Listening and talking

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It is said that, soon after the signing of the Oslo Accord, Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantisi traveled to Tunis to meet with then PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. When they met, Rantisi shouted at Arafat that he had betrayed the Palestinian cause, that he was a traitor to his country, that he had turned his back on the Palestinian dream, and that he was no longer fit to lead the Palestinian people. Arafat patiently waited for the tirade to end. Finally, after many minutes–and after a suitable period of silence–Arafat responded:

“And what is it that you want?” he asked.

Rantisi smiled: “Forty seats in the Palestinian legislature,” he responded.

Apocryphal or not, the story is emblematic of a larger debate now raging inside the Bush administration. One group of policymakers adamantly argues that the United States should never open a dialogue with the leaders of political Islam, as they are a force for instability and anti-Americanism. What political Islam wants, these policymakers say, is an end to American influence in the region. Other policymakers argue that the leaders of political Islam are far more interested in exercising power than in exercising their religion. What these leaders want, such policymakers say, is a chance at running their own affairs.

That this disagreement has yet to be resolved is reflected in George Bush’s own statements.

Two weeks ago in an address at the International Republican Institute, Bush seemed to imply that while free, fair and open elections might bring leaders to office that are strong opponents of the US, democracy itself would be a force for their moderation. But just two weeks later, at the US Naval Academy, he seemed to articulate a different message–implying that groups designated by the US as “terrorist entities” (which include the most prominent Islamist groups in the region) are incapable of change and would remain America’s implacable enemies.

So which is it? Will the US talk with the leaders of political Islam, or continue to hope that a dialogue with more secular democratic groups (supporting the old regimes now being out of the question) will provide a credible means for satisfying the desire for democracy among the region’s peoples? The way that such debates are usually resolved in Washington is to adopt Solomon’s methods–to “cut the baby in half.” In exchange for US recognition, Washington is likely to demand that Islamist groups meet a set of requirements: to disarm, renounce violence, participate in the political process, and agree to abide by the results of elections.

It is now clear, however, that if the Bush administration adopts this position it will be rejected by nearly all of the leaders of political Islam–including the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah. “We will not acquiesce in our own destruction,” a senior Hamas leader said last month. A Hizbollah spokesman was more adamant: “It is not for the Americans to say what we are required to do, but for the Lebanese people to determine.” All of this may well be beside the point, of course, because members of the Bush administration are barred, by law, from talking to most Islamist organizations, especially those that, as George Bush says “use violence for political ends”–a phrase that brings wry smiles to even the most jaded Middle East policymaker.

Is there a way out of this impasse? Is there a way to come to an understanding with the region’s most powerful leaders of political Islam while assuaging fears that any move to democracy will mean rewarding political violence? Should we, in the final analysis, talk to political Islam? To get a proper sense of the right answer to this question, in March I participated with a group of retired American and European policymakers in an open exchange of views in Beirut with the leaders of several Islamist groups. The exchange was not condoned, let alone endorsed, by the Bush administration, a fact that was repeatedly made clear to our interlocutors. That was fine with them: “We don’t want you to talk,” one of them said shortly before the meeting, “we want you to listen”.

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