Last year, a British parliamentary commission issued a report urging the Foreign Office to engage diplomatically with Islamist leaders and even to try to persuade them to take more liberal stances. Such suggestions have gained purchase recently among Western diplomats and policy experts; John Jenkins is, to say the least, skeptical:
I cannot think of a single example where Western diplomatic or any other sort of engagement has produced any change in the position of any political Islamist. Deniable channels of communication may sometimes be wise, for example when we have kidnappings to resolve or must ensure the physical security of diplomats (both of which we had to do in Gaza when I was the [British] consul general in Jerusalem).
But our decisions publicly to engage with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after 2000 and in 2008 to re-engage diplomatically with Hizballah’s political wing produced absolutely no shift in their thinking. Instead we tended to shape our own actions to avoid a negative reaction from Hizballah in Lebanon—by, for example, failing sufficiently . . . to condemn the egregious murders of their opponents. Again, occasional attempts in Iraq to shape the thinking of [Islamist leaders] failed. They gamed us instead. We have seen the same with the Houthis in Yemen and over the years with Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. . . .
[In addition], there is the issue of language. Islamists notoriously use different discourses for different audiences. Just watch Al Jazeera’s English- and Arabic-language coverage of key events in the region for some excellent examples. . . . I encountered serial examples of this when asking Muslim Brothers and other Islamists to explain “a civil state in the framework of the sharia” or “Islamic democracy,” both common concepts but ones that Islamists surround with deliberate ambiguity in order to disguise their intent. I recall, with undimmed admiration for his hutzpah, sitting with Libyan politician and rebel commander Abdul Hakim bin Hajj in Tripoli in 2011 as he sought to convince me he was a committed Lockean. . . .
Does this mean no engagement is possible? Not at all. But it has to be on our terms if it is our engagement. That means . . . making sure we are absolutely clear what Islamist claims to value democracy (for example) or human rights mean in practice. . . . And it means selling engagement—which has a huge value for all Islamists—at its proper price, not at a liberal discount.