The White House account of President Donald Trump’s first phone call with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is a good sign that the U.S. might continue to work cooperatively with moderate Muslim political leaders who can contribute to global stability and aid in reducing violent extremism. Important bipartisan public debate over how to eliminate the threat of terrorism too often reduces all political parties identified with Islam to a single unified force. This one-size-fits-all view could actually undermine the very goal of the discussion: increased security.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi speaking with USIP Executive Vice President William B. Taylor at the institute in 2015, during his first visit to the United States after taking office.

While some Islamist movements are threatening and violent, many Islamist political parties strongly reject extremists and even explicitly espouse peaceful, political processes to advance their agendas. In some cases, these moderate parties have made nonviolent solutions to conflict possible and have cleared a pathway to democracy. These are our allies and must be supported to achieve long-term, sustainable peace.

Constructive players in the Muslim world who respect democratic values and want to cooperate to stop terror are much more numerous and established than it might seem.

Certainly terrorist attacks are horrific and shocking and demand a response. A spree of suicide bombings in Baghdad killed at least 72 people last week and injured scores more. The Christmas market truck attack in Berlin in December killed 12 and injured 48.

While it is tempting to strike back immediately with overwhelming force, that kind of response too often results in overreach that only escalates tensions and risks fueling a cycle of violence. The most effective response is considered, precise and targeted – the kind of approach that will dissipate support for violent individuals who commit heinous crimes against innocent civilians. Responding in this way also supports the constructive forces working for peace and cooperation in all our societies.

After President Trump’s call with his Tunisian counterpart, for example, the White House said the U.S. leader “praised Tunisia’s stability and security as it continues its democratic transition more than six years after the revolution in January 2011.”

“The leaders reaffirmed the historic United States-Tunisia relationship and agreed to maintain close cooperation, including on security matters, and seek additional ways to expand cooperation between the two countries,” according to the White House statement.

Constructive players in the Muslim world who respect democratic values and want to cooperate to stop terror are much more numerous and established than it might seem from the news in the headlines. Democracy is not a new concept for the Middle East and North Africa or one imposed by the U.S. or the West. Early institutions in the region such as the 7th century Constitution of Medina established precedents for pluralism and religious autonomy. This constitution emphasized the need for the consent of the governed and guaranteed equal rights for freedom of worship for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  These foundations still form a framework that moderate Islamist parties point to with pride.

When the West labels a moderate non-violent political group a terrorist organization, we undercut our political relevance in that country or region. We end up undermining the preferred peaceful choice—political or religious—of a country’s citizens even as we claim to respect people of faith. Ironically, political Islam has emerged as the most viable opposition to the corruption of autocratic regimes in many countries across the Muslim world. 

Draining the Swamp

Many secular parties and governments in the Middle East and North Africa–think of the Baathists under Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, or the Democratic Constitutional Rally under former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—collapsed and threw their countries into chaos with their widespread abuses, corruption and counter-democratic practices. Conversely, for many Muslims in the region, Islamist parties represent the movement to “drain the swamp.”  Given the stark dichotomy offered between authoritarianism and political Islam, it is not hard to see why the latter looks like a viable home-grown alternative even for non-religious people in countries like Turkey and Tunisia.

When they were excluded from democratic processes, Islamist movements could maintain the gloss of the reformist label. Perpetual opposition was a comfortable way to retain a clean record.

Allowing moderate Islamist parties to participate in politics can encourage pragmatism over time as they face the difficulties of governing. Excluding these parties from the political system only increases the likelihood that they will become more radical or that their members will be drawn to more extreme groups.

Tunisia—a major non-NATO ally—is perhaps the best example.  Its successful emergence as a democracy following the turbulent 2011 revolution can be attributed to the remarkable restraint and responsibility shown by the leaders of the Ennahda party. Rapidly transitioning from an Islamist party in exile to win leadership in the first elected post-revolution government, Ennahda went on to deal with a crisis of confidence by willingly stepping aside to allow the installment of a technocratic government and a national dialogue process that brought a new constitutional order to Tunisia.

If Ennahda had clung to power in the face of protests, Tunisia’s transformation likely would have been far bloodier and less assured. Last May, the Ennahda party split its political and religious wings and explicitly renamed its movement as one of Muslim democrats—an Islam-affiliated party committed to democratic values—rather than of political Islam. This Islam-oriented political movement is a success and potential model for the region, and Tunisia has emerged as a strategic U.S. partner.

One productive approach for countries like Tunisia where Islamist parties are adopting moderate stances and participating in governance would be to focus on common economic interests. Helping them promote development and create jobs is far more likely to improve security than broadly targeting political movements just because they have religious underpinnings. Not only would a more constructive approach benefit U.S. economic interests, it also develops allies in a part of the world where we need them.

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