Democracy Denied: Takeaways from CSID’s 22nd Annual Conference

[On Wednesday, April 17, 2024, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy held a conference on “Democracy Denied: Political, Human Rights, and Policy Implications for the Arab/Muslim World.” These are our takeaways of high points of the conference. Most of conference may be viewed here.]

Panel 1: “The Israel-Gaza War: Implications for Democracy in the Arab-Islamic World”

Mustafa Akyol, senior Fellow at Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, noted that the double standard applied to Israel is not new, but has never been this blatant. It is now manifested in an overt crackdown on freedom of speech. If human rights do not apply to all, then neither does the right of free speech. But, as the current debate reveals, the West is no more monolithic than the Muslim world.

Rebecca Ruth Gould, Professor of Comparative Poetry and Global Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said that free speech is a universal idea. She quoted Mahmoud Darwish’s question, “Do we need the state?” Emphasizing the importance of education to universities, she  observed that no university buildings have been left standing in Gaza. We cannot focus on humanitarian aid to the exclusion of human rights.

Emad El-Din Shahin, Professor at the College of Islamic Studies, Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar, observed the pervasiveness of war in the Middle East.  Before Oct. 7, the Palestinian issue had been sidelined. He believes Hamas has learned lessons from previous wars in the Middle East and further damaged the presumption of Israeli deterrent and preemptive capability. The U.S. is perceived as a belligerent actor in the region. He sees no hope for a two-state solution. Resisting the occupation is the only viable option.

Panel 2: “Lessons Learned: Arab Spring Uprisings and Failed Transitions”

AbdlMawgoud Dardery, Former spokesperson of the FRC of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, reminded us that over 100 member of the Egypt parliament have been jailed and many are still there, and some have died there or soon after release. There are over 60,000 political prisoners in jail.  Only candidates approved by the security apparatus may run for parliament.

Daanish Faruqi, Visiting Researcher, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, spoke of scholar-activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim who was well-versed in both Anglo-American and Arab-Islamic thought and explored the seminal work of Ibn Khaldun. He emphasized Ibn Khaldun’s insight that social solidarity (`asabiya) is best implemented when it includes a spiritual raison d’etre. His Ibn Khaldun Centre emphasized the rights of minorities and advanced the controversial view that denying the Muslim Brotherhood a place in the democratic field would push them into militancy. After the revolution of 2013, liberals proved their willingness to forge alliances with the most horrific forms of authoritarianism.

Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Honorary Fellow, Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, noted that in 2018 in Malaysia a government that had been in power for 61 years was overthrown at the ballot box. She sees parallels in the ethno-religious nationalism in Malaysia to the populism that has arisen in the U.S. as well as to Zionism, Hindutva, and Myanmar’s Buddhist hegemony. In Malaysia, the need for coalition building has derailed the economic reforms promised by the ruling party.

Anthony Bower, Europe & Eurasia Advisor, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, said that Uzbekistan has never had free and fair elections. The leadership wants to break from its authoritarian post-Soviet past, but seems to aim its reforms against corruption. In its 2023   constitutional reform and national referendum, positive ones (e.g., gender issues) were overshadowed by negative ones. New parties were not only prohibited, but their members were tortured and detained.

David Mednicoff, Chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, attempted to argue that the rule of law, understood as constraining government to modern liberal democratic norms doesn’t go as well with democracy as is commonly believed.

Keynote Speaker: “Biden, Gaza and the End of the Rules-Based Order”

Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, placed the shift in public opinion we see over Palestinian issue as an example of a broader shift in global power bringing us back to an era prior to canonicalization as global south countries use institutions designed to defend great Western powers against them. In particular, a notion called the “Rules-Based International Order” which focuses on a particular order based on American dictated rules rather than on International law. The latter is to bind all to the same set of rules, while the former is to defend a particular world order on the grounds of an American interpretation of law. It is not an international governing system, but a ruling block. The phrase has not been applied at all to Gaza because the hypocrisy would be too transparent. The situation in Gaza has galvanized people around the world not only on its own merits but because of what it symbolizes. The alternative to the Rules-Based Order is an international law applied equally to all.

Panel 3: “Lessons from the Failure of the Tunisian ‘Model’ in Democratic Transition.

Jose Ignacio Hernandez, Senior Associate of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, looked at the failure of the Tunisian experience from the perspective of democratic failure in Latin America. Until thirty years ago democracies died at the hands of military overthrow, but in the past two decades democracies have been abuse hidden in constitutional reforms, a “constitutional authoritarianism.” Charismatic populist leaders are elected to power and declare a national emergency to protect the public from immigration, corporate power, or whatever. In the case of Tunisia a constitutional court was co-opted by the President. Referenda invoking the revered words “We the People” are essential to giving s constitutional veneer to such populist authoritarianism.

Sahar Khamis, Associate Professor of Communication, at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, said “Tunisian exceptionalism” died in a Presidential coup on July 25. 2021. An essential element was the crackdown on journalists under the cover of “cybercrime” legislation use to accuse journalists of spreading dis- and misinformation.

Samuel Greene, Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of Social and Applied Behavioral Sciences at Shepherd University, contended that democratic failure in Tunisia is not unique to Islam but shares institutional difficulties that have confronted non-Muslim places including Honduras, Senegal, Mongolia, and El Salvador. The role of external power must be considered. In Central America it was the United States.

Salih Yasun & Bedirhan Mutlu, with the Department of International Studies and Political Science at the Virginia Military Institute & George Washington University, focused on the party system in Tunisia and the role of civil society. In Tunisia there were powerful unions, weak political parties, and a system that kept political parties dependent on business support. The most powerful union worked outside the political system to defeat economic reforms that could have prevented the frustration with the political process that contributed to the failure of democracy in Tunisia. Given the disappointing economic situation in the face of high expectations, it is said Tunisians today pray for Ben Ali as a means of criticizing high prices.

Junama Al-Ahmad, Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Washington and Lee University, looked at women’s rights at the intersection of Islamic thought, human rights, and political realities. The “Third Wave” of modernists advocate a context-aware understanding of Islamic law. There is an emphasis on the higher goals of law and on the public good. Kais Saied put an end to the debate insisting, for example, that reform of inheritance law could only be considered after establishment of gender equality, essentially preventing pressure that continued debate could have played in bringing about that change.

Panel 4. Policy Implications: What Have We Learned from the Failure to Promote Democracy?”

Tamar Sonn, Professor Emeritus in the History of Islam Georgetown University, said the organizers of the 2012 CSID annual conference were tempted to title its annual conference “We Told You So,” but a year later came the Egyptian Coup and soon thereafter Tunisia without a word of protest from the U.S. The belief that U.S. policymakers only needed to be educated has been replaced by a conviction that U.S. policies are dictated by a narrow focus on “the national interest” uncritically defined as “U.S. dominance” and keeping U.S. corporations the richest corporations on earth. In the future emphasis must be on influencing civil society to stop people from implementing bad policy.

Nader Hashemi, Associate Professor & Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, argued that the Abraham Accords set the stage for October 7, but that the Arab states have evaded critical scrutiny in their wake. There can be no peace with the Arab people unless the issue of Palestine is addressed, but that is not the case with Arab dictators. Authoritarianism is the oxygen of the Arab accords.

Dalia Fahmy, Associate professor of Political Science at Long Island University, argued that the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and the continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood show that the era of giving political Islam breathing space is over. Authoritarian regimes are alive and kicking. Repression has never led to long-term stability, yet the Biden administration refuses to hold regimes accountable for their human rights abuses. 72% of Arabs now see democracy as the right form of government for themselves and 78% see the U.S. as the biggest threat to democracy in their region (worse than Iran or Russia!). MENA has seen a rise in religiosity among youth and political Islam has been making a comeback for the first time since the Arab Spring and support for a role for religion in politics has risen across the board.

Shadi Hamid, columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post, said he has changed his mind on the significance of the role of Israel on the Arab Spring. At the time he thought it was not central, but he now understands that Israel is a big part of the problem. The current war in Gaza offers an entry point to understanding the issue and, as young Americans become more skeptical over the priority of Israel, there will be more opportunities over the coming 10-20 years.

Final Comments.

Ebrahim Rasool, former South African Ambassador to the United States, said it was no coincidence that apartheid ended in South Africa in the same year that the Berlin Wall fell. The U.S. looks at its values through the lens of interests. Nelson Mandela asked, “If I cannot look at my interests through the lens of my values, who am I and what did I fight for?” Genocide has three objectives: killing the future (children), patricide (killing a country) and killing the truth. He said that at the time South Africa was most vulnerable to corruption Palestinians provided it with a true North. South Africa did not stop the genocide, but it changed the narrative:  from the Palestinians as the subhuman terrorist other to Palestinians as people. The divide between the palace and the street has now become visible. The U.S. squandered its uni-polar moment and the world is now yielding to multi-polarity.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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