How to Improve Relations with the Muslim World - Challenges and Promises Ahead
by Mariem R. Masmoudi
CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY - 10th Annual Conference Report Tuesday, May 5, 2009
The election of President Barack Hussein Obama on November 4, 2008, meant perhaps more for the rest of the world than it did for the United States. It signified a turn away from the divisive politics of the past administration and the start of a new era of American politics grounded in the principles of justice, freedom, and good governance, both in domestic as well as foreign affairs. It is with the hope of the positive changes this new administration will bring in terms of its relationship with the governments and people of the Muslim World that the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) held its 10th Annual Conference in the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel on Tuesday, May 5, 2009, centered on the very timely topic of “How to Improve Relations with the Muslim World: Challenges and Promises Ahead.”
To facilitate the introduction and pursuant discussion on this complex topic, the conference was divided into four separate panels, with special lunch and banquet dinner sessions. The first session of the conference event addressed the issue of “Developing Democracy in the Muslim World.” The first speaker on this panel was Ms. Geneive Abdo, a foreign policy analyst at the Century Foundation, whose research focuses on contemporary Iran and political Islam. Her presentation discussed the importance of United States engagement with the Islamic movements of the Middle East, particularly to ease tensions between the United States and Iran. While “policy makers focus on the result, rather than on the process” of integration and open dialogue, she said that it is “important to engage not only Iran, but Islamic political movements” within Iran, and indeed around the Arab World, as they have widespread constituencies and are the most popular political parties in the Middle East.
Ms. Cecile Coronato, a legislative assistant with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) focused on Iranian civil society [paper] and the encouraging signs that point to promising democratic reforms in the future. “Iran’s well-educated, young, vibrant population has the potential to encourage democracy,” said Ms. Coronato as she discussed the vibrant, progressive, yet often overlooked civil society thriving within Iran. “In a world where security interests often trump respect for human rights, the US should make sure it does not forget the Iranian people in order to improve relations with the Iranian government,” which is something the Obama Administration ought to keep in mind as it moves forward in improving relations with the Islamic Republic.
Dr. Sudha Ratan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Augusta State University in Georgia presentation was titled “Integrating Women into Democratic Governance: A comparison of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.” [paper] In Pakistan and Afghanistan, she said, the governments have “taken a series of measures to reserve seats for women in elections, which has proven to be quite effective” in increasing the visibility of women in politics; despite these efforts, however, the women, once in office, often find themselves “unable to develop an effective strategy” to carry out their agendas. In Pakistan, women are in a bit of a better position due to the strong civil society movement, although the tensions between the various interpretations of Islam and the role of women in politics has become an increasing problem for these women to handle. In India, there is a large number of women in government at the local level, as opposed to the realities of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has been supported by Muslim reform movements and links to the Gulf States.
In the second session, titled “Prospects for Peace in the Middle East,” focused on the 62-year long Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Each of the speakers on this panel will offer their own unique perspectives on the present state of affairs and their hopes for a just resolution. Dr. Halim Rane, Deputy Director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit and lecturer in the National Centre of Excellent in Islamic Studies in Australia, gave his presentation on “Trading Rockets for Resolutions: Restructuring Palestinian Resistance in the Context of International Legal and Political Dynamics.” [paper] Dr. Rane insisted that a just resolution of this conflict is central to improving relations between the United States and the Muslim World, as “the Palestinian cause is popularly seen as synonymous with an Islamic religious cause” Indeed, he said, “the peace process is in need of a framework, guidelines, and basic standards,” but he remains highly optimistic for a just peace in the Middle East.
Dr. Mohamed Nimer, Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at American University address was titled “Hamas, Likud, and the Obama Quet for Peace in the Middle East,” [paper] and focused primarily on the impact of the prominent political parties within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, namely Likud and Hamas, respectively. He said that “the problem is not that there is an entity called Israel, the problem is that the Palestinian state is not existent. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians need to change their narrative. Once peace takes hold, people will be conditioned by it and you will no longer have people who have spent their entire existence in a state of conflict.”
