihadism is not inevitable, we cannot know in advance or even in real-time when it is occurring. So why would we take a chance?
For once I find myself agreeing with Kepel.