Europeans’ colonial legacies and a blanket mistrust of Islamist parties are pushing the EU to sidelines of transition politics. Charles Thépaut sets out the shifts in policies and mindsets that Europe must undertake
‘Islamist’ parties in the politics of the Arab World are generally seen as presenting a problem for Europe because their agendas seem to contradict European interests and values. But rather than getting stuck in a tricky debate on values, the EU would do well to get acquainted with these key players through serious diplomacy.
The EU is now trying to adapt to the new political landscape in Arab countries, but suffers from having had almost no contact with Islamist actors until last year. The result is a serious lack of institutional knowledge about their political parties and organisations, and on the Islamist side feelings of distrust because of European governments’ support for the former regimes. There’s a widespread perception that the EU has had an ‘anti-Islam’ approach to Arab societies. Suspicion is therefore mutual.
It’s important to look beyond catchy media formulae like an Islamist winter allegedly following the Arab spring. Political Islam must first be understood as a movement that stems from a reaction to the colonial and post-colonial periods. In the genesis of all the most prominent Islamist movements lies this sense of competing either against western powers or against movements inspired by western ideologies. In the process of these struggles, Islamists mobilised large portions of Arab societies through the use of religious references to Muslim identity, culture and tradition. On this basis, they claimed to define an endogenous and coherent modern alternative to the ideas being attributed to the western powers.
In substance, though, this identity-rooted process has been far from homogeneous. Although they share perceptions of ‘western imperialism’, Islamists’ mobilisation of traditional references has taken multiple forms and followed different schools of thought, depending mostly on national circumstances. Islamist forces’ common denominator is therefore not so much a political ideology but rather the recourse to Islam’s re-interpretation as a guide to recovering a sense of national sovereignty.
This reliance on religious interpretations has led Islamist actors to make diverse use of Islamic references. Islamism’s history is marked by recourse to a wide variety of political methods that range across the spectrum, from terrorism to democratic participation. In the end, these different interpretations mean the Islamist political spectrum is extremely wide. The key element is therefore to establish who is entitled to interpret, and in what conditions.
The transition process in different Arab countries illustrates how Islamist policy proposals are nevertheless following somewhat classical political and party dynamics, so conservative positions are toughened or softened according to national politics. Now that they are involved in government, the main Islamist parties have to define their objectives and political platforms, and this is not proving easy. Their local presence and their virtuous image have led them to win elections, but at the same time this has in just a couple of months put their parties at the centre of the political spectrum, whereas they had been in the opposition for many decades. This significant change revealed important differences inside the Islamic ‘block’, and led to the creation of political parties guided by more conservative interpretations of Islam than those favoured by the people who now happen to be at the centre.
This fragmentation is visible in Tunisia, where the Salafi hardliners of Hizb Al Tahrir are violently challenging the authority of the Ennahda-led government. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) victory in last November’s elections gave it the chance to form a government backed by King Mohammed VI, but it now has to deal with the country’s macro-economic challenges even though it had formerly run little more than small and medium size municipalities. Here again, Morocco’s moderate PJD is being challenged by the more radical Islamist Adl wa Ihsan movement.
In Egypt, frustration in some Islamist circles about the attitude and policy positions of the Muslim Brotherhood led to the creation of other Islamist parties, Salafist or more moderate, to participate in last winter’s parliamentary elections. In Syria, traditional Islamist forces such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are facing competition from new groups with better ties on the ground, although not necessarily taking harder religious stances. At the same time, the violence demonstrated by the Syrian regime is leading to a dramatic militarisation of the conflict, giving strength to various Jihadist groups that are better funded and equipped (thanks to Saudi and Qatari support) than their moderate and secular counterparts.
It is far too soon to give a clearer picture, but already there are many divergences between Islamist parties. Seeing the emergence of these different actors whose chief common denominator is that they have no particular ties with Europe, many observers have concluded that a hostile Islamic front is taking shape in the Arab world. But for Europe, no sound policy can come from such a perception. Despite the various historical examples of Islamist radicalisation in the case of external interventions or internal military takeovers, it is striking to see the same self-fulfilling prophecy all over again. The fear of Islamism has contributed to its radicalisation, and questioning the legitimacy of fairly elected Islamist forces and refusing to understand their nature has had serious consequences in the past. The European Union is not the only stakeholder, of course, but a failure to engage with Islamist parties could contribute to the radicalisation that it feared in the first place.
