The Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) organized a timely and interesting discussion panel on “Democracy in the Muslim World - Priorities and Strategies” with two very distinguished speakers, Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Anwar Ibrahim, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. The panel came as an inauguration for the center’s new office, and re-launch of its monthly Lecture Series.
CSID president, Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, opened the panel by introducing the two speakers and giving a brief overview of CSID’s history and accomplishments. He noted that CSID activities have been developing since its founding in 1999. In addition to its vast and successful research and educational programs (conferences, seminars, and workshops all over the US and the Muslim world) that include leading scholars, activists and policy makers, CSID has recently launched a new strategy to reach out for the wide masses of Muslims and Arabs in different regions of the world. To implement such strategy, CSID launched in December 2005 the Network of Democrats in the Arab World (ndaw) in coordination with 64 founding members representing civil society organizations and activists from 14 Arab countries. Also, since November 2005, CSID has organized several training workshops using its educational book of “Islam and Democracy: toward Effective Citizenship” in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan. The first phase of training includes training 400 activists, political and religious leaders, in each these four Arab countries and the additional trainings will be conducted through local NGOS partners in each country. To ensure the success and continuity of both of these efforts, CSID opened two regional offices in Morocco and Jordan last month.
Carl Gershman started by praising CSID’ efforts and activities. He noted that such organizations work as ambassadors who represent and build bridges that can transmit and support the American/universal set of values. Mr. Gershman said that, even though the challenge of studying “Islam and Democracy” and the debate of the compatibility of both have been appealing for scholars and policy makers for a while, CSID and the Muslim World are now faced with three major challenges that can consolidate real democratic transitions in Muslim countries. The first challenge is to move deeper into the debate into discussing the compatibility of Islam and freedoms and liberties. Recent events have shown that some Muslim groups have been able to act democratically as parties contesting elections. The challenge, and question, remains wither these groups can allow for liberal and constitutional democratic values of freedom, equality, separation of powers and rule of law. Mr. Gershman highlighted the fact that Muslim countries vary a lot in their backgrounds, experiences, and understanding of democracy and basic liberties.
The second challenge for Muslim countries and societies is to build bridges of communication to transfer experiences and knowledge among themselves. Societies like Saudi Arabia and Iran can learn and study from the Turkish and Indonesian democratic experiences. The third challenge, Mr. Gershman indicates, is to solve the ideological clash, not between civilizations as Samuel Huntington suggested, but within the Muslim societies themselves between the Muslim democrats and Muslim radicals and extremists. Discussing this issue, Mr. Gershman emphasized the importance of supporting local democratic groups in their struggle and, at the same time, of opening channels of dialogue with anti-democratic groups in order to reduce their fanaticism. Because after all it is an “ideological struggle of values” that can only be solved through dialogue and discussions.
Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, then, emphasized the importance of spreading democracy through scholarly discourse such as books, journals, and magazines in order for the Muslim world to discuss its real issues and challenges; like corruption, poor governance, inequality, education…etc. Mr. Ibrahim noted that that fundamental Islamic value is sanctity of life and property which summarizes the substance of the American/human modern values of freedom and justice for all. Mr. Ibrahim also criticized the reaction of the masses in some Muslim countries, to the recent cartoons incidents. “Though I am totally against it” Mr. Ibrahim added, “I can protest against it peacefully without resorting to violence and violating the sacred Islamic value of sanctity of life and property”.
Mr. Gershman responded to a question from the audience about the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections by emphasizing the fact that “Democracy doesn’t bring perfect society at once, it is a long process, that might encounter setbacks, and it needs true believers who are ready to fight for it”. Gershman asserted the importance of Islamic groups, like Hamas, to be open for change and to be reasonable in addressing the challenges they meet in order to fulfill the needs of their people. Otherwise, they will lose both legitimacy and credibility.
Finally, Dr. Masmoudi commented on the issue of democratization in the Muslim world by presenting the fact that there is roughly 1.4 billion Muslims in the world who live in many countries that each one of them will develop its own model and understanding of democracy. There is no way Americans, or other foreigners, can push a certain model of democracy. The best we can do is facilitate real, genuine, and meaningful discussions between Muslim scholars, leaders, and activists so that they can work together to build a consensus and implement their own understanding of democracy, which will not be perfect, but will be constantly improved and revised. The alternative, of supporting oppressive and discredited rulers and regimes will simply lead to further disasters, including extremism, violence, and despair.