With a White House meeting, talks at a think-tank, and interviews with newspapers, Islamists unshackled by the Arab Spring are launching a new charm offensive to reassure a nervous Washington.
The rise to power of elected Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere has alarmed many Americans, who fear the emergence of Iran-style theocracies that would deny the rights of women and minorities and antagonize Israel.
The Islamist delegation in Washington this week hopes to dispel such fears, insisting that Islam and democracy are fully compatible and hoping for a new chapter in U.S. relations with an Arab World in transition.
“We are here to discuss, and here to restore truth to the American opinion of Islam and Islamist parties,” said Sahbi Atig, a parliamentarian from the Ennahda, Tunisia’s governing Islamist party.
“Islamist parties are not a threat. They are guarantors of democracy and individual liberty,” he told AFP after speaking at a conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a respected think tank.
He and other Islamists say U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration must open a dialogue with them, if for no other reason than that they won the landmark elections made possible by the Arab uprisings.
For decades, Washington maintained close relations with secular autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and often turned a blind eye to the repression of their Islamist opponents, viewing such groups as a threat to regional stability.
Islamist groups in turn were among the most vociferous critics of U.S. and Israeli policies, particularly during the 2000 Palestinian uprising and the lead-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“This mistrust is a wall that needs to come down,” Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a Egyptian lawmaker from the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, who was part of the delegation, told the Washington Post.
“But it can’t just be one side that brings it down. It has to be both sides.”
A dialogue has slowly begun in recent months as Islamist parties have swept democratic elections, and this week members of Egypt’s Brotherhood met with second-tier White House officials, something that would have been unthinkable during the reign of strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in February 2011.
“I think it is known to everyone who has paid any attention to the post-revolution developments in Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a major player,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We are engaging because that’s the appropriate and right thing to do. And we will judge all of the political actors in Egypt by their actions, by their commitment to democracy and democratic processes and protection of civil rights,” he added.
The Islamist delegates − from Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia − faced similar questions at Carnegie, where they insisted they would defend women and minority rights, freedom of expression and elected multi-party systems.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has called for the implementation of Islamic Law − which was written into the constitution annulled by the ruling military after Mubarak’s ouster − but insists the idea is “misunderstood” in the West.
Islamic law, or Sharia, “basically identifies what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Khaled al-Qazzaz, the foreign relations coordinator for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
“This is not contradictory to universally accepted values like freedom, justice, democracy, rule of law, etc,” he added, comparing it to the Christian values espoused by some Western political parties.
Not everyone is reassured. Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation, said it’s still unclear what exactly the Muslim Brotherhood means when it speaks about Islamic law.
“I think there is a disconnect between the discourse by the Egyptian delegation and the state of affairs in Egypt,” he said.