U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: Near East and North Africa Bureau

U.S. Department of State
96/05/08 Address: Robert Pelletreau on Muslim Politics of MidEast
Bureau of Near East Affairs

Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau
Council on Foreign Relations, New York
May 8, 1996

Dealing with the Muslim Politics of the Middle East:
Algeria, Hamas, Iran

I want to thank Jim Piscatori for the invitation to exchange views on Islamic political activism in the Middle East. I've been trying for several months to get to New York to meet with the Council, but I can't think of a better moment than right now to focus on this issue.

Over the last decade and a half, since the Ayatollah Khomenei and the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah and installed a revolutionary Islamist regime in Tehran, a tremendous amount of ink and attention has been devoted to militant Islam, mostly in the direction of dire predictions of an Islamist wave sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa. Only recently, analysts have begun noticing that it has not happened.

In March, the Washington Post featured an article asking whether the Islamic militancy so prevalent in the Middle East over the last 25 years had actually begun to wane. The authors suggested that the answer was: yes, the tide has crested and Islamic extremism is in retreat. Almost immediately after the article appeared, however, extremism was back with a vengeance. Terrorist suicide bombings had been carried out in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; Katyusha rockets rained into northern Israel; tourists were murdered in Egypt; and French Trappist monks were kidnapped in Algeria. Halfway through the 1990s, it is still unclear what role Islam will play in the politics and culture of Middle Eastern societies. When I asked our informal internal study group on militant Islam whether its appeal was still growing, most replied affirmatively, but several voices thought it had crested and one young analyst joined Olivier Roy in seeing its influence declining.

The Islamic world today is a laboratory of experiment and experience in dealing with political Islam. A range of policies from full inclusion to full exclusion is evident, as is a range of Islamist responses. Most inside the region and out are clear about the two ends of the spectrum and how to deal with them.

For us, one end is represented by the faith of Islam, one of the world's great religions, which deserves our respect. Most of the region's leaders identify themselves as believers and incorporate the tenets and teachings of Islam into the way they rule. King Hassan of Morocco is revered as Commander of the Faithful. The Saudi royal family aligns itself closely with the ulema and the role of protector or custodian of the two Holy Mosques. King Hussein's legitimacy is enhanced through descent from the Prophet.

At the other end of the spectrum are a cluster of extremist groups, some professing Islamist coloration, that practice violence and terrorism either to achieve power or promote a related goal, such as undermining the peace process. The Sharm el-Sheikh summit, called after the Hamas suicide bombings in Israel and attended by a majority of Arab governments, condemned the terrorist actions in Israel and agreed to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation. Israel's confrontation with Hizballah in southern Lebanon brought an outpouring of Arab popular support for Lebanon but did not divert the Palestinian Authority from its crackdown on Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad activists.

Along the line between these extremes lie a variety of individuals, groups and political parties operating in differing political and social contexts. In some situations, they are accepted as participants in political life and in turn accept the social compact or political ground rules (such as a constitution) governing the who and how of political power. In other situations, they are excluded and in still others they operate under the handicap of being officially illegal but unofficially permitted a certain scope of activity.

The landscape is a rich source of study and analysis whether you approach it as an individual in one of the societies in question, or as academic or a practitioner with an interest -- such as a business executive or a diplomat.

How is the U.S. dealing with the new Islamic activism? Our approach has two major principles:

-- First, we have no one-size-fits-all policy toward Islam. In fact, we don't even have a policy pigeonhole called "political Islam."

-- Islamic political activism becomes a factor for us only when it impinges on a specific U.S. foreign policy goal or interest.

I want to talk a little about Islamic political activism in general and then apply those observations to current problems with Hamas, Iran, and Algeria. In each of these cases, the issue of Islamic political activism is front and center.

Defining Terms

It continues to be useful to clarify our terminology. We normally use the term "Islamist" to refer to Muslims who draw upon the beliefs, symbols, and language of Islam to inspire, shape and animate political activity. We do not automatically seek to exclude moderate, tolerant, peaceful Islamists who seek to apply their religious values to domestic political problems and foreign policy. We do, however, object strongly to Islamists who preach intolerance and espouse violence in the domestic and international arenas. Extremists in the Middle East as elsewhere can be secular as well as religious.

U.S. Interests

Given this diversity, it would be a mistake to rely on shorthand formulas or sweeping generalizations to assess how Islam affects our varied interests in the Middle East. If we treat Islamic political activism as a monolithic political movement implacably or unalterably opposed to the West, we run a risk of alienating the broader Muslim world and paralyzing our own ability to act with discrimination and effectiveness. Such an attitude would make many enemies where there are, in reality, only a handful. And we would be promoting the sort of "clash of civilizations" that would serve the extremists' interests more than our own.

