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.”
Consistent with past conferences and with the raison d’etre of the organization, the majority of the speakers gave presentation highly supportive of Islamist movements and recommending U.S. engagement with them. Representative examples from the report include:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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;”
- 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.
The second theme of the conference was that the Arab-Israeli conflict is at the heart of the difficulties with the Islamic world. Examples included:
- 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”
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
Other important speakers included Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman in the U.S, . and 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. MEPI has behind much of the funding received by CSID and its affiliates from the U.S. government. As reported in an earlier post, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to give the keynote address but does not appear to have attended. Also scheduled to attend was Dr. Kemal Al-Helbawy, a leader in the global Muslim Brotherhood who has defended the terrorist targeting of Israeli children and who in 1996 was denied entrance into the U.S. Dr. Al-Helbawy also does not appear to have attended.
CSID was founded in 1998 largely by the efforts of Georgetown University academic Dr. Esposito who, during the 1990’s, had served in the State Department as a “foreign affairs analyst.” Many members of the early CSID board were associated with the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the American Muslim Council, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). For example, past CSID board members included Jamal Barzinji and Taha Al-Alwani, both important Brotherhood leaders who are closely associated with the now defunct SAAR Foundation, still under investigation by the U.S. government. Both Barzinji and Al-Alwani helped to establish many of the most important U.S. Brotherhood organizations. The current CSID Vice-Chair, Antony Sullivan, has many ties to U.S. Brotherhood groups including the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), the United Association for Studies and Research (USAR), and the Circle of Tradition and Progress (COTP), a group whose other founding members included Youssef Qaradawi, the most important leader of the global Muslim Brotherhood. From its inception, CSID has argued that the U.S. government should support Islamist movements in foreign countries and has received financial support from the U.S. State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Institute of Peace.