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On Dialogue With “Illiberal Moderates”

[Author’s Note: This text does not discuss the Palestinian Hamas movement, the Lebanese Hezbollah, or the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran – none of which may be described as “moderate.” Nevertheless, the general principles outlined here may be applied to “dialogue” with all Islamist groups.]

There are “illiberals” of several kinds and it is a gross political error to mix them up. If by “illiberal” one simple means an extreme conservative, or a religious traditionalist, there should be no problem in dialogue with such a person. If by “illiberal” one means an intolerant nationalist or inflamed chauvinist or imperialist, then one can argue case by case. It is obviously acceptable, in my view, to have dialogue with such ethnically “illiberal” parties as the Alleanza Nazionale of Gianfranco Fini in Italy , the Catalan nationalist parties, or the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ); all three have participated in or formed respectable governments. The Basque or Irish nationalists represent different and more challenging examples.
But there is a difference, and it has existed since the 1920s, between “illiberal” parties in spirit and activist conspiracies that, acting on “illiberal” ideas, habitually break the public peace. The Fascists of Mussolini and National Socialists of Hitler were different from old-fashioned conservatives or nationalists in that they were prepared to murder those they considered their enemies, in contempt of existing institutions and law.
I am not opposed to dialogue with “illiberal moderates” who have never assumed the consistent character of a mass law-breaking party. That is the problem with the Muslim Brotherhood; it has a past as a terrorist conspiracy, it established Hamas, and maintains a paramilitary wing. It is not made up of civil and law-abiding “neofascists” of the Fini type; rather, it is closer to Fini’s antecedent, Mussolini, in that, like the Italian dictator, it is patient and accommodating to democratic institutions while deliberately undermining them. Few political scientists today ponder the time that passed between Mussolini’s “March on Rome ” in 1922 and the final consolidation of Fascist party power in 1926. But throughout its history Mussolini’s party broke the law, committing assassinations and other acts of violence to impose its will.
It is one thing to resent or want to change liberal laws; it is another to claim impunity in rejecting them. In my view, real “dialogue” with “illiberal moderates” is only possible with those that have no history of defiance of law. In the world of Islam, groups like the Saudi Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Deobandis, the forerunners of the Adalet ve Kalk‎nmi Partisi (AKP) in Turkey , and other “illiberal” movements, have a bloody historical trail. Most of them are takfiri; i.e. they are intolerant of differences within Islam. Takfir is a most volatile form of intolerance.
Yes, there are “soft” Wahhabis, Deobandis, and AKP members. This brings up the definition of “dialogue.” If dialogue means an attempt at partnership, I believe it is impossible with any Wahhabis. If “dialogue” is possible with them, it must be debate based on opposition, which draws a firm line against them, aims at their defeat, and grants them nothing more than the basic rights that should be accorded to any religious trend, so long as they remain nonviolent. But such a dialogue cannot have as its goal an alliance between moderate Muslims and “soft” Wahhabis. This is a mistake now being made by numerous Saudi liberal reformers; they think they can enter a bloc with the discontented element among the Wahhabis in opposition to the monarchy.
Saudi King Abdullah is himself an “illiberal moderate,” and, paradoxically or not, I favor not only dialogue with him, but assistance to him in commencing a transition to normality in his country. The Saudi-Wahhabi cult is the number one threat to freedom in the world and it is impossible to elide them into some general Saudi Arabian category that can be defined as trustworthy allies of the West, especially after September 11, 2001. Abdullah, however, has shown himself reluctant to break civil peace in the desert kingdom by acts of significant repression, and loath to support Wahhabi terror in Iraq or to defend Al-Qaida. Nobody sane calls for an externally-directed regime change in the Saudi kingdom. Some notable Shia Muslim leaders, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, have acted as “illiberal moderates,” but his record is one of defiance of the law from the outset. Other Iraqi Shia leaders have radical pasts but there is no clear historical record on their attitude toward permanent repudiation of settled law in the land.
An example from Jewish history is instructive: the Stalinist Communists and Zionist Revisionists – both of which at various stages in their history, could be described as “illiberal moderates” – were excluded from participation in the leadership of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They were neither respected nor trusted, even though their members and weapons would have been useful in a life-and-death struggle.
Contempt for law and dedication to force as the main weapon of politics is not the same as radicalism per se or even revolutionism. Many revolutionaries defended law; for example, the liberal partisans of the Spanish Republic , or the supporters of Figueres in Costa Rica in 1948-49.
The art of politics is that of making distinctions, not confusing them. In my view the very term “illiberal moderate” badly confuses political distinctions that today are matters of life and death for the whole planet.


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