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ENGAGE responds to the Foreign Secretary David Miliband on his ‘Building coalitions and winning consent’ speech

ENGAGE responds to the Foreign Secretary David Miliband on his ‘Building coalitions and winning consent’ speech

Categories: Latest News

Friday May 22 2009

  ENGAGE has drafted an open letter to the Foreign Secretary on his speech on ‘Building coalitions and winning consent’, delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, yesterday. The letter, which will be sent to the Foreign Secretary, can be read below:

Dear Secretary of State,

Your speech given at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on ‘Our shared future: building coalitions and winning consent’, provides much food for thought for both Muslims living in Britain and those living in Muslim majority states.

Your comments on the ‘sense of bitterness, distrust and resentment’, generated as a result of our disastrous support for the US led military intervention in Iraq, is a candid recognition of the many consequences of that action at home and abroad.

In resetting the frame in which you hope to see future engagement rest, one premised on politics as a means of resolving conflicts and arriving at solutions that are legitimated through participation and consent: this is to be wholeheartedly welcomed and embraced.

Your claim, that holding different values does not hinder or obstruct our capacity to reason and resolve together issues that we may approach from differing perspectives and with different moral compasses, is an important one.

Indeed, not possessing a single conception of the good life does not, and should not, proscribe our ability to determine common interests and common goals, and come to common agreement on the best methods of attaining them. We hope your restating of this fact will push aside and render obsolete those who erroneously claim that Islam stands apart from other religions and that Muslims are incapable of engaging in a politics of consensus.

Secretary of State, you said that:

If we want to rebuild relations – to forge broader coalitions – we need to show greater respect. That means rejecting the lazy stereotypes and moving beyond the binary division between moderates and extremists. We need to hold fast to our own values and support those who seek to apply them, or we will be guilty of hypocrisy; and we need shared effort to address the grievances, socio-economic and political, that are perceived to keep Muslims down, and in fact do.’

We unreservedly welcome the admission that often, in the past, lazy stereotypes and their distortion of political realities has reinforced the ‘with us or against us’ dichotomy with little regard for the limitations of binary categories and their hollow summation of complex conditions.

We concur that the goals of our foreign policies are better attained through ‘the creation of arenas of politics, national and international, in which different values and ideas can be argued out, and in the process recourse to violence marginalized…’

We also praise your recognition of the need to develop ‘the broadest possible coalition of states and political movements’, and of our ‘being prepared to encourage reconciliation with organizations whose values we may not share but who are prepared to pursue common interests.’

Your restating of the democratic imperative, of requiring ‘the consent of citizens’, in all of this highly significant. Indeed, avoiding charges of hypocrisy in our dealings with the Muslim world compels us to solicit the consent of the citizens of these countries in political negotiations and outcomes that affect them most acutely.

We would also concur with your observation that ‘it will be impossible to win the consent of peoples if we cannot demonstrate consistency and certainty in the application of our values.’

Indeed, the plea of British Muslims before and since our military involvement in Iraq has been for a consistency and certainty in the extension of values we prize and apply to our lives in the UK, to others.

Secretary of State you said that, ‘the widest possible coalition will, at times, include groups whose aims we do not share, whose values we find deplorable, whose methods we think dubious….Coalitions can and must be wide but they can only be forged on the basis of a commitment to politics and the renunciation of violence.’

You go on to speak of the procedural norms of democracy and of respecting electoral outcomes where the principles of free and fair elections have been observed. You go on to explain the British government’s policy towards Hamas, the democratically elected government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as a necessary exception to the rule. You said:

In 2000 we and many of our EU partners shunned the Austrian government not because of the way it had come to power but because of the far-right views and policies it espoused. When it comes to Hamas, no one disputes that they won the most seats. We are not claiming that their election was “illegitimate”. We are saying the failure to embrace a political process towards a two-state solution makes normal political relations impossible.’

The irony of the statement is of course that the current Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are similarly indisposed to a two state solution. Would not, by the logic of your own argument, the British government be compelled to shun the Israeli government too?

