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Contact Information: Hussein Ibish
June 15, 2009 - 12:00am

On Monday, June 15, ATFP President Ziad Asali took part in a panel discussion at the National Endowment for Democracy about the publication of Joshua Muravchik’s new book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East. The discussion was co-sponsored by the International Forum for Democratic and moderated by Marc F. Plattner, the co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, vice-president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and co-director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies.

The panelists also included the author, Joshua Muravchik, Laith Kubba, senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, and Tamara Wittes, senior fellow and director of the Project on Middle East Democracy and Development in the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Text of Dr. Asali’s remarks (as prepared):

First of all, I would like to thank the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Forum for Democratic Studies for organizing this event, and congratulate Joshua Muravchik for writing this extremely revealing and valuable book. It is vital that, through efforts such as this, the American public begins to see that the Arab and Muslim world not simply as a collection of angry, alienated, resentful and disempowered communities, but understand that there are courageous, forward-looking and democratically-minded individuals such as those profiled in his new book.

"The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East," should be an eye-opener to most of its American readers. In it, people will learn about seven men and women who, in their own very different ways, have challenged orthodoxy, complacency and the status quo in search of a brighter future. In this book, Joshua profiles real people with names and faces, whose personal stories reveal the ongoing fight for democracy in the Middle East. It is waged in many different ways that reflect the unique political, social and cultural forces at play in seven different countries.

As I scanned the stories of these individual to look for the reasons that placed them in this book as next founders and voices for democracy, I thought that they shared several qualities in common: courage, which is the indispensible ingredient for leadership; commitment and perseverance that stretched over decades; and a sense of mission that made them resist coercive regimes, and rendered them immune to oppressive communal pressures. Idealists or self-serving, brave or foolhardy, privileged or persecuted, they all found ways to force on their regimes and societies questions about freedom, individual rights and oppressive dogma that needed answers.

The need to free women and men of the shackles of gender inequality is part of a larger need for equality and rights, and it is in this light that I find the work and lives of Wajeha Al-Huwaider, the Saudi feminist protestor, and Rola Dashti, the Kuwaiti feminist and recently elected parliamentarian, particularly compelling. Wajeha writes about things others only talk about. She has had the audacity to enumerate 21 attributes of Arab regimes, societies and values that amounts to a bill of indictment. As she unflinchingly proceeds, she is mindful that criticism of Arab or Muslim culture or regimes is used by some in the West to denigrate all Arabs and Muslims, as she is equally aware that stifling internal criticism within the Arab world is used to defend an intolerable status quo. As Joshua notes, Rola Dashti’s thesis is that the enfranchisement and empowerment of women is an issue of "national interest." Her argument that the "failure to include women as full citizens limits a country's human resources, which they can ill afford," is one that no thinking individual can possibly refute.

The five men portrayed in this book, tell five different stories of personal unrelenting effort to expand the boundaries of rights and freedoms in the Middle East. Some of them have paid an unimaginable price for their work. It is important to learn about these people to understand that individuals can make a difference, but it needs to be kept in mind that systems are far more important than individuals. As long as dictatorship, authoritarianism and arbitrary use of power continue to define the majority of regimes in the Middle East, we need to put the work of these courageous individual leaders in perspective, and to good use, as we support the quest for systems that offer sustainable freedom, rule of law and the creation of accountable institutions.

I would like to make one crucial point, which is closely linked to our own work in pursuit of peace and reconciliation across the Middle East by reaching an end-of-conflict agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. I do agree that democratization is helpful in the pursuit of all noble and worthy political goals, including that of peace. However, these two missions are not synonymous, they are parallel. Both seek to improve the political condition in the region and the fortunes of its peoples. However, we know from experience that Arab-Israeli peace can be achieved without the benefit of democracy. Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were achieved and continue to endure and function in the context of less than optimal democratic conditions. Israel itself, within its own borders, is a democracy, yet the situation in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 is distinctly undemocratic, in spite of Palestinian free elections and reforms, not least because the Palestinians lack independence and statehood.

Peace is possible in spite of lack of democracy, but it is uncertain that it is sustainable. However, it is worth asking whether it is possible that a badly managed transition to democratic reform, such as elections in the absence of other democratic institution building, could under the wrong circumstances threaten the sustainability of existing peace agreements. This is in no way an argument against elections or any other crucial element of democratic reforms, but it is to suggest that the relationship between reform and peace is far more complicated and subtle than is sometimes alleged.

The lack of democracy in many Middle Eastern states and the failure to truly empower the citizenry, provide pluralism, and create effective functioning civil societies are important contributors to terrorism and extremism. However, terrorism and extremism also need to be confronted through the pursuit of peace. Democratization and reform, to be sure, bolster the prospects for peace. But similarly, peace bolsters the prospects of democratization and reform. Arab states, in their own interest, need to pursue both with equal vigor. The Middle East must be a home to both peace and democracy, but neither should be held hostage to the other.

The problem facing Middle Eastern liberals and reformers is how to navigate the difficult waters between authoritarian states on the one hand and even more illiberal and reactionary oppositions, mainly reflecting the politics of the extreme religious right, on the other. Obviously, it makes no sense to attempt to move the Arab world to the center, and to foster democracy, pluralism and transparency, by championing the cause of parties and organizations that would charge wildly to the extreme right and which have no ideological or principled commitment to any of these values. Let me be blunt: those liberals who support or defend radical Islamist organizations because of shared grievances against Israel and the West are deluding themselves if they think that they can do so and sustain liberalism and reform. The experience of Mohsen Sazegara in Iran is particularly instructive in this regard. Most Arab liberals understand this, and therefore have sought to engage and challenge the regimes and societies, and find ways within the existing systems to press for the necessary reforms. This is what the individuals covered in this book have done. This too is precisely where the West, and the US in particular, can contribute most effectively by working with different Arab states, constituencies and individuals to expand the space for rule of law, accountability and pluralism.

The individuals profiled in Joshua's valuable new book, and countless others like them in the Middle East, have the ability and integrity to help lead the transformation of their societies away from authoritarianism and towards genuine, sustainable democracy and pluralism. Joshua is to be congratulated for giving his readership a glimpse into a small subsection of those Arabs and Muslims in whom hope for the future lies. The United States, and the rest of the world, have a real stake in helping to create the conditions that will allow such brave individuals and groups take the lead in helping to build a better Middle East.


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