Sunday, 30 March 2008

Measles or vaccination - the Egyptian view of islamist politics

Have had fascinating talks with a colleague from Egypt this afternoon. It was one of those lunchtime discussions which just ran on and on until we suddenly looked at our watches and saw it was 5pm.

In essence, he likens the threat posed in his country by radical islamist parties (and how to deal with them) as being like a choice between measles and vaccination.

In deciding how to handle the threat posed, he says that the dilemma for the mainstream parties - and he includes the Government and main opposition - is whether to engage with the islamists or not. He argues very forcefully for engagement and he holds regular public debates with the islamists.

His view is that to engage with them is the vaccination approach. You try to counter the disease so that, although there may be isolated cases, the widespread outbreak of the virus never happens. The alternative is not to engage and risk a pandemic which will take many generations to get over. You might be lucky of course and it may never happen, but the chances are that it will and you will have done nothing to stop it.

He goes further with his comparisons, describing the 'ROMification' of the young islamists. He says that many of them have been so brainwashed that they have lost the power of reasonable thought. They can only store ideas and parrot them back - like a computer with ROM memory. For rational thought a human needs the equivalent of RAM memory - the ability to process new data. His fear is that a whole generation has been lost and it may be a long while before a new set of young people can be debated with.

So why engage at all if these people are lost. There is particularly the danger that the liberals will be lumped into the same basket as people like Bush. His view is that this is a problem. But to refuse to debate risks the islamists starting a debate for themselves with people who are even more extreme - in Egypt they are the jihadis. A debate between violent and non-violent islamists will result in victory for the the more reasonable sounding group. But you still end up with islamists.

As for the George Bush problem, the argument is that George Bush effectively started a debate (ok, not a debate, a war) with the jihadis. By engaging with them on their terms (armed conflict) he gave them credence they do not deserve.

The additional dilemma comes with the problem of what to do if the islamists win an election. What is to stop them changing the constitution so fundamentally as to talibanise the country? His argument is that they would seek to persuade the islamists to sign up to an agreement with the fundamentals of elections and the rule of law. Even if you cannot get that, he says, by their very engagement in debate and through their participation in elections they have, de facto, agreed to the concept of elections and the constitution that goes along with them.

I'm not sure that I go along with the argument entirely, but it made for an interesting discussion. If you do accept it then it has some parallels for the UK. Should we in the UK debate with those who argue for sharia law or with the BNP.

On another note, he points to the crucial nature of Egypt in world politics and suggests that the islamist movement in the country is one which the world should be taking seriously. He points out that 1953 and the Suez crisis led to the effective end of empires; that 1972 saw the beginning of the end of Soviet control way before the fall of the Berlin Wall and that 1978 was the turning point for the recognition by Arab countries of the state of Israel. His characterization is the Egypt in world affairs is the same s the Middle East in the game of Risk. In order to win the game, a player needs to take and hold that territory.

As I say, a very interesting lunch. Arguments welcome!

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