Obama’s Ideology of Engagement: Worth the Trouble?


Friday’s news that the Obama administration have approved unconditional talks with Iran has rightly eclipsed another important development in the Obama engagement ideology: the recent announcement that talks have also been opened up with Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami (JI).  Below is my latest contribution to Hudson, where I cover this strange decision.

Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East and Asia, Richard Holbrooke, is initiating dialogue with a number of Pakistani Islamist political parties including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), according to a recent Reuters report.

Holbrooke’s advisor, Vali Nasr, stated: “The purpose is to broaden the base of American relations in Pakistan beyond the relatively narrow circle of leaders Washington has previously dealt with.”  Nasr is himself an expert on the JI and Pakistani Islamism, and has written a number of books on the issue, including Islamic Leviathan.  His work on the JI is scholarly and informative, which makes it all the more confusing that he would think that the JI are appropriate partners for a secular liberal democracy.

If one were to consider the close, and often heavily criticized, relationship the US has had with Pakistan’s Inter Services Agency (ISI), meeting the JI does not quite broaden the base of US relations in Pakistan.  The JI have a huge influence within the ISI, and have encouraged the ISI in its continuing support for jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The JI represent everything that a secular democracy should resist:  religious extremism, theocracy, misogyny, totalitarianism and religious intolerance.  However, since Obama’s Cairo speech, it has become increasingly clear that his administration’s international approach will not be one based on shared liberal values, but rather on placating those who hate the United States.  This hate is not based on foreign or domestic policy, but is rooted in a desire to destroy the ‘evil ideology’ of secularism and liberal democracy, of which the US is the prime representative.

Countering jihadist ideology is fast becoming one of the central aspects of counter-terrorism.  Over the past half century the JI have provided the ideological justifications for many modern jihadist movements.  The writings and beliefs of the JI founder, Abu ala Mawdudi, particularly on issues of violent jihad and the Islamic obligation of creating an Islamic state, bear crucial similarities with those of the al-Qaeda jihadists.  The party has changed little from the days of Mawdudi, and still carries on his work both in Pakistan and, through a number of front groups, many parts of Europe and the United States.

It is the JI’s ongoing support for the hudood laws which perhaps best exemplifies why the JI is a group which represents everything our society rejects.  The hudood ordinances are a set of sharia based laws introduced by former Pakistani president, Zia ul-Haq with the help of the JI in 1979.  Included in these laws is a ruling that a married woman who has been raped by a man other than her husband is liable to face execution for adultery if she does not have four reliable (ie: Muslim) witnesses who claim she was in fact raped.  The hudood have been widely criticised as an Islamist tool used to subjugate women and according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “there were hundreds of incidents where a woman subjected to rape, or even gang rape, was eventually accused of Zina and thereby subjected to wrong and unjust persecution and great ordeal.”  This report was part of a push towards what was eventually passed by the Pakistani Government as The Women’s Protection Bill in November 2006. 

This bill was an attempt to wrest control of rape trials from the Islamists and instead put the issue in the hands of the Pakistani Penal system which is based on civil, rather than sharia, law.  Thus rape trials in Pakistan no longer require four male Muslim witnesses to the act – a rule used to make it virtually impossible for a man to be convicted of rape – and are now based on forensic and circumstantial evidence.  This bill was strongly opposed by the JI, who saw it as contrary to the laws set out by God and part of a US led ‘secular conspiracy’ against Islam.  The JI official statement on the passing of the bill made this clear:

In a detailed resolution on Hudood laws the JI shoora pointed out that various amendments in the name of women protection bill were being made in line with the US dictates available on the state department website….The meeting opined that 1979 Hudood Ordinance is not repugnant to Quran and Sunnah therefore every faithful should mobilize all available resources to protect it. The shoora categorically maintained that entire WPB (women’s protection bill) is in conflict with the teaching of Quran. The shoora appealed religious, political parties, human rights and social welfare institutions to play their active role in the withdrawal of WPB so that honor of women folk is protected. [This was taken from the official Jamaat e-Islami women’s site, which has now been taken down.  The relevant screenshots are in the possession of the author]

As well as women’s rights, freedom of expression is another defining aspect of our society, and one which the JI has repeatedly shown a distressing aversion to.  During the 2006 Danish Mohammed cartoons debacle – a watershed moment in the history of the relationship between liberalism and Islamofascism – the JI were once again on the side of murder and religious fanaticism.  During the fallout, the JI leadership offered a 50,000 Danish kroner bounty to anyone who could kill the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists.

Some might argue that in dealing with ‘moderate’ Islamists like the JI, the Obama administration is following a pragmatic approach in the hope that they may be of use against the more extreme jihadists of al-Qaeda.   This is very unlikely considering that since 9/11, the JI leadership have both praised Osama bin Laden and denied that al-Qaeda carried out the attacks.  The party still maintains that 9/11 was carried out by either the Israeli Mossad or the CIA in order to facilitate an American led crusade against Muslims.   In 2006, the JI amir (leader) at the time, Qazi Hussein Ahmed, told BBC Hardtalk:

[9/11] is a conspiracy against Muslims which was jointly hatched by Zionists and fundamentalist Christians.

Since 9/11, the JI have also been accused of providing al-Qaeda operatives with safe houses, and when  9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was apprehended in 2003, Pakistani authorities claimed that he was being sheltered in the house of a JI district counselor.  According to Ahmed Rashid, in his latest authoritative study on the Taliban Descent into Chaos:

Al-Qaeda’s attacks after 9/11 in Pakistan and abroad would have been impossible without the support network provided by Pakistan’s extremist groups and individual militants from mainstream Islamic parties such as the Jamiat-e-Islami.

Although the party denies providing any material support to terrorist groups, their rhetorical support for the killers of American soldiers surely cannot be ignored by Holbrooke or Obama.  The JI leadership have given their backing both to al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, framing their struggles as a defensive jihad against invading infidels and a noble effort to establish sharia theocracy.  Syed Munawar Hasan, the current JI amir, backed the Nizam e-Adl accord in Swat; the agreement between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani government which handed over the Malakand region to the Taliban.  Not content with helping cede the writ of the state in Malakand to terrorists, the JI also backed the Taliban a few weeks later when they moved south and took the district of Buner.

The final, desperate argument, which often emanates from those who back US engagement with clerical fascist groups like the JI, is to suggest that they represent a huge portion of the population and therefore cannot be ignored.  Indeed, this argument could have held some (but not much) water in 2002 when the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of Islamist parties which includes the JI, was elected in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP).  However, in 2008 they were removed from office after only six years, during which time, according to the International Crisis Group, they sought to “Islamize state and society through Taliban-like policies.”

So, in sum, leading members of the most democratic and progressive county on earth are courting religious fundamentalist reactionaries who support the killing of US troops and incite the murder of cartoonists.  There are times when engaging with unsavoury groups is unavoidable, with the the reasons often based on national security concerns.  This JI engagement could be part of an effective covert counter-terrorism strategy, but this is only speculation and the reasons given by the Obama administration so far do not come close to justifying a relationship with such a group.



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