Islam is not a determining factor in our foreign policy toward any region, state, or group. We respect Islam as one of the world's great religions and a civilizing force for more than 1300 years. Muslim scholars preserved classical learning during the Dark Ages and made vital contributions at the dawn of the Renaissance in the areas of science, astronomy, mathematics, commerce, law, history and medicine. And today, we see in the traditional values of Islam -- including respect for knowledge, for justice, for good works, for private entrepreneurship and honest profit, and compassion for the poor -- values that are in harmony with the best American ideals.

From the President on down, the United States has made clear that we have no quarrel with Islam per se. Our concern is with the practical doings of governments and people, not religion itself. We carefully examine how specific countries or groups, including those that identify themselves politically with Islam, affect issues of importance to the United States, such as the Middle East peace process, terrorism, free markets, political stability and respect for human rights. Then we react accordingly.

President Clinton outlined the challenge and the answer before the Jordanian Parliament in 1994 when he said:

"America refuses to accept that our civilizations must collide. We respect Islam...But in the Middle East and elsewhere across the world, the United States does see a contest, a contest between the forces that transcend civilization -- a contest between tyranny and freedom, terror and security, bigotry and tolerance, isolation and openness. It is the age-old struggle between fear and hope. This is the conflict that grips the Middle East today."

We differ with Islamic extremists on many issues. For the United States, there can be no compromise with groups and individuals who use the cover of Islam or any other religion to justify hostilities and acts of terror. In addition, we will stand against those who -- regardless of their religion -- oppress minorities, preach intolerance, or violate human rights. Likewise, there is little prospect for working productively with groups and individuals who are so are intensely anti- Western that they aim not only to eradicate any Western influences in their societies, but to resist any form of cooperation with the West or modernizing influence at home.

Extremists around the world use whatever resources they have to achieve their goals. In the Middle East, religious rhetoric can be made into one of those resources. A fatwa or incitement to violence can be just as dangerous as bombs and bullets. The impulse that motivates the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades of Hamas, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (or GIA) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards is not Islamic piety, but a mixture of revenge, fanaticism and pursuit of political power.

Right now, in the Middle East and elsewhere, Muslims are debating and testing role of Islam in state, society, and economy. We see this debate as part of a larger search for responsive government, material progress and human rights. It is a debate which has been gathering strength for some time in areas of transition and turmoil such as the Middle East and North Africa.

It is understandable that Islam should provide a rich source of inspiration and guidance in this debate, particularly at a time when the "isms" -- communism, socialism, and Arab nationalism -- have been discredited. People made desperate by poverty, unemployment, repression, and corruption in their societies turn to their cultural and religious roots for solace and guidance, and a few of these find their capacity for faith twisted into violence for political ends.

We have only limited influence in determining how this debate is resolved. There are no "Made in the U.S.A." answers for these problems of Middle Eastern nations. The countries of the Middle East must draw on their own cultural and societal heritage to shape governmental institutions that meet the aspirations of their people. Our concerns in the debate over Islam's role are more circumscribed and pragmatic: Will this debate generate peaceful and orderly change or destructive conflict? Is protection afforded to basic human rights? Can we work effectively with a particular state or group to promote peace and prosperity? Can we maintain relations based on trust and goodwill?

Common Ground and Flexible Response

I think it is important that we try to increase Americans' understanding of Islam, and Middle Easterners' understanding of America. Here in the United States, at places like Georgetown University's Center for Muslim - Christian Understanding, Harvard's Center for Islamic Legal Studies, here in the Council and elsewhere, Western and Islamic scholars are coming together and benefiting mutually from their respective exposure to each other's history, philosophy and jurisprudence. It think it is inevitable as this type of interaction increases that modernizing interpretations of Islam will begin to emerge. This will reinforce the calls we hear from within Islamic societies for fresh thinking on the values of Islam -- from leaders such as Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Jordan's King Hussein and from writers and reformist thinkers such as Abdol Karim Sorush in Iran, Muhammad Shahrur in Syria, and Muhammad Arkun of Algeria and Muhammad Said al-Ashmawi in Egypt.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution the U.S. can make is through our unwavering commitment to help bring the Arab-Israeli conflict -- one of this century's most intractable conflicts -- to an end. A successful peace process will undermine the appeal of religious as well as secular extremism. With extremists confined to the margins, moderate states and groups across the region will be strengthened. Political energies and economic resources can be channeled into the democratic enlargement, free market reform, and curbs on weapons of mass destruction. It seems that extremist forces in Iran, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizballah all try to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict at a simmering boil. They use blind hatred of Israel in order to strengthen their appeal.

Having given these few general precepts, let me now apply these observations about our approach toward Islam to three illustrative examples of Islamic political activism and how we deal with them: Hamas, Iran and the Islamist elements in Algeria.

Hamas

Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, has emerged as a key concern because of its violent challenge to the Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation process, and indeed the entire peace process. Hamas was established in the late 1980s in Gaza after the outbreak of the Intifada. Its antecedent organizations were the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Mujamma' al-Islami, themselves the product of the period when Gaza was under Egyptian control. Hamas' founding documents cite the writings of Hassan al-Banna. In 1989, Hamas' leader, Sheikh Yassin, was jailed for life by Israel after the killing of two kidnapped Israeli soldiers.

Israeli-Palestinian relations have been radically transformed since the days of the intifada. With the 1993 Declaration of Principles, Israel and the Palestinians have embarked on a historic process of reconciliation. Israel has found a partner for peace in Chairman Arafat and the PLO, and there now exists a viable framework for these two sides to resolve their differences through negotiation and compromise.

Palestinians have the opportunity -- and the challenge -- to build democracy and prosperity for themselves. The Palestinian election in January gave Chairman Arafat a strong democratic mandate. Palestinian voters expressed a range of sentiments with their vote, but one of the clearest of these was their repudiation of Hamas' rejectionist agenda. The vast majority of the Palestinian electorate said "no" to the armed struggle and "yes" to the principle of cooperation with Israel. A few Hamas figures in Gaza belatedly realized that the leadership's call to boycott the elections would not be widely observed. In the end, several entered the fray and at least three were elected to seats on the Council.

For all its claims to religious legitimacy, Hamas is becoming increasingly isolated. Popular support for the rejectionists has crumbled since 1993, and support for Hamas will probably continue to decline as the peace process unfolds.

It bears noting that the murderous attacks carried out by Hamas in the name of Islam were not religious, but political: to kill the peace process, to undermine the Palestinian Authority, to seek revenge for the killing of Yahya Ayyash, and to break the spirit of the Israeli people. They were not overly concerned with their victims' faith or nationality. Among the 58 victims were Israelis, Americans, Romanians, and Palestinians.

The United States has condemned these attacks in unambiguous terms and many responsible Islamic authorities have done so as well. Their statements (the Sheikh of al-Azhar, for example) can only help reinforce the moral authority of the peacemakers in the Middle East. Hearing such voices will also help dispel some of the destructive myths and stereotypes of Islam that we hear in the West.

History will probably record that Arafat's return to Gaza, following the May 1994 Cairo Accord, marked the beginning of the end for Hamas. We applauded when we saw Arafat attending school openings rather than calling for jihad because we thought it indicated that his attention was turning to the serious tasks of nation-building. Hamas did not applaud. The sheikhs saw Arafat's focus on the education system as a direct challenge to their authority. Arafat now has a full-court press in play, based politically on a return of land and empowerment of the Palestinian Authority, acting through the schools and the mosques, through the various forms of negotiation and co-option, and now through rigorous security measures as well. The results of this campaign are measurable, not only in the increasing numbers of Palestinian women who have chosen to forego the hijab but in the large turnout for Fatah candidates in the January elections.

Where does this leave Hamas? With Iran engaged in a determined bid to undermine the peace process, the Hamas militants are increasingly vulnerable to external manipulation. The recent roundup of Hamas members by the Palestinian Authority turned up one detailed account of travel and training in explosives received in Iran, accompanied by indoctrination to martyrdom. This unsettling discovery provides a bridge to focus on Iran.

Iran

As with Hamas, the United States has serious practical differences with Iran over its policies and behavior. The government of Iran is conducting itself in a manner that runs counter to U.S. interests, threatens other nations and rejects the will of the people whose interests it purports to represent.

Our specific objections toward Iran are well-known. They include Iran's support for terrorism and for violent groups like Hamas and Hizballah that seek to derail the peace process. Iran is also acting as an aggressive state within the region through support for opposition Islamist groups and subversion of friendly governments. It is abusing human rights at home. And it is trying to develop nuclear weapons and other forms of mass destruction. None of these activities is called for in the tenets of Islam. All represent leadership choices of a human, not divine character and can thus be changed by human reconsideration.

Our allies generally share our concern over Iran's threatening policies. There is less consensus, however, over how to respond. We have been imposing a series of pressures and constraints on Iran in an effort both to limit its capabilities and to convince its leaders that less threatening policies would better serve their long-term interests. We have urged our allies to join us in this approach.

To contain Iran militarily, we rely in part on the cooperation and support of the moderate states of the GCC. Although Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners have religious sectarian differences with Iran, their opposition to Iran's government, like ours, stems from practical and political causes. Practical concerns likewise underlie our efforts to contain Iran's neighbor, Iraq -- an avowedly secularist state that also seeks to dominate is weaker neighbors. Again, religious factors are not the basis of U.S. policy.

Iran has dubbed America an enemy of Islam because of our tough policies. But how do Iran's policies benefit the ummah? By stoking Arab-Israeli tensions through its fiery rhetoric and support for extremists, Tehran has exploited rifts in the Arab world and undermined Muslim unity, with little regard for the hardships of their Lebanese and Palestinian co- religionists.

The Iranian people suffer too. Economic growth has slowed to a halt while Iran's leaders pursue foreign adventures and nuclear weapons. The Iranian people blame their economic problems on corruption and mismanagement, but they have no real power to change the government. Only 60 percent of the candidates who registered to run in the recent Majlis election were declared eligible by the Council of Guardians. Advocates of secular democracy were not an option. With open debate and free choice ruled out, we have little hope these elections will lead Iran to abandon its objectionable policies.

Despite our objections to many of Iran's policies, we do not seek to overthrow or reverse the Islamic revolution. We recognize Iran's importance as a regional state. We do not see any serious internal opposition movement to the current regime at the present time.

We remain ready for an authorized, out-in-the-open dialogue when Iran's leaders are willing to discuss our differences face-to-face. There is no hidden agenda. Iran has never indicated an interest in such a dialogue, however. We are ready to welcome Iran's return to the international community when it demonstrates that it is prepared to live by the same basic rules and international standards that other states do.

Algeria

We face a different situation in Algeria, a deeply unsettled nation wracked by domestic political violence that has claimed thousands of lives. The United States has an interest in seeing stability and prosperity return to Algeria. To this end, we have consistently encouraged -- in close coordination with France and other friends of Algeria -- a process of political and economic reform leading to national reconciliation among all Algerians who disavow violence and terror. This has included pragmatic elements of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

Following the breakdown of the democratic process in 1992, many observers warned of a collapse of central authority in Algeria and forecast an Islamist wave engulfing the country. This is not what happened. In last November's Presidential election, despite opposition calls for a boycott, Algerians came out to the polling places in large numbers to elect President Zeroual by a respectable 60 percent of the vote. We and many other observers interpreted this election as a message to Zeroual as well as a vote for him. We believe it was a vote to end the cycle of violence and reprisals, and to provide a mandate for national reconciliation, responsive government and a return to normalcy in the country.

This election provided the best opportunity in five years for the government to regain the moral high ground. Zeroual offered amnesty for those willing to give up the armed insurgency and reconciliation with those -- including Islamists -- who reject violence and are willing to accept the rule of law. We are encouraged that the Government of Algeria is taking steps to launch a national dialogue and begun to prepare for legislative and municipal elections.

We believe that last November's election provides President Zeroual with an opportunity to build on popular repudiation of extremism and move forward in dealing with the country's economic and political problems. We want to see President Zeroual succeed in the program of reconciliation that he has publicly committed his government to carrying out. And we have told him that the United Stated will find ways to support him as he makes progress toward that goal; we state it as a "positive conditionality." The legislative elections announced for early next year can be important as an element in this process. Political measures alone are not enough, but vigorous pursuit of a policy of political inclusion, coupled with economic reform, proactive security measures and continued marginalization of the extremists can reverse the years of widespread instability and give the Algerian people a chance to regain their balance.

We have delivered the same messages to the FIS, and I engaged President Zeroual at some length on the issue during my visit to Algiers in March. I also met with leaders from the legal Islamist groups al-Nahda and Hamas who reject violence. The Islamist portion of the spectrum is now split between more moderate, pragmatic elements and the violent, fanatical elements embodied in the GIA.

Algeria now confronts a real opportunity for positive change in the direction of greater political stability and economic progress. We believe we can play a positive role in helping encourage the Government and people of Algeria -- from across the political spectrum -- to move forward toward a better future of economic growth, domestic tranquillity and political stability.

Conclusion

Let me make some concluding observations.

We are frequently criticized for not having developed "a more coherent policy" toward Islam. The critics generally have such a policy to propose, and it is generally either all-out opposition and rejection or all-out embrace and acceptance, depending on where they are coming from. But we consider that this phenomenon, with its diverse intellectual and political currents, resists confinement to a single grand strategy.

U.S. policy strives toward a Middle East where all faiths can practice their religion with tolerance, where political systems are marked by greater participation and freedom, where individuals and businesses can reap the opportunities of dynamic free market economies, and where all nations can live and interact with their neighbors and the international community in peace and security. At bottom, our policy toward the Middle East is like our policy toward other regions of the world: practical, focused on deeds, and aimed at expanding the benefits of peace, prosperity and tolerance wherever we can.

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