President George Bush yesterday characterised "negotiation with terrorists and radicals" as "appeasement" during a speech to the Israeli Knesset. Despite Bush's reluctance, the debate over whether and how to engage in dialogue with armed Islamist groups is raging within both Middle Eastern and Western capitals.
In much of the West, there is a great reluctance to consider negotiations with the enemy in the 'war on terror'. These antagonists are usually loosely described as 'Islamists' -- a catchall term used to encompass diverse networks of people with strong religious goals and political ambitions. They range from organised political parties that may have armed wings, to nihilistic groups such as al-Qaida, which have fairly nebulous political objectives.
As Islamists continue to compete for political power within Muslim states, the West may be forced to accept their legitimacy as political actors -- if not their terrorist tactics -- and engage in dialogue. Isolating Hizbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood has been particularly difficult because both groups are viewed as legitimate political parties in some Western countries. For example, in Belgium, Hizbollah meets with state officials.
Other European countries have not designated it as a terrorist organisation, and Hezbollah remains absent from the EU's list of banned terror groups. On the other hand, the US policy precludes engagement with most Islamists for fear of promoting the growth of such groups across the Middle East -- a development that would presumably threaten US national security.
This explains Washington's rejection of Hamas, despite its victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections. Washington and other Western governments (including the EU) refuse to directly engage with Hamas, working through interlocutors such as Egypt when necessary. This has prevented the organisation from operating as the Palestinian National Authority Government, although it has not prevented Hamas from seizing de facto control of Gaza or diminished its political appeal; opinion polls suggest that it may have had the opposite effect.
Engagement with Islamist groups is fraught with dangers and potential drawbacks, and can risk empowering them. However, attempted isolation may be even less effective, particularly given inevitable Western divisions. For, absent diplomatic feelers it is difficult to properly assess the nature of the threat posed by the enemy's goals, intentions, and long-term objectives.
Counter-intuitively, defusing Islamist terrorism may, in part, involve allowing such groups to contribute to the flow of ideas and politics of their host countries. Such political reform could be simultaneously accompanied by policies designed to undermine the frequent Islamist role in social-welfare provision, which is a key basis of Islamist popular support.