I recently accepted an invitation to speak at the Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade in Qatar.
At the opening ceremony, speaking to delegates from 80 different countries, the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, gave an introspective speech about the urgent need for democratization in the Middle East and his personal disappointment at the slow progress being made towards this goal. The other major speaker, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, concentrated his remarks on his personal observations about the Korean experiment with democracy and argued that economic development is a necessary precursor to political development.
Usually the openings of such gatherings are staid events. But surprisingly, there was a small amount of verbal fireworks. Current leader of the British House of Commons Jack Straw reiterated President Bush's view of democracies not waging wars against each other as one of the rationales for democratization. This provoked an impassioned response from Arab league General Secretary Amr Moussa as he pointed out what he said was the false link between democracy and peace, with several Arab lands from Palestine to Iraq facing the brunt of occupations and wars at the hands of nations such as the U.S., Britain and Israel.
Therein is a dilemma.
On one hand, Muslims and Arabs admire and aspire to the freedoms and free enterprise afforded to citizens in democracies. On the other, they cannot help but be skeptical of motives when outsiders preach democracy and yet do not practice it in their dealings with them.
They point to U.S. refusal to engage with the most freely and fairly elected government of the region in Palestine as an indicator of their contention. The U.S. acquiescence to Israel's destruction last summer of the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon was also noted. At the same time, the protection of human rights, so sacred to democracies, is being ignored in Guantanamo Bay and via the CIA rendition program, which ironically is being carried out with the support of undemocratic regimes in Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
About two years ago at a Pew Forum discussion called "Islam and Democratization in the Middle East," one of the questions explored was whether Islam was the main factor supporting the hereditary autocracies of the Arab world and therefore perhaps a major obstacle to democracy. The fact that two-thirds of the Muslim population worldwide lives and participates in democracies indicates that the faith of Islam is no barrier to democratization.
The Quran, Islam's revered text, instructs that the basic principle of governance should be based on mutual consultation, known as "shura" in Arabic. Islamic scholars say shura contains three essential elements -- equal rights for all citizens, majority rule for public policy and the promotion of justice and human dignity.
America needs to positively engage with Muslims who have deeply-held beliefs that their faith ought to inform and guide them in their politics.
For example, Turkey's ruling Islamically-oriented party has been more willing to compromise in the dispute over Cyprus than its secular predecessor. It has also been more tolerant toward minorities.
The appeal of Islam is so strong in the Middle East that it is difficult to imagine a viable democratic society without an Islamic component. Democracy will come to the Middle East, sooner than later. The people and their faith demand it.
The question is, which model serves America's interests -- violent imposition of democracy as in Iraq or ostracizing it as in Palestine? Perhaps the middle path involves supporting organic growth of indigenous democracies by being intellectually and diplomatically engaged. Judging by the reactions of the people I meet in the region, the latter is undoubtedly our best chance to bring the world back from the brink of a clash of civilization to the la convivencia of mutual respect and understanding.