To our European eyes, conceptual, theological or confessional differences are often unclear, and mainstream analysis has gone only a little way from talking of ‘the Islamists’ as a whole to making distinctions between ‘moderates’ and Salafists. Our analysis should go further, and should make sure we are not brainwashed by “clash of civilisations” rhetoric. The truth is that the situation is very fragile everywhere, including within Islamists’ own ranks. Ultimately, Islamists’ different political attitudes will be shaped by local factors, such as the balance of power with security apparatuses, degrees of violence and the authorities’ ability to deliver solutions to socio-economic problems.
Any external actors wishing to exert influence must focus on national politics, while also paying attention to mainstream Islamic jurisprudence that influences Islamist groups’ positions. Anyone going directly against the latter would simply create the conditions for conflict with Arab political forces that would have democratic legitimacy and significant popular support. Europe therefore has to make a significant shift in its foreign policy if it is to adjust to these new circumstances. Issues of identity and the interpretation of religious norms are significant constraints on EU actions, but they can be overcome once mutual trust is built.
With its few diplomatic tools and its limited direct influence on Islamic political actors and on societies in general, the EU should stop defining conditionality as the cornerstone of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The identity dimension that is currently shaping political Islam, along with the general Arab sensitivity over national sovereignty, implies that any approach suggesting the EU is somehow repeating Western intervention in the region will surely lead to its rejection. It would instead be likely to benefit other outside actors, like the Gulf countries, China or Turkey. Political conditionality is also about establishing criteria and red lines for negotiations, and in the long-term transitional processes that, say, Egypt and Tunisia are going through, it is extremely difficult to define workable criteria and political conditions that could apply in negotiations with their new governments.
These countries’ fragility and volatility greatly complicate matters, but so do the EU’s unreformed policy cycles. They are too long and heavy, and inhibit environments in which European diplomats can use co-operation aid as leverage in negotiations. In other words, the EU’s “more for more” approach developed in the aftermath of the uprisings is not relevant in the present context.
The EU nevertheless has natural allies in Arab Mediterranean countries who it may wish to empower as a channel for promoting European principles as well as interests. These allies are mainly secular actors who now find themselves in the midst of heated internal political conflicts. Whenever Europe is tempted to provide them with financial and political support, it should realise that the best way to give succour to these allies is to engage with the entire political spectrum of Arab societies, Salafists included. Although this might at first appear as an abandonment of secular forces, it is in fact the best way to support them. A dogmatic and bureaucratic approach to selecting its interlocutors will reinforce the idea that the EU is once again intruding in national politics in defiance of local traditions and culture. This will normally harm the legitimacy of secular forces, who are at risk of being portrayed as agents of the West.
By establishing contacts with all actors, the EU can counter this image and indirectly help secular parties to reaffirm their positions in Arab countries because Islamist forces will then less be able to question their legitimacy. Given the endogenous bottom-up approach that at present characterises Islamist strategies, the exogenous top-down EU policy method needs to ensure that the values and principles it wants to promote are not perceived as solely European.
The EU needs to develop different levels of diplomatic engagement with Islamist actors instead of ignoring some of them. Engaging in talks with them does not necessarily mean providing political backing or agreeing with their positions, but rather fostering discussion and possibly promoting political moderation. Islamist parties are engaged in bitter internal debates, and the best way of supporting their moderate wings is to change the EU’s image of being broadly ‘anti-Islam’, while also discussing concrete issues like education, rule of law and institution building.
Islamist moderation is likely to result from a certain degree of political pressure, but it is not the EU that should be exerting it. The European Union has neither the economic means nor the legitimacy to do so, and pressure should come solely from Arab actors. If not, any pressure will be counter-productive and will instead favour the various Islamist parties’ hardliners.
Until the Arab spring began last year, the record of the EU’s neighbourhood policy was questionable, with many concluding that Europe now lacked any significant political influence in the region. A year or so on, the political transitions that are under way still do not seem to have given the EU much leverage in directly influencing Arab societies, especially when compared to the religious resources and unlimited financial means of some Gulf countries. Europe’s contribution will be crucial at many levels around the Mediterranean, but the EU cannot change hearts and minds with its European Neighbourhood Policy as it is. Brussels has to acknowledge this and develop more realistic and finely-tuned plans if it wants to be relevant.
At the time of writing, Charles Thépaut was a researcher at the College of Europe in Bruges. firstname.lastname@example.org