Is dialogue with political Islam truly an impossible and futile undertaking as many “secular” regimes in the Region assert? Or does the real problem lie in the fact that authoritarian and corrupt regimes are simply unwilling to dialogue with anybody, regardless of their political affiliations?
Moreover, can such a dialogue take place between representatives of secular movements and Islamist ones?
The answers to these questions may not be easy, but as political Islam imposes itself on the regional scene once more, and as regimes and governments continue to deal with it through crackdown and oppressive tactics, ranging from mass arrests, as is the case in Egypt, to mass murder, as was the case recently in Uzbekistan in the town of Andijon, finding suitable answers should be a priority concern for all actors interested in the future of the Region.
One thing should be clear though, crackdowns have been tried repeatedly before, but the Islamist current keeps on reemerging having gained more strength, more mass appeal and a greater measure of political sophistication. Indeed, there are many recent incidents where Islamist organizations proved to be more sophisticated in their tactics and approach than their secular counterparts, not to mention the regimes involved.
In other words, despite the fact that crackdowns continue to be the approach most favored by regimes, with occasional backing from some secular forces, they have so far proven worthless, if not downright counterproductive.
As such, dialogue might just be the key. In truth, it hasn’t really been attempted before. But this attitude might be changing as we speak. Already in Egypt, a number of secular movements and figures have begun dialoguing with the long-troubling and controversial Muslim Brotherhood. Though, it’s too early at this stage to tell whether the results are indeed encouraging, the two sides have so far been able to work together in their opposition of President Mubarak, a struggle that is bound to continue into the near future.
Meanwhile in Syria, an attempt by the independent secular salon known as the Atassy Forum to indirectly include the Muslim Brotherhood’s perspective in ongoing talks on the future of reform in Syria was met with a government crackdown. Indeed the government detained all eight members of the Forum’s Administrative Board for a period of four days in a well-established pattern of intimidation.
For despite the fact that it was Syrian officials who first spoke of the possibility and that the Atassy Forum was simply following their lead in this regard, it seems that the Syrian regime felt threatened by the possibility of an independent secular-Islamist opposition alliance. Furthermore, the regime has a rather bitter history with the Brotherhood culminating in the infamous 1982 uprising in Hama.
Therefore, and rather than coming out as a demonstration of regime strength, as had been the intention, the move came out as a further demonstration of its weakness of resolve and continuing with regard to its dealings with the civil society and its increasing show of defiance. The possibility of dialogue and cooperation between the secular and Islamist elements in Syria, then, remains open.
As the Region stands at a very dramatic and crucial crossroads in its modern history, dialogue between secular and Islamist currents is becoming more and more of a necessity, for no one side seems to have all answers to the Region’s problems and ongoing identity crisis.