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August 24, 2010

New Brookings Policy Brief on Radicalization of Islamist Groups
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I have a new Brookings policy brief suggestively titled "The Islamist Response to Repression: Are Mainstream Islamist Groups Radicalizing?" You can read it here (PDF). While the Obama administration tries to resolve conflicts and crises in Iran, Palestine, and Iraq, there are some troubling developments taking place in Egypt and Jordan, two of our most strategically vital Arab allies. Egypt, for one, might be on the brink. And, well, Jordan might also be on the brink, though of what no one can be sure. Both countries have critical parliamentary elections coming up at the end of the year.

So what's the problem? Over the last 15-20 years, and particularly since 9/11, mainstream Islamist groups have moderated their policies and rhetoric. But just as they've been adopting democratic precepts and modernizing their election platforms, they've found themselves facing mounting legal restrictions, widespread electoral fraud, and mass arrest. If we want to persuade Islamists to channel their grievances through peaceful, democratic means, this may serve as the most useful encouragement. Any number of studies have warned that the marginalization of nonviolent Islamists can have a radicalizing effect. But has it?

In the paper, I try to gauge how Islamists are responding to these new, unprecedented challenges while exploring implications for U.S. foreign policy and regional security. Here is the relevant section for U.S. policymakers, who, one hopes, are keeping a close eye on developments in both countries:

With much-anticipated elections in both countries scheduled for 2010 and 2011, the Obama administration as well as the U.S. Congress have the opportunity to weigh in and address the question of Islamist participation, something they have so far avoided doing. Doing nothing has consequences, as evidenced by Jordanian Islamists’ announcement in early August that they would boycott the November parliamentary polls due to the likelihood of fraud. The briefing concludes with several practicable steps the United States should take, including:

  • Publicly affirm the right of all opposition actors, including Islamists, to participate in upcoming elections. The Obama administration should begin by clarifying U.S. policy toward political Islam by clearly affirming the right of all nonviolent political groups to participate in the electoral process. This should be coupled by a consistent American policy of opposing not just the arrests of secular activists but Islamist ones as well. By treating both groups equally, the United States can counter the (largely accurate) claim that its support for Arab democrats is selective. In Jordan, the United States should pressure the government to reach out to opposition groups and issue guarantees to that the elections will be relatively free.
  • Empower U.S. embassies to begin substantive engagement with Islamist groups. The Obama administration has emphasized its belief in engaging a diverse range of actors. Yet it has failed to reach out to many of the largest, most influential groups in the region. As Islamist groups work to reassess their strategy and resolve internal divisions, American officials need to be aware of how such developments might affect broader regional interests. At a later stage, open channels of dialogue may allow the United States some influence over strategies Islamists adopt, particularly regarding participation in elections.
As they say, go read the whole thing

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