Moreover, Muslims will find it hard to reconcile the government’s shunning of Jorge Haider’s government in Austria, given his racist, bigoted views, with your recent invitation to Avigdor Lieberman, party leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, to the Foreign Office. Mr Lieberman has previously called for the execution of Arab Israelis who are in contact with Hamas or who refuse to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. There are many who will see little difference in the racist views of Haider and those of Lieberman.

You also exempt Hamas on the basis of the renunciation of violence as a precondition to politics. You said:

Coalitions can and must be wide but they can only be forged on the basis of a commitment to politics and the renunciation of violence.’

The way through the tension lies in our commitment to politics and the rejection of violence. ‘

The nobility of politics is contained in the negotiation of conflict through conversation, the replacement of dispute by compromise and of force by persuasion.’

We would entirely concur that politics offers a more credible and durable pathway to resolving conflict than the short term gains delivered through violence. We would however, contend that it is when politics fails, or is deemed illegitimate, that violence becomes a tool for those frustrated by a lack of progress.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza for the 18 months preceding the heavy bombardment of the region, the international community’s insistence on dealing only with the government of Mahmoud Abbas, to the exclusion of Hamas, and the partiality shown by the previous US administration in the Middle East, are all factors that bear on the hard choices made between politics and violence in the region.

We would also contend that while renouncing violence is an important first step to reconciliation through politics, it would be naïve to presume that in the delicate stages of moving from violence to politics, some difficult compromises will not be involved. Such has been our experience in Northern Ireland. It was the case in South Africa. It may also prove to be so in the case of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

And while you rightly discern the transformative nature of politics, that we come to
change our minds’; ‘give and take a point, we reassess, we make progress, we build coalitions and consent’, it is important to state that politics in conflict situations is a precarious activity. It is when we remain resolute and committed to the end game that we engender the trust necessary to move those we seek to influence along the path from violence to politics.

Secretary of State, you also spoke of Britain’s support for changes in the international system that would ‘institutionalise close political relations between western and Muslim majority countries’.

While these institutional changes, some of which we have already seen materialise; for example, Turkey and Indonesia’s participation in the G20 meeting in London and Turkey’s seat on the UN Security Council, we would remind of the manner in which the UN and its investigations into Iraq’s possession of WMDs was singularly dismissed by the UK and the US in 2003. Support for institutional changes in the inter-state system would require the authority of those same institutions to be observed and upheld, something we have not always done with the UN.

Secretary of State, we strongly welcome your remarks on supporting democracy in the Middle East, of not ‘sponsor[ing] whichever individual happens to occupy the relevant office at any given moment’, and ‘upholding the office rather than any particular incumbent’.

Your remarks on the British government’s financial and other support for training journalists, funding civil society groups, particularly those focusing on women and minority rights, protecting freedoms and upholding justice, is welcome news to Muslim democrats everywhere who have oft lamented the support shown by western governments for repressive, anti democratic regimes in the Muslim world. If your statements hold true, and the government’s support for democracy in the Muslim world is unstinting, we will find the politics and interests of the ‘West’ and the Muslim world steadily converge in an appreciation of the accountability of power, open government and democratic freedoms.

These objectives are, as you rightly state, ones that impose obligations both on the West and on the leaders of Muslim majority states. We hope that you will utilise your position as Foreign Secretary to persist in reminding our own government, and governments in the Muslim world, of these obligations.

Secretary of State, though you omitted mention of engagement with British Muslims on foreign policy from your address, we would argue that the perception and consequences of our foreign policy at home and abroad cannot be separated. The FCO’s regrettable promotion and financial backing of the Quilliam Foundation – an outfit with no legitimacy or credibility among UK Muslims – is just one potent example of the responsibility the FCO bears in ensuring that the nature of our engagement be worthy of the values we claim to embrace and observe.

On a final note, Secretary of State, we must once again welcome your stated desire to ‘build coalitions and win consent’. It is our hope that this will now be actively translated by all arms of government into reality.


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