Islam and Democracy after Twenty Years: The Continuing Quest

Keynote Remarks by NED President, Carl Gershman to the 20th Anniversary Conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy

September 12, 2019

I’m honored and delighted to be with you today to celebrate CSID’s twentieth anniversary, and to reflect on some of the lessons we’ve learned over the past twenty years.

NED and I personally have been connected with CSID from the very beginning when we provided office space for Radwan and his one-person staff of Abdu Alkebsi after CSID lost its own space and needed to cut costs.

The time when CSID was founded in the 1990s was a tough period for the NED.  Senator Judd Gregg, the Chairman of our appropriations committee, would zero us out every year, and we would have to get our budget restored on the Senate floor.  This was a period that Charles Krauthammer called “the vacation from history,” when people thought that democracy was no longer being contested and that NED was no longer needed.

Then came 9/11, and everything changed.  We had sent a draft of our 2002 Strategy Document to a NED friend on Gregg’s staff.  It contained a new section on “Aiding Democracy in the Muslim World.”  He asked us to boil that section down to a page so that he could show it to Gregg.  The next thing we knew, Gregg was recommending that NED’s budget be doubled.  History had not ended; only the vacation had.

That story underlines the importance of CSID’s mission to build democracy in the Muslim world, and how closely it’s related to U.S. security.  I’m proud to say that NED has been working with CSID – and supporting CSID – for all of these 20 years.  And as Radwan knows, we‘ve often been attacked for doing so.  I’m very proud of that.

I’ve been asked to talk about the lessons we’ve learned during these twenty years, so let me try to highlight a few of them.

As we know, democracy is being challenged today all over the world, and nowhere is the resistance greater than in the Middle East.  But the battle goes on – it didn’t end with the crushing of uprisings of the Arab Spring everywhere but in Tunisia. People are still fighting because the status quo is not viable.

The last two Arab Barometer surveys report that there is a strong – and growing – acceptance in the Middle East of democracy as the best type of government.  Another study conducted five years after the Arab Spring uprisings found that eight-in-ten Arabs believe that democracy is the best system of government, even if people feel democracy has problems and doesn’t satisfy all of their aspirations.

The reason for this is obvious, and this is the first lesson: people don’t like corruption and unaccountable government.  They want freedom and respect for their human dignity.  That’s why people rose up against the Bashir regime in Sudan last December, and against the Bouteflika regime in Algeria last February.

These uprisings are part of a larger trend, with one global study noting that there have been corruption-driven leadership changes in more than ten percent of the world’s governments over the past five years.

The Islamist regime in Iran is yet another dictatorship whose survival is being threatened by popular uprisings in cities like Qom and Mashad that traditionally have been strongholds of the Revolutionary Guards.

Turkey is another example, since Erdogan’s losses in the local elections earlier this year, and especially in the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral vote that Erdogan insisted on, represent a stunning defeat that deepens the crisis of his increasingly autocratic regime.

Almost a decade after the abortive Arab Spring, the potential for rebellion against repressive and unaccountable rulers in the Middle East is as great as ever.  But so is the resistance to democratic change, and this is the second lesson.

Led by China and Russia, and increasingly by the Gulf States and Iran as well, authoritarian countries are engaged in a concerted effort to contest democracy. They constitute a kind of de facto authoritarian international.  We saw how this international works earlier this year in when Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, and Russia teamed up to try to try to block a democratic opening in Sudan.  Just days after Bashir stepped down, for example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan’s military government and did what they could to back Hemeti and his militias.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also sought to undermine Tunisia’s democracy by stoking grievances and discontent.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, independent journalists believe that Gulf money is secretly funding some campaigns in the current presidential election, although they often lack the means to expose it.

Multilateral and regional bodies like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of the Islamic Conference are part of this authoritarian international, with the OIC, for instance, being used by some governments to provide a veneer of religious legitimacy for their authoritarian rule.  According to one analyst, “Nationalistic regimes long self-defined as secular ended up embracing Islam as their identifying brand, trying to find in its tenets the political legitimacy they had theretofore lacked.”

We also know that the embassies of the Emirates and other Gulf countries throw their weight around Washington and have exorbitant budgets to influence opinion and policy.

The authoritarian international needs to be countered by a democratic international – a coalition of democratic governments and organizations committed to defending democracy and the people fighting to achieve it.  But no such coalition exists, and this is the third lesson – the West is largely absent when it comes backing democracy in the Middle East – an abence that was reflected in the warm welcome given to Egyptian President Sisi at the recent G-7 summit in France.

As Anne Applebaum wrote recently in The Washington Post, there is a crisis of Western values that has manifested itself in “a decline in faith in liberal democracy, a loss of confidence in universal human rights, and a collapse in support for all kinds of transnational projects.”  The bloodier face of this crisis, she wrote, has been seen in “the slow, grinding, murderous endgame of the war in Syria” that has undermined the West’s commitment to “genocide prevention” and the “responsibility to protect.”

