Why We Must Talk

Frode Overland Andersen/Norwegian MFA
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, the author of this article, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, March 1, 2011

What a road we have traveled to reach this point. Just a month or two ago, no one would have suggested that a popular uprising in Egypt would successfully topple one of the region’s longest-serving autocratic leaders. Now, many major newspapers and journals praise the courage of the protesters and speculate about continued democratic progress for the Egyptian people.

Yet alongside these congratulatory tones, there is also a current of worry. How democratic will Egypt become? How can the West aid this transition? Whom should we be talking to, and how? Some of the loudest voices warn of imminent Islamic takeover and imply that talking directly with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood might be dangerous. This perspective is hardly surprising. Deep suspicion of new, popular movements in Middle Eastern and Muslim countries is widely accepted in the West.

We should not allow ourselves to be affected by this fear. Almost ten years ago, the international community agreed that military action was needed in Afghanistan and that dialogue with the Taliban and its supporters would have no place in that strategy. We have since learned the cost of this belief. What was once considered heretical is becoming conventional wisdom. While a military presence is still needed, Afghans and their international partners must find a way forward through diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban.

Together, these experiences demonstrate the centrality of a question that is likely to become more urgent in a shrinking world: Should we talk to those who attack our societies, challenge our most deeply held values, and violate rights we consider fundamental?

This is no mere philosophical question—a fact that was personally hammered home for me three years ago. Late in the afternoon of January 14, 2008, I was—as foreign minister of Norway—meeting with Mrs. Sima Samar, Afghanistan’s brave human rights commissioner, at the Hotel Serena in Kabul. Suddenly the clatter of gunfire echoed down the hallway. We felt the hotel shake from several explosions. Two suicide bombers, members of the Taliban, had attacked the hotel. For three hours, chaos reigned as we were evacuated room by room. I escaped unharmed, but others were not so fortunate. Six innocent civilians, including a Norwegian journalist, were killed. Six more, including a senior member of my team, were seriously wounded. A Taliban-affiliated group took responsibility for the cynical attack. It was a heartbreaking experience. And didn’t it show the futility of dealing with groups like the Taliban?

A year and a half later I found myself struggling with a similar dilemma in a setting about as far removed from Kabul as one can imagine—peaceful and affluent Geneva. Originally conceived as a way to confront and reduce racist ideologies and behaviors, the closing session of the UN World Conference against Racism (known as Durban II) had…

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