Islamist Govts Not the Enemy, Say Mideast Experts

Islamist Govts Not the Enemy, Say Mideast Experts

Scores of Middle East and democracy experts released an open letter to U.S. President  Barack Obama Tuesday asking him to focus more of his foreign policy efforts at making  reforms in the region, including boosting human rights.

Signed by over 120 academics, scholars, experts and others, the letter said that  previous U.S. policy had been “misguided” and “produced a region increasingly  tormented by rampant corruption, extremism, and instability.”

The signatories, ranging from liberal Democrats to neoconservatives, called for the  Obama administration to “encourage political reform not through wars, threats, or  imposition, but through peaceful policies that reward governments that take active  and measurable steps towards genuine democratic reforms.”

In doing so, the letter said the U.S. should end its “fear of Islamist parties coming  to power” because most of them are “nonviolent and respect the democratic process.”

Citing Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the group said “the U.S. should not hesitate  to speak out in condemnation when opposition activists are unjustly imprisoned.”

The letter was coordinated by Radwan Masmoudi of the Centre for the Study of Islam  and Democracy; Shadi Hamid of the Project on Middle East Democracy; Geneive Abdo of  the Century Foundation; Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International  Peace; Stanford University professor Larry Diamond; and Freedom House”s Jennifer  Windsor.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama has scaled back the lofty  rhetoric delivered by his predecessor, George W. Bush, about “promoting democracy”  across the globe, albeit in a style that many critics charge was selective and  hypocritical.

While Bush spoke glowingly of elections in Iraq, for example, he rallied forces  against an elected government in the Palestinian Authority containing the unpalatable  Hamas, and, in the name of stability, maintained relations with authoritarian  dictators like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

What the signatories are asking for is not a “continuation” of Bush policies, but  instead “a new initiative” for democracy in the Middle East, said Geneive Abdo, a  former journalist and fellow at the Century Foundation, at a press briefing launching  the letter.

Abdo, an expert on Islamic studies, told a packed room of reporters at the National  Press Club Tuesday that the repressive political situation in the region should not  be seen as a battle between Islamism and authoritarianism.

She pointed out that opening up the political process will force all parties – not  just Islamists – to be “more accountable to their electorate and republics.”

Citing specifically examples in Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the letter said that,  despite disagreement with some illiberal Islamist viewpoints, “the right to  participate in reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties  and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms.”

“There is no system I know where Islamists put in power by democracy have cancelled  elections,” said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist, as he rose from  a chair provided for him on the dais, apologising for his bad legs due to torture he  received in prison.

But embracing Islamists as legitimate political actors and democratic forces will  have far-reaching goals for U.S. policy – from the commonly named case of talking  with a potential unity government in Palestine containing Hamas to negotiating with  other religious groups like relatively moderate elements of the Taliban in Pakistan  and Afghanistan.

Stanford University professor Larry Diamond said that in retrospect, those decisions  aren”t always as difficult as they seem. At the press briefing, he looked to the  example of the Sahwa, or Awakening movement, in Iraq, which co-opted former Sunni  insurgents.

The members of the Sahwa, said Diamond, had almost certainly committed horrific acts  against the U.S. and its allies, including possible terrorism, but the move to  incorporate them is widely seen as having drastically improved security and stability  there.

What”s clear from the letter and press conference, however, is that not making  mention of human rights and democracy – or more strikingly, playing down expectations  for them, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did on a recent trip to China – is  unacceptable for U.S. goals around the globe.

“This is urgently in the American national interest,” said Diamond, echoing the  common criticism that repealing a predecessor”s policy is not enough. “We don”t have  a policy now. Simply rejecting what Bush did is not a policy.”

Diamond suggested that if the administration was serious about promoting democracy,  it would begin crafting country-by-country policies.

At the press briefing, the signatories on hand said that, as well as diplomatic  measures, so far absent in Clinton”s recent trips through Asia and the Middle East,  economic measures could be taken to pressure for reform.

The groups suggested making economic aid conditional upon democratic and human rights  reform – a tack that is not unprecedented. But Michelle Dunne, an expert on Arab  politics, said that such pressures would need to be undertaken delicately without  being too “blunt.”

Dunne also cautioned against “picking players” and said that the whole focus on  democracy was that the people of nations needed to choose their representatives for themselves.

The strength of the letter, said Diamond, was that it was not only a bipartisan effort, but more importantly, the signatories cut across ideological lines.

The Source