Nowhere has this silence been more deafening than in the case of the cultural genocide that China is now carrying out systematically against the minority Uyghur people, including holding as much as a quarter of the 11 million Uyghurs in concentration camps.  Even worse than the world’s silence has been the enthusiastic support that Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman gave to this genocide during his visit to China last February,  saying on  state television that it was necessary to defeat terrorism.

I urge CSID to do whatever it can to end the silence in the Muslim world on China’s criminalization of the practice of Islam and its effort to destroy the language, culture, and identity of the Uyghur people.

The disengagement of the West in the Middle East has encouraged Arab autocrats—particularly Saudi Arabia—to adopt more aggressive foreign policies, which has in turn prompted them to develop an ideological language for sustaining that aggression.  From Iraq to Indonesia, Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbists and similar extremist ideologues are spreading a rigid, literalist interpretation of Islam that is “rejected by the vast majority of Muslims and imposed on them,” as the former Islamist radical Ed Husain argues in a recent new book, The House of Islam. The battle of ideas, he contends, is not between the West and Muslim communities, but within Islam itself.

And this is the fourth lesson: the battle of ideas goes on in the world between democracy and authoritarianism – it didn’t end with the Cold War – and nowhere is it more acute than with respect to the battle within Islam. 

The malign influence stems not only from autocratic regimes, of course, but also from the ideological contamination of extremist movements, which cannot be defeated by a purely security-based strategy. A recent study from the Institute for Global Change states that the United Kingdom, for instance, spends only 1 per cent of its anti-terrorism budget on “countering the ideology driving Islamist violence”.   The security analyst John Hannah has written that “The failure to prioritize the ideological [as opposed to the military] war has been the perennial Achilles’ heel of U.S. strategy” as well.

No one has understood this problem better than Rached Ghannouchi, who has spoken about it at many CSID events, including the annual conference.  In his keynote address last year to the ninth assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, he explained how groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda “have exploited the Arab world’s economic and social problems to present themselves as an alternative,” making a special appeal to young people.  “The solution to extremism,” he said, “is more freedom (not less), more democracy (not less), more debate and dialogue, and more moderate religious teachings that confront this extremist ideology.”  The 5,300 mosques in Tunisia, he said, are “an optimal platform for promoting to a broad and religiously observant audience a compelling and tolerant religious vision, for combatting extremist ideologies, as well as strengthening democratic values and respect for human rights.”  Religion and democracy have to work together he said, and he appealed to the assembled activists, “as leaders of democracy, to include religion and religious actors and institutions in all your efforts and programs.”

I want to assure you that the NED is committed to this approach and will do whatever it can to amplify moderate religious voices who promote traditional religious beliefs and practices that demonstrate tolerance and respect for pluralism.

I know that we’re all expectantly awaiting the results of the elections in Tunisia on Sunday, and that you will be discussing Tunisia this afternoon at the last session of this conference.  Many staff from the NED and its party institutes are in Tunisia now to support the election process.  A year ago the NED and its four institutes agreed that support for the democratic transition in Tunisia would be our highest shared priority.  We are coordinating on this challenge more than on any other issue, because so much rests on the successful consolidation of the Arab world’s first democracy.  There are many critical challenges, none more important than reforming the economy so that young people will have jobs and hope.  These are challenges that only the Tunisian people can meet.  But they need support and solidarity, and we hope that when the World Movement for Democracy, in a gesture of solidarity, convenes in Tunis next fall, we will be able to celebrate the continuing resilience of Tunisia’s democracy.

In a memorable essay written almost half a century ago, the political scientist Dankwart Rustow wrote that democratic resilience emerges from the experience of democracy itself.  “With its basic practice of multilateral debate,” he said, “democracy in particular involves a process of trial and error, a joint learning experience. The first grand compromise that establishes democracy, if it proves at all viable, is in itself a proof of the efficacy of the principle of conciliation and accommodation.”

That process, with all of its immense difficulties, complexities, and risks, is now underway in Tunisia, and I don’t think there is any turning back.  Another political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell, once wrote that what he called “the genie of democracy,” which expresses a universal human demand for freedom, recognition, and respect, is now “the specter that haunts not just Europe but the whole world, erupting unexpectedly in countries that seem to be gripped tightly in the authoritarian fist, and forcing dictators to pay tribute to it by faking free elections.”  Though we can’t predict “how potent the genie will turn out to be against the manifold forces against it,” he wrote, “we know that the spirit of democracy is with us…and that on repeated occasions it has shown how powerfully it can give expression to demands for freedom and for the recognition of human dignity.”

Those manifold forces against democracy are more powerful today that at any time since the Cold War ended three decades ago.  But as O’Donnell said, those who have suffered at the hands of a brutally repressive state “know from experience that continuing to hope even in the face of apparently overwhelming odds…can be an immense if sometimes unexpected force,” a force that can even “nourish other, more specific capacities that may promote improvements in democratic quality.”

I think that the principal lesson of the past twenty years is that democracy inspires this hope, and that there’s no way, as Guillermo said, to put the genie of democracy back in the bottle.  May CSID’s next twenty years be as fruitful as the first.