What exactly do Western governments and policymakers want from Islamists, i.e. individuals and groups who believe that their system of government should be based on Islamic principles? As a moderate Islamist keen to build bridges of understanding and communication with different people in the West and elsewhere, I find it difficult to answer this question.
Over the past couple of decades, a moderate discourse has developed within political Islam, reconciling Islamic teachings with modern life after decades of stagnation and resulting in Islamically-acceptable solutions for several contentious issues. Today’s moderate Islamists fully endorse democracy, and their discourse illustrates a clear respect of civil liberties and human rights.
This contemporary discourse is not inherently anti-Western. True, it does take different stances on some issues, but it is a balanced discourse that makes clear distinctions between governments and civil society organisations. It is a discourse that realises that the West is not a homogeneous bloc and that a number of significant differences exist therein. Nonetheless, most – if not all – Western official circles have been very hesitant in their response to this development in political Islam.
Whereas intellectuals and think-tanks have been keen to pursue opportunities for dialogue with moderate Islamists, very few state officials have shown interest in joining such discussions despite having participated in many lectures and talks about them.
I understand that Western policymakers have security concerns in mind when dealing with Islamists. But I think it is legitimate to assume that these policy-makers are intelligent, knowledgeable and mature enough to realise that not all Islamic activists are terrorists, and that terrorist groups are as critical of peaceful, moderate groups as they are of the West. The Muslim Brotherhood is not al Qaeda, and the political discourses of Khayrat El Shater, the deputy chief of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ayman Al Zawahry, a leading ideologue of Al Qaeda, have hardly anything in common.