• Obama
  • May 12, 2010
  • 6 minutes read

US Support for Democracy Key to Improving Muslim Relations

US Support for Democracy Key to Improving Muslim Relations

President Barack Obama’s widely publicized speech in Cairo one year ago this June raised hopes that U.S. relations with the Muslim world might soon improve.

But experts say that, in many Muslim-majority countries, widespread concerns persist that better relations can’t be achieved without clearer U.S. support for democratization in the Middle East – a region where numerous undemocratic regimes now enjoy solid American backing.

Backing democracy

In his Cairo address, President Obama pledged to support governments that protect the rights of people to speak their minds and have a say in how they are governed, that respect the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, that are transparent and don’t steal from the people.

“America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them,” said Obama. “And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”

The biggest challenge the Obama Administration faces in keeping that promise is finding a way to involve all Islamist movements in the process, according to Reza Aslan, a University of California associate professor of religion. He spoke at a recent conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

Involving Islamist movements

Aslan said Washington has traditionally supported autocratic regimes in the belief that, without them, anti-west Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood movement will come to power. But in Aslan’s view, a respect for a peoples’ right to select their own rulers is more important.

“That has to be as part of a larger process of trying to give Muslims in that region not just a voice in the political process, but give them an opportunity to actually decide for themselves who it is that they want to lead them,” said Aslan.

Aslan said President Obama must recognize that many of the Islamist groups whose policies and tactics the U.S. opposes are often the most dynamic political groups in the region. And, he notes, political participation has the power to moderate radical tendencies and take away the appeal of extremist ideologies.

Tarik Ramadan, professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University agrees. He said the only criterion for engaging the Islamists should be that they denounce violence as a political weapon and adhere to democratic rules.

“You may agree or not with Islamists trends, as long as they are against violence and are playing the political game, we have to talk to them,” said Ramadan. “There is no way to say you are good Muslim because you are supporting me and you are a bad Muslim because you are resisting me.”

Case in point: Egypt

Ramadan says the real test for President Obama’s support for democracy will be in Egypt. There, Ramadan says, the president has to pressure the Mubarak regime to open the political arena and stop using constitutional amendments to stifle real political competition.

Public opinion surveys and focus groups in the Muslim world show a recurring sense that the United States puts forward liberal ideas of democracy, but then ignores them by supporting undemocratic regimes in the Muslim world.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, said that creates the sense that the U.S. does not trust Muslims with democracy.

“There is a perception that the U.S. does not really want democracy in the Muslim world because of the fear of what might come out of that and, in particular, that Islamist parties might prevail,” said Kull. “So that it is a key choice that the U.S. has to make; is the U.S. going to show more trust towards the Muslim people in terms of the choices that they may make in a democratic process?”

Trusting Muslims with democracy

Kull recommends that the Obama Administration change its stance towards nonviolent moderate Islamist parties.

Radwan Masmoudi, president of Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, agrees with that approach. He says that as President Obama broadens the dialogue to include civil societies and the concerns of the common citizens, he will realize how U.S. policy needs to change. But he stresses that continued U.S. support for democracy in the Muslim world is a key requisite to improving relations.

“There was a little bit of a delay, but I think in the last four or five months, we have seen renewed emphasis being put again on improving relations with the Muslim world and dialogue and on implementing the promises of the Cairo speech,” said Masmoudi.

He notes that President Obama spent his first year in office focused on battling the economic crisis and reforming health care. It is unrealistic, he says, to expect him to have delivered on most of his promises, less than a year after his inspirational address to the Muslim world.