Dr. Nathan Funk, assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada spoke on “Peacemaking between America and the Muslim World: Beginning a New Chapter in U.S.-Islamic Relations?” [paper] His presentation focused on the necessary steps the new Obama Administration ought to embrace in mending the strained relations between the United States and the Muslim World. He said that “what has happened in the past cannot be changed, but the overall meaning of those events is subject to change,” and added that “finding the political courage for this kind of thing is not easy as there is an overwhelming temptation and tendency to preserve political capital,” but that it is not only possible, as the new President himself as exemplified, but is imperative, and must continue to sculpt future policies.
The luncheon and roundtable session centered around a discussion on the future prospects on the coexistence of Islam and Democracy in the Muslim World. The first speaker was Dr. John L. Esposito, University Professor and Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Dr. Esposito noted that “what we see is that in many parts of the world the majority of Muslims want what we call ‘democratization.’ But many of them want a notion of modernization that includes religious values, in one way or another, that includes shari’ah as they see it, shari’ah that limits government and guarantees the moral values of society”, which he adds is not so different than what most Americans want in their government. “The challenge facing us,” he said “is to re-imagine what it is to talk about democracy, democracy in the Muslim world, the role that governments in and outside the Muslim world need to play. We need a new paradigm.”
Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Maldives, was the seco nd luncheon speaker. “There are those who reject outright any notion of compatibility between Islam and Democracy, and many of them see a colossal confrontation between the two,” [paper] says Dr. Shaheed, which many may see as discouraging in the struggle for democratization in the Muslim World. While “democracy has not yet become entrenched” in the Arab World, there is cause for hope, as seen in the recent democratic transition in the Republic of Maldives, which was facilitated both by strong foreign actors as well as “unrelenting domestic, internal pressure.” The challenge for the rest of the Muslim World, primarily the Arab World, is the need to develop a “change in mentality” so that a transition away from autocratic regimes to democratic governments is made possible and permanent.
The topic of the third panel discussion was “The Role of Religion in Developing Democracy.” The first speaker on this topic was Dr. Laith Kubba, Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). His presentation was titled “Is Islam Relevant to Democracy Building in Muslim Countries,” gave the example of the Turkish budding democracy and its failure of excluding Islam from the process. “The reality is that Islam strongly influenced the lives of nearly 100 nations for more than one thousand years and it is an inseparable component of their cultural identity;” thus, the debate now, within Turkey is “no longer about whether or not Islam should be addressed in public life but it is about what form of Islam” ought to be incorporated and why. “Whatever we do has to be culturally sensitive.”
Mr. Alejandro J. Beutel, a Junior Fellow at the Minaret of Freedom Institute, and Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmed, the President and Director of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, presented a joint paper on “Religious or Policy Justification for Violence: a Quantitative Content Analysis of Osama bin Laden’s Statements.” [paper] Mr. Beutel said that “in the same vein that Osama bin Laden plays on the policy issue to manipulate Muslims to join his cause Western nations must address these grievances with substantive action so that they do not provide proof for those who are skeptical about their rhetoric.” He highlighted interesting discoveries that came out in the in-depth studies of bin Laden’s public speeches and written documents, in which he switches around in using religious and political justifications for viole nce depending on his target audience.
Ms. Amina Rasul-Bernardo, Lead Convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and Managing Trustee of the Magbassa Kita Foundation Inc, whose talk was titled “The Role of Religion in Peacemaking: The Philippines ‘Ulama.” [paper] “Tensions where religion is invoked… arise not simply between adherence of difference between practices and beliefs, but also between secular and religious groups,” which has added to the challenges not only within her native Philippines, but in conflicts around the world. Ms. Rasul-Bernardo notes that “the changes in geo-politics in the Philippines have not only contributed to the conflict, but have put liberties at risk.” In seeking a peaceful resolution to the domestic conflicts of the Philippines between the majority Catholic and minority Muslim populations, the religious leaders, both Catholic and Muslim, have been “doing everything they can to resolve the ethnic conflict,” as they are seen as the most trustworthy and credible people by the population at large.
