US and EU Engagement with Islamists in the MENA Region

Written by | Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Sarah Wolff (Netherlands Institute of International Relations – Clingendael)

The recent Arab uprising has reminded American and European diplomats that they must continuously deepen their communication with key actors in the Middle East and North Africa. In the meantime, Western diplomacy underwent a modest, yet significant turnaround in its attitude to religion that has henceforth begun to be recognized in foreign policy-making. The United States is the most progressive on this issue as it has supported freedom of religion also on the international scene. In contrast, the European Union’s support to freedom of expression has only recently started to find its way into the EU’s external affairs.

The EU and US are thereby responding to the emphasis that is laid upon religion in the MENA countries where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originate. It is, however, a false assumption that Islam caused democratic deficit and that globalization, together with modernization, will deepen the process of secularization. On the contrary, the crisis of its own identity in these countries has strengthened personal belief and expanded religious communities. Governments of these states then tried to regulate the predominantly Muslim population. However, this in turn deepened the democratic deficit, the Muslim opposition started fighting the authoritarian Arab government and mobilize the population against the foreign rule and despotism. This is how the Tunisian 2010 uprising started and subsequently spread to other MENA countries until some branches metamorphosed into the Islamic State.

To have a successful diplomatic communication with the MENA countries, it is important to take into consideration religious literacy as well as a different culture and opinion regarding gender issues. While these factors have often been ignored by Western countries, there has recently been a noticeable improvement in this respect. Many experts point out that religion is thus becoming one of the most important success stories of the communication across civilizations. Transatlantic partners should keep their liberal model and develop it also in MENA countries because many Muslim societies are working, for example, to tackle gender equality issues or to improve the access to abortion. At the same time, they should stop communicating only with authoritarian governments but instead also connect with all the organizations that support democratic values.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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