Talking with Islamists the Only Route to a Lasting Peace

This article first appeared in the 4 April 2008 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

In the Middle East you don’t make peace with friends , you make it with distasteful enemies, writes Richard Whelan.

Jonathan Powell, the British civil servant who played a central role in the negotiations leading to the powersharing government in Northern Ireland, says the West must keep a line of communication open with Islamic militants.

“There’s nothing to say to al-Qaeda and they’ve got nothing to say to us at the moment, but at some stage you’re going to have to come to a political solution as well as a security solution. And that means you need the ability to talk,” the man who was Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007 told the Guardian recently.

Powell describes secret meetings with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness since 1997, after the IRA Canary Wharf bomb in London, in his book Great Hatred Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, published this week. In time this contact led to British and Irish civil servants drafting statements for issue by the IRA, as is revealed in the new edition of The Far Side of Revenge by Irish Times journalist Deaglán de Bréadún, just published.

“It is very hard for democratic governments to admit to talking to terrorist groups while those groups are still killing people,” Powell’s book notes. Yet we know that John Major’s government kept talks going with the IRA despite the Warrington bombs in 1993 which killed two children, Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry, and injured 54.

In the wider world where Hamas and al-Qaeda live, the people of Manhattan and other 9/11 victims and those of London, Bali and Madrid have the same right to live in peace as the rest of the world, and not to be sacrificed on the altar of demands for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate (empire) of old. Israel demands security for its citizens and an end to Hamas rocket and suicide attacks. Palestinian demands for an end to attacks and a state and space to make a living in peace are no less valid.

The traditional IRA demand was for a united Ireland. But when the IRA’s representatives got to the negotiating table, the eventual outcome was powersharing. Hamas wants – believe it or not – the return of Andalucia in Spain, and all other lands conquered or occupied by Islam since the time of the Prophet Muhammad some 1,300 years ago. Hamas professes a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism, inherited from its “parent” organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had ties to Nazi Germany. The Hamas covenant (constitution) requires Muslims to carry out the sacred duty of jihad, until the “World Jewish conspiracy” is defeated. The covenant quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and attributes all wars and revolutions to the supposed machinations of Jews. These include the French and Russian revolutions, the first and second world wars, and subsequent wars, while identifying the UN as part of this conspiracy. This jihad will only end with the reconquest of occupied Islamic lands. The covenant reminds the faithful that these lands are waqf, sacred endowments from God that can never be given away.

Al-Qaeda shares many of Hamas’s objectives, differing only on the tactics employed to achieve them. Religion is to be at the centre of all life and activities, with Islam being the dominant force; the Islamic Caliphate is to be re-established worldwide.

Clearly, that cannot happen overnight. To overcome the Israeli and other obstacles, Hamas proposes a truce. Thus a Hamas-Israel ceasefire could be brokered, were the Israelis so minded. And the Hamas side can take comfort in their reading of Islamic jurisprudence, which effectively allows them to reopen hostilities at a time of their choosing. Israel may be forgiven for looking that truce gift horse in the mouth.

Powell’s argument that a line of communication must exist is well founded. “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavoury enemies,” Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated prime minister of Israel, said. But those who must do the talking with Islamic militants need our support. They need infinite patience, and they must never lose sight of the difficulty of getting hardliners to modify their core views – as they must.

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