Dr. Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, closed this segment of the conference with his presentation titled “Islamist Movements in the Electoral Process in the Arab World.” In response to the concerns of Western democracies of the radicalization of some Islamic political parties in the Muslim World, Dr. Brown points out that “it is often the case that behavior produces ideology - if you take a look at the range of political behavior by islamic political actors, you find enormous variation.” He added that “the political context in which [political parties] operate is a much better indicator of how they behave than their ideology is.” Thus, he insisted that Islam is not the problem; rather, the dire situations in which these political parties operate have unfortunately driven them to extremes. He concluded with the position that “the political party that is allowed to form and is given a long leach will integrate itself as a viable political actor.”
Dr. Osama Kadi, the founder and president of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS), spoke on “Improving Relations between the U.S. and the Muslim World.” [paper] His presentation was titled “Improving American-Syrian Relations: Toward a Strategic Plan,” which begins by pointing out that, in recent history, “the US State department tailored its relationship with Syria based on its political interests and ignored all other aspects of the potential relationships.” After highlighting a countless number of successful joint projects between the European Union and the Syrian Arab Republic in recent years, in the areas of business, gas, energy, banking, and institutional and infrastructural modernization, Dr. Kadi expressed his hope that “the United States will purse principled and sustained with all the nations in the region, and that will include Iran and Syria,” for the mutual benefit of both sides.
Mrs. Sara Khorshid, Egyptian journalist and managing editor of IslamOnline.net’s “Politics in Depth” section, talked about “The U.S. Favoring of Liberal Opposition, Pro-Good Governance Forces in the Muslim World: Assessment of the Past and Recommendations for the Future.” [paper] Mrs. Khorshid’s position on the flagrant U.S. support and backing for liberal individuals and forces in Egypt is that it is counter-productive to the push for democracy as Liberal Egyptians are the least popular and favorable in the country. She addresses not only the “pro-democracy policies of the US government, but also pro-liberalism attitudes and positions in US media and culture.” She posits that it is because of the “fear of Islamists” and the American definition of democracy that excludes other variations, that the United States continues to support these unpopular forces.
Mr. Atef Saadawi, managing editor of the Democracy Review Quartely, a publication of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, spoke about “Promoting Democracy in the Arab World: New Ideas for U.S. Policy.” [paper] Mr. Saadawi begins by pointing out that “within the Arab world, there are three groups of main political actors: current governing regimes, secular parties both liberal and leftist, and Islamist parties,” and the successful implementation of democracy will depend on the integration and balance between these three groups. If the United States is to earnestly press for democracy, it must allow for a natural balance to take place between these three forces; it must not impose any particular outcome out of its own preferences. Mr. Saadawi ends with a reminder to the new Administration to “recognize that military force is the least effective way to promote democratic change abroad. Military force should never be presented as an effort to promote democracy abroad.”
Dr. Anwar Haddam, President and co-founder of the Movement for Liberty and Social Justice (MLJS) in Algeria, presented a paper titled “The Obama Administration: Engaging the Muslim World with a New Mindset; Challenges and Opportunities.” [paper] Dr. Haddam began with what he called “a historical statement” made by President Obama in his inaugural address: “To the Muslim World, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Dr. Haddam continued to comment that “Islam is the major element of the Muslim identity. Obama’s inauguration speech was the first time a president recognized that.” He not ed that President Obama’s inaugural address was critical in that it openly admitted to the realities that “there has been erosion of trust between the Muslim and Western worlds, particularly in the last seven years,” but insisted that true positive change must come from internal pressure in Washington.
At the final session, the Hesham Reda Memorial Lecture and Annual Banquet Dinner, centered around the topic of “Building Bridges of Understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim World.” Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison opened the banquet dinner with his speech about the importance of building and maintaining these bridges by recognizing commonalities. “We live in a world that is so incredibly inter-connected, said the Congressman. “As Americans, of whatever faith, we have to be the kind of people who seek the new relationship…” and not shun away from that which is perceived as foreign or different. He continued to say that “bridging the gap is not us building bridges over here; it’s building bridges on both sides,” and calls on the entire world community to make the necessary concessions in order to be able to build a future of mutual respect and freedom.
Ms. Madelyn E. Spirnak, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and overseer of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative, and the Near East Bureau’s Press and Public Diplomacy Office, underlined and reiterated a new era of policy toward the Middle East. [paper] Ms. Spirnak highlighted that President Obama is committed to building bridges with the Muslim world and seeks a new dialogue on the full range of issues we face and that ”he speaks of new partnerships on issues of education, healthcare, livelihoods,” and more. “Both he and Secretary of State Clinton focus on the fact that the challenges we face are too great to limit our responses to interactions between governments.” She reminded everyone that “public diplomacy lies at the heart of the country’s smart power,” and that “true public diplomacy is about engagement, about listening as much as talking,” which is something this Administration is absolutely committed to doing.
Dr. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the Univ ersity of Maryland and a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute began his address by reminding the conference attendees of the significance of the present-day and its role as a turning point in history: “This an important moment to reflect on how we can revise the post-9/11 prism through which Americans look at the Muslim world.” He posited that most people see the world through what he called “prisms of pain”: “The Arab-Israeli issue remains the prism of pain through which Arabs see America. It is a psychological predisposition to evaluate America primarily through this prism.” Standing for democracy and human rights “is one of the strengths of America,” says Dr. Telhami, as he expresses his excitement and hope that the current Administration will follow through with its promises.
Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Professor of Political Sociology and a visiting Professor at Harvard University, but better known as a human rights defender and democracy activist in Egypt and across the Arab World highlighted three burdens of Muslim Americans: “There is no escape from the burdens by virtue of being Americans and being Muslims. Your first burden should be to this country. For first duty is to be a good American, a good Muslim American. Always vote.” He then reminded everyone to count their blessings “in being part of an open, democratic society,” a luxury that most of the world does not enjoy. In relation to the past Administration’s restriction of certain rights to Arab and Muslim Americans, he reminded the conference attendees that their “freedom is never secure or enjoyable” if their fellow citizens do not also have it. He ended by saying that “we must use our liberty to secure our liberty for all,” and continue to struggle for the successful and permanent transition from authoritarian, oppressive regimes in the Muslim World to great democracies.
A very significant aspect of every CSID annual conference is to present a “Muslim Democrat of the Year” award to a very honorable and deserving recipient. This year’s recipient was Dr. Ahmed Shaheen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Maldives, for his great sacrifice and instrumen tal role in the long and difficult struggle to transform his country into a democracy. Dr. Shaheed dedicated the award to everyone in the Maldives, to his family, to his colleagues in the former cabinet who joined him in creating a more democratic Maldives. To the current president for relentlessly challenging autocratic order, and to the outgoing president for having the good grace to step down after he lost the election.
After a long day of inspiring and engaging presentations and pursuant discussions on the various topics presented, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy celebrated the successful completion of its 10th Annual Conference. As many notable attendees and panelists had noted throughout the event, the fact that CSID was able to continue its important work relentlessly for the past ten years is an accomplishment in and of itself. There have certainly been very difficult times endured in the past ten years, but it is with the hopes that the new Obama Administration brings, in addition to the renewed commitment of politicians, scholars, and ordinary citizens from around the world, that CSID looks to the future and continues in its pursuit for justice, respect, and equality for all people.
This report was written by Mariem R. Masmoudi, currently a CSID intern and a student in International Politics, at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.