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Should we engage with Non-violent Islamists?

This is a guest post by Ziryab

Last week on CIF Martin Bright discussed possible grounds for engagement with non-violent Islamists.  This was in response to a suggestion that the FCO needed to engage with “non-violent” Islamist parties like Hamas. A recent IPPR report also suggested that this type of engagement was the way forward.  An important question to ask, however, is what kind of engagement is possible with non-violent Islamists?

It worries me when some commentators call for this kind of engagement. The problem with non-violent Islamists is that although they won’t commit violent actions themselves they believe the use of violence for political goals is justified. And is Hamas really a non-violent organisation? The European Union and United States have classified it as a terrorist organisation.  Hamas’s original founding charter called for the destruction of the State of Israel.  They have participated in suicide bombings that have killed innocent people, Israeli and Palestinians alike. Bearing all this in mind what kind of engagement can we expect to have with groups like Hamas?

Hamas was elected to power in the Gaza strip in 2006 but by just participating in a democratic process does not make a party democratic. If once you get to power you start shutting down all other voices of opposition and restrict freedom of speech then you are no longer democratic but dictatorial. Hitler was elected to power through direct elections but once he got to power he did away with the democratic process.  After Hamas was elected it started consolidating its position by fighting and imprisoning other Palestinian parties like Fatah. So the question is; do we want to engage with those who truly believe in democracy or those who just use it as a tactic to getting to power?

In my opinion it would be better to engage with politically active Muslims who are not Islamists.  There are many politically active Muslims who don’t support an Islamist agenda and are happy to engage on issues of mutual concern. They may use their religion to guide their conduct in politics but there is nothing wrong with that. These are the people who need to be sought out. Islamists and their sympathisers have tried to hijack Muslim issues by elevating themselves as sole representatives of Muslims.  They have tried to sideline, slander and vilify those Muslims who oppose them.  Criticising Hamas does not make one a neo-con, pro-Zionist or an enemy of Islam, an equation Islamists try to make whenever they are challenged. Muslims must not get intimidated by the bullying tactics of Islamists and their sympathisers.

If we are to engage with non-violent Islamists then a clear line needs to be drawn between engaging and empowering.  We cannot give them platforms to espouse their Islamist views. We cannot work with them on issues such as preventing violent extremism because they share the same core ideology as violent extremists (only their methods differ).  If we are to engage then we must be aware who they represent and what problems could arise by empowering them.  After all non-violent Islamist groups have given birth to violent Islamists in the past. Engagement must not compromise our fundamental values.