‘We Should see Islamists who Seek Democracy as Part of the Solution, not the Problem’

Alastair Crooke interviewed by Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, April 28, 2005

Alastair Crooke, a former EU foreign affairs expert and British intelligence officer, is director and one of the founders of the London-based non-governmental organization Conflicts Forum. The group organized a meeting recently in Beirut between American and British individuals, including retired government officials, and members of Hamas, Hizbullah and other Islamist groups in the Middle East and Asia.

Rami G Khouri: Why did you start Conflicts Forum and what was the purpose of the Beirut meeting?

Alastair Crooke: Essentially the aim of these meetings is to try and shift Western perceptions about what these Islamist movements are, and what they represent. In many ways the mere fact that such meetings take place is important. There is no agenda or aim to produce recommendations or a report. We're doing the basic, first element, which is actually to listen.

Most of us believe our governments are prisoners of their own rhetoric. I know many European governments would like to break out of the hostility with many Muslims in the West, but they can`t find a way out. If we can pave the way with communication among the parties, because they're here as private citizens, one day perhaps the governments will come along and say it's time for them to take over the dialogue and contacts, and that would be our success.

Are we in the West serious about pluralism? Or do we mean by this that we expect Islam to accommodate the secular structure we have adopted? Or are we able to see a pluralism in which a wider moral sphere includes institutions of government, and if so, are we pluralistic enough to accept this? What do we mean by democracy, in view of the fact that Hamas is winning municipal elections in Gaza? That has left the United States in a terrible paradox because the USAID program is geared to providing assistance to municipalities. So does U.S. aid stop because Hamas has won? What happens if Hamas wins big in parliamentary elections?

The whole language of terrorism used in the West is a problem. Terrorism is just a technique people use to achieve a psychological or political impact, it's not a definition of a whole people or a group. We've prevented people from differentiating. Al-Qaeda and other such groups are all put in one big box without distinctions. In fact, in the case of the vast majority of people, we're dealing with groups involved in political activity. There are some criminals who use political clothing while they engage in crime and corruption, but the vast majority of groups are political groups. We're not dealing with criminals for the most part; we're dealing with people who dislike our policies, not our values. Because we've got the wrong assessment and the wrong language, we're often using the wrong tools. We classify them therefore as outlaws, saying they're untouchable, you can't talk to them, or we use excessive military force.

Few people in the West knew these people or had ever met anyone from Hamas or Hizbullah. So we started off by trying to increase comprehension by getting credible Americans and Europeans to sit down with Islamists and find out what they were really saying. That's what the first meeting in Beirut aimed to do.

RGK: How would you categorize the main themes and messages you heard from the Islamists?

AC: The message was very clear. They thought the policy of their isolation and demonization was wrong, and wrong-headed, because it was preventing an understanding of what they represented. These are groups with legitimacy and credibility in their own communities and are engaged in their political processes.

RGK: Did you sense that Islamists are in a transition phase and must get politically more engaged in their own societies and with the West?

AC: Inevitably they are aware of the need to change and Hamas has already taken a big decision to wage the legislative elections, and others are already engaged politically. They feel that if we are serious about promoting democracy in these countries, it is very important that elections could take place, free and fair and properly monitored in the Palestinian territories, which is their main concern. Hamas and Hizbullah both were concerned that they should not be looked at primarily through the prism of Israel, but should be viewed on their own merit as political movements within their own countries and regionally.

RGK: What does this sort of meeting tell you about the possibilities for change on both sides?

AC: You're not going to change the view in Washington just by telling them about one meeting. There is widespread and increasing concern in the U.S. and Europe about what is happening in the region and where things may end up, in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. There is a real sense of unease. They're aware of the growing hostility to the West, and that things could get a lot worse. Inevitably people start to question if policies are right and need to be changed.

RGK: Does the recent behavior of the Bush administration suggest some flexibility, especially vis-a-vis Iran and Hizbullah?

AC: Yes, I think there are signs that people are concerned at all levels of government because they know things are not going very well in all senses. They are ready to question if demonizing and isolating what might be seen as protest movements in the Middle East is the right way to go. They ask if this is what democracy is going to look like, or is this how to produce the societies we say we want. How are we going to bring about changes in the region if all these groups are excluded from any political influence or participation?

RGK: So greater political inclusion is your suggestion?

AC: They'll all figure out their blueprint in due course. We`re not trying to pull anyone into an engagement or entrap them into some form of political action. Hizbullah and Hamas will judge their own interests and act accordingly. These are political organizations with enormous support in their societies. Simply to ignore them is wrong. They will fight elections and do well. When we ignore them they get the wrong vibes and then you end up with misunderstandings.

One of the things we have to try and get across is that using the language of terrorism brands these groups as outcasts who cannot be dealt with. Actually, in all the aspects of the fact that they support elections, want reform, effective government and constitutionalism, really we should be seeing them as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Getting there is difficult, for sure. But who are the torchbearers for change and reform and clean elections? It's these groups who we don`t recognize and often won't even speak to.

RGK: Could reform and democracy be the middle ground where Islam and the West could meet?

AC: It may be a different sort of democratic society that emerges here than the one we know in the West. It may not be the secular Western model, but this is where we are challenged if we are serious about reform and democracy. Are we ready to see other models emerge if they emerge democratically, in Lebanon and Iraq? You can't just say that if Islamist groups want to get into democratic elections they must give up their guns first, that they can't have it both ways. This is nonsense because it does not reflect the psychology of communities that have experienced conflict, trauma and humiliation.

Societies need inclusiveness as part of the process by which people give up violence, in psychological and political terms. In no place that I know of has it been otherwise. The demand for instant demilitarization, frontloading the process by demanding that people put down their arms, has destroyed more peace processes than anything else I know of. We should not be talking about demilitarization; we should be talking about reducing the conflict and reducing the use of violence. Once the conflict subsides and goes, once people have political confidence, then the weapons will eventually sort themselves out. When people don't feel threatened, the weapons stay at home; that's a first step. Then a second step would be to put the weapons in depots. It's ironic that it is the United States, a country most wedded to weapons, which demands demilitarization of others. I've been involved in such situations for 30 years in many countries, and it's simply not fair for people in the West to tell people in this region that they either get involved in politics or keep their weapons and act as a resistance group. History teaches us that in every case where we have had a resolution of conflict there has been a period when people have both been part of the political process and kept their weapons, and slowly the transition comes about.