The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) is proud to present this report of its 17th Annual Conference in Washington D.C. that focused on ” Democratization, Authoritarianism, & Radicalization: Exploring the Connections”.
CSID 17th Annual Conference – Welcoming and Opening Remarks
In this annual meeting that has become a tradition for the Washington D.C. policy and academic community, U.S. administration officials and policymakers, foreign dignitaries and activities, and scholars and academics from around the world gathered to exchange analyses of the current troubling situations in the Middle East and North Africa as well as provide measured policy recommendations to combat violent extremist ideology and restore hope for democracy in the region. In the welcoming remarks of Dr. Asma Afsaruddin, Chairman of CSID’s Board of Directors, she called for special attention to be paid to the connection between authoritarianism and radicalization in order to better inform democracy promotion initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond. She noted the gap that persists between academics, researchers, and policy makers, and the need for policy makers to acknowledge the repercussions of decisions made in the name of expediency and at the expense of a holistic and nuanced approach.
Dr. Afsaruddin then welcomedCongressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), who opened the annual conference on a strong foot by saying that it is an imperative to not only spread the message of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, but to participate in making it a reality. The Congressman began by discussing the domestic scene, observing that what happens to American Muslims has repercussions around the world, perhaps never more clearly than today with the rise of ISIS and other violent extremist organizations. In the battle of ideas, Congressman Ellison said that an organized and unwavering constituency must rally in order to really support it and bring it to fruition, both regarding the fight against the vitriol highlighted during the United States presidential election primary season as well as abroad. Connecting this to the case of Tunisia, the Congressman insisted that the United States must do more to stand by the country in what has been a very difficult democratic transition.
Drawing upon the insight of President John F. Kennedy, who said that ” those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable,” Congressman Ellison believes that greater support to Tunisia is not only a smart policy choice for the U.S. in combating violent extremist organizations like ISIS but also provides a viable alternative to the deep discord plaguing much of the Middle East and North Africa. In spite of counter-revolutionary forces constