On Wednesday May 14, 2008, at the Marriot Renaissance Hotel in Washington D.C., CSID held its Ninth Annual Conference titled “Political Islam and Democracy: What do Islamists and Islamic Movements Want,” and brought together a distinguished group of experts on the various aspects of this topic, including the relationship between religion and democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood and democratic evolution, negotiating democracy in the North African context, and implementing democracy, with underlying subjects including Shari’ah (Islamic Law) , Ijtihad (the re-interpretation of Shari’ah), extremism, authoritarianism, and the widely-accepted fundamental aspects of a democratic society, ranging from free and fair elections to transparency in government to equal rights under the law.
The first session, whose panel featured Nelly Lahoud, Professor of Political Theory at Goucher College, Mark Gould, Professor of sociology at Haverford College, and Dr, Amr Hamzawy, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, raised issues pertaining to the compatibility of Islam and Democracy in both conceptual and pragmatic terms. They discussed how extremists in the Muslim World have unfortunately taken center stage in recent years as their radical ideologies and contempt for the West have manifested into acts of violence and terrorism. Thus, they concluded that the main purpose of having a discussion that delves into the political tenants of Islam and the fundamentals of Democracy is to dismiss the idea that Islam and Democracy are mutually exclusive and discredit the terrorists who have hijacked Islam and turned it into the very things the religion stands against, namely radicalism, closed-mindedness, intolerance, and violence.
The second session served as an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood, a highly debated, at times misunderstood, Islamic organization based throughout the Arab World, featuring a panel including Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace, Bahey eldin Hassan, from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, board member and columnist at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s English language website Ikhwanweb.com, and Najid Ghadbian, Associate Professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas. Since the late 1970s and 80s, the new leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have been anxious about voicing their political opinions having noted the catastrophe of the preceding generations and not wishing to invoke a similar response by the government. Egypt, on the other hand, was the site of a much different story for its chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. There, the Muslim Brotherhood flourished despite numerous attempts by the Egyptian authorities to crack down on the organization and weaken it by imprisoning its strong leadership, and became a popular voice for a large portion of Egyptians. This was a particularly intriguing session, evident through the sheer number of questions to the panelists, which was broadcast live on Al-Jazeera News.
The Luncheon Roundtable Discussion was insightful and heated as each of the four speakers, Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, Abderazzak Makri, founding member of the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP) in Algeria and elected Member of Parliament, Mohamed Yatim, Deputy Secretary General of the Party of Justice and Development, and Joshua Muravchik, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny,” shared their respective platform beliefs on Shari’ah, Islam’s compatibility with Democracy, and Religious Freedom in Islam. Although they were from different backgrounds, they undeniably agreed on one thing: the main problem facing the Muslim World is the severe lack of democracy. The two speakers from Morocco and Algeria echoed most vehemently that Islam encourages and indeed supports democracy and democratization, but the modernization of traditional Islamic thought has been greatly suppressed by increasingly secular governments. Hence, Islamic movements throughout the Muslim World have shown tendencies towards radicalization due to understandable frustrations with the regimes. Dr. Muravchik believed that mixing religion too much with government may end up removing the higher moral and spiritual ground of religion and restricting it within the confines of the mechanical nature of government.
Following the luncheon, the third session introduced three profound speakers, namely Anwar N. Haddam, President and co-founder of the Movement for Liberty and Social Justice (MLJS) in Algeria, Laurel Rapp, International Education Program Manager at the One Voice Movement, and Yusuf Fernandez, journalist and editor of two Muslim websites – webislam.com and revistaamanecer.com, who addressed democratization over the years in Algeria, Morocco, and Indonesia. Today, as Mr. Haddam explained, Muslim Democrats throughout Algeria are working hard to rebuild the democracy they once came so close to, and to show the world that they are not “Islamic Fundamentalists,” as the FIS party was labeled, but that they desire the prosperity and wellbeing of all Algerians.
Ms. Rapp expounded on first-hand accounts of the integration of Moroccan women in the political, economic, and social arenas, while Mr. Fernandez focused his address on the status of Islamic parties in Indonesia and Morocco and their support and desire for democracy, protection of human rights, and respect for the rule of law.
The fourth and final session before the Banquet Dinner focused primarily on struggles on the road to full implementation of democracy in several Muslim countries, from Lebanon to the Maldives to the Post-Soviet Central Asian countries, with Anthony C. Bowyer, Program Manager, Caucasus and Central Asia at the International Foundation for Election Systems, Jonathan Upton, founding member of the pro-democracy New Maldives faction, and Eric Bordenkircher, doctoral student in Islamic Studies at UCLA. Topics discussed included “Islamic Movements and Democracy in Central Asia: Integration or Isolation,” “The Maldives: Reform Deferred,” and “Islamists and a Pluralist Society: Hezbollah and Jama’ah al-Islamiyah’s Cosociational Experience in Lebanon.” For all these countries, it was clear that considerable international support, cooperation, and understanding is critical to sustain and ensure peaceful democratic transitions. As the 9th annual conference was winding down, the final stage of the dialogue culminated in the addresses of three keynote speakers at the Banquet Dinner: Dr. Mohammed Ayoob, University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the University of Michigan, Saad eddin Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo, Egypt, and Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, former Ambassador of the United States to Egypt. Topics like “The Many Faces of Political Islam,” “From Taliban to Erdogan,” and refuting both the notion that US policymakers “lump all Islamists into the category of terrorists and extremists” and the idea that the United States has abandoned its rhetoric of pushing for democracy in the Arab and Muslim World, both of which he ensured the US has been very careful not to do. The evening ended with a discussion of the US Embassy’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
As the conference came to an end around 10 o’clock that night, and as all 180 participants, distinguished speakers, and members of the press were gathering in the lobby for a few last-minute discussions, one thing resonated ever so clearly in all their minds, that while there has been significant progress over the last few years, there remains much work in the months and years ahead. The pursuit of democracy in the Muslim World has been destined to be a very long and difficult path, but what is critical to remember is that nothing worth having comes easily, and that establishing real democracies in the Muslim World will in the end be well worth the efforts.
Mariem Masmoudi, a sophomore at the North Carolina State University– Raleigh, is currently an intern at the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy.