The four folks at the table were all professionals in their fields in the Middle East. I have strong opinions in reaction to what these dedicated folks have to say, and will put those at the end.
The first speaker started by showing a series of cartoons from newspapers from around the Middle East, ones that showed the tension between the cultures of not just Arab and Other but also Muslim and Fundmentalist Muslim: one cartoon, “How Fundamentalists Read The Qur’an”, has the Wahabi reading the book upside down, a mild rebuke by many standards but one not likely to have the cartoonist avoid hassle. Another showed the “surprise” shown by a leader for a 94% turnout in the election for him.
The speaker considered democratic reforms and changes from a marketing standpoint, describing the future shift as a target market, and indicating that the consumer is not necessarily the same as the purchaser. Too much speed could be disastrous.
The second speaker discussed the rate of change due to reforms. The argument:
- Culturally the country under discussion is not prepared to change fast: No experience with a free press, no rule of law, no way to deal with pressure or popularity of Islamists.
- Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood limit openings for democratic reform from the regime’s standpoint, because the Islamist threat to regime survival gets worse with loosening information controls
- As quality of life goes down fundamentalism goes up.
The second speaker’s conclusion: Allow gradual change like the Mexican reform process. Give it time.
The third speaker noted the Egyptian anecdotal turnout for the Mubarak election (~18%) and discussed the difference between elections and liberal democracy–that election isn’t the latter. Distribution of wealth, separation of powers, new constitution would help a place like Egypt, but to this speaker the invasion of Iraq is chaos and America twisting Mubarak isn’t helping. The speaker wanted American financial aid, negotiations, change in the media, then education and a constitution. Bringing back individual states’ nationalism would help, a free trade agreement is a tool, pressure on the Saudi royal family will cause change there. Don’t push too hard, don’t push too fast.
The fourth speaker was a little more provocative, discussing the tendency of Arab states such as his own to frame everything that goes wrong in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also mentioned the impact among elites of the stinging UN Arab Human Development Report that was written by local experts and heavily critical of the region. He also stressed the need to “go slow”.
Q: Turkey’s reconciled Islam and a constitution. Is there an Islamic law irreconcilable with a secular constitutional democracy?
A: Interpretation is key. Sharia for example; what it is, how it’s used.
A: Jihad versus itjihad is another example. Also, some items need resolved, for example a book that came out professing to prove the hijab is not Koranic.
A: Separation of church and state can be done and must be done, especially if one happens to be not a Muslim in an Arab country.
Q: Chicken-and-egg of institutions versus democracy. If you could pick one institution to reform first, which would it be?
A: An independent legal system with judges able to act free from the other branches. For example, judicial oversight in the Egyptian election couldn’t be completely independent and the country suffered as a result.
A: Look at the example of Sa’ad Ibrahim being jailed–that was a two year fight to free him.
Q: How do you avoid the example of Algeria in the 40’s?
A: That’s why we don’t want elections without other structure. Algeria was also an enabling of settling accounts, where factions could exact revenge for old slights.
Q: How about minimizing friction due to tribal differences?
A: Democracy is top down and bottom up, so information is needed for an informed public.
Q: US is not necessarily the most influential power in the region. What is needed to protect from other regional powers?
A: How to change is important. US is telling Syria they’re next and still wants Syria’s help?
Q: What would the form of democracy on a secular basis be?
A: One way is by rebranding it, for example shura (coordination/consultation).
A: Democracy must protect so there is peaceful succession and protection of minority rights.
A: Look at example of the shufkot al Medina, where the Prophet (pbuh) had a government with a constitution with separation of power between religion and politics. Also, Ottoman Empire. Tribal worries still are important.
A: Interpretation of religion is key. Wahabiism is the interpretation which is not compatible.
Q: Is secularity being discussed?
A: Ba’ath is secular…
Q: In regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians also suffer due to the Arabs. How does the future of the Palestinians look in that context?
A: There is a responsibility and we Arabs have shied away from it. On the Israeli side, they also have to try; US has to show evenhandedness. All these meetings are just words. We need responsibility and accountability. US also should step up and take responsibility.
Q: Every decade has a buzzword. In the 1960’s it was “conflict management”. This decade’s buzzword isn’t apparent. Every change of power has been accompanied by war, with few exceptions. This is risky work.
A: Well, there’s Luttwak.
Q: (didn’t catch it)
A: The issue is what’s going on in Egypt and the Middle East is not just because of the US. It’s also because of the people there. Change is also coming from inside. Outside support is needed, especially with regard to minorities.
A: Also the ability to absorb change. Example: Eastern Europe and Germany.
A: Iraq proves that containment is tough to do.
A: US policy is driven by people with no idea of the Middle East. Like Goha looking for his watch under the streetlight because the light is better there, the US is looking in the wrong place.
I suddenly understand Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail (pdf, less readable html) much better. There are the elites who maintain the status quo, there are the downtrodden who want the boot off of their neck, and there are the elites who want things better but don’t want chaos and the blood that comes with a birth.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
A conservative is one who stands astride History, yelling “Stop!”. By this definition I am no conservative.
These elites, these doers of good who live fairly comfortably, have much to lose in utter chaos. Some may not have that to lose, and will want to move faster. It may well happen anyway, and they’d better get ready now.
The other author this brings to mind is Natan Sharansky (Q&A), whose Case for Democracy (book, Claremont review) echoes some of the panel’s statements and boldly refutes others with real world examples. People are not children, and don’t necessarily need to be specially prepared to be free.
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