The President-elect will have his hands full in the Middle East - Iraq, Iran, and not least of all in the Palestinian-Israeli arena where PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ term is coming to an end a few weeks before President Obama begins his. If Abbas is replaced by a Hamas functionary, it is hard to imagine Washington engaging the Islamic Resistance - and just as hard to imagine a brand new White House isolating the Palestinians entirely. Should the Americans talk to Islamists at all? What if the PA comes as a Fatah-Hamas national unity government, will the Americans deal then?
To answer a few of these questions, and see what an Arab nationalist-Islamist coalition looks like in reality, I met with members of the National Salvation Front, a Syrian opposition group headed by the former Vice President of Syria Abdel Halim Khaddam, and Ali Sadr al-din al-Bayanouni, exiled leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. While they now work together to bring down Bashar al-Asad’s government, the two of them were once mortal enemies, when the Islamists started a de facto civil war against Hafez al-Asad’s minority Alawi regime in the late 70s. In 1979, Bayanouni left moved to Jordan, and in 2000 he relocated to London. I spoke with him in Brussels where the NSF was holding its annual meeting.
The Syrian MB, like Hamas, is nominally a branch of the original organization founded by the Egyptian activist and ideologue Hassan al-Banna in 1928. Nonetheless, the Syrian group prides itself on their distinctive formulation. For instance, when the Egyptian MB released its party platform in the fall of 2007 barring women and members of the Christian Coptic minority from becoming president, Bayanouni criticized his Egyptian colleagues. “I don’t think the Egyptian position is right,” he said. “We don’t exclude anyone. We emphasize citizenship, and the equality of all citizens in that they share in the same duties and obligations, regardless of ethnic, religious or sectarian belonging.”
Next to the Egyptian Brethren, and Hamas - which has facilitated attacks on Christians as well as women in Gaza - the Syrians are comparatively tolerant; and with their willingness to build a coalition with liberals and leftists as well as former regimes hands, they are also apparently willingn to play by democratic rules. According to Bayanouni, there are a few different reasons for their novel disposition.
First, says Bayanouni, there is the sectarian composition of Syria itself, with a large minority population alongside the seventy per cent Sunni majority; ten per cent of the country is made up of Kurds, another ten per cent Christian, and yet another ten per cent made up of Alawis, who have ruled Syria since 1966. “Syria didn’t know sectarianism or racism before this regime,” says Bayanouni. I noted that the number of pogroms against the Alawis throughout Syrian history, as well as anti-Alawi polemics coming from a major Sunni jurist like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), suggested otherwise.
Bayanouni also attributes his group’s tolerance to the founder of the Syrian MB, Mustafa al-Siba'i (1915- 1964). “Siba’i was open to democratic life,” says Bayanouni. “He was open to other political parties because his thought was not ‘isolative.’ Our political project now is a return to the original thought of Sibai’s Muslim Brotherhood.”
Perhaps so, but that trend was set aside during the Islamists’ war against the state. And when Hafez al-Asad laid siege to Hama, an MB stronghold, in 1982 and forces under the command of his brother Rifaat killed upwards of 10,000 of their countrymen, the Muslim Brotherhood was conclusively defeated. Bayanouni seems a bit reluctant to admit it, but the fact is that it was the Syrian civil war and its aftermath that really molded the MB’s thought today.
While many Middle East analysts believe that giving Islamists a share of power will moderate their politics, the electoral success of Hezbollah and Hamas does not bear this out. Rather, as Martin Kramer has argued, it is isolation and even repression that tames Islamists. Consider for instance the Islamic Action Front, a Jordanian spin-off the Muslim Brotherhood, broken by the Hashemite regime and now that it is no threat to the government has representation in parliament. Even Bayanouni confesses that exile and being far from any chance at power has played a role in shaping how the MB now wants to engage Syrian society.
“The Syrian people cannot be ruled by one party, one group,” says Bayanouni. “All Syrians want a unity government, representing all sectors of society. We don’t want to and we can’t dominate politics.”
That, however, is not the case with Hamas. Unlike the Syrian Islamists, they defeated Fatah handily in Gaza and would crush them in the West Bank as well should Israeli troops withdraw. In other words, Hamas is on a roll and sees no need to modify, never mind moderate, its political ambitions. Despite Bayanouni’s relative moderation, Washington’s justifiable reluctance to engage Islamists has kept US officials away from the MB leader. The Obama administration should make no exceptions with Hamas - or not until the Palestinians’ Islamic Resistance is beaten decisively on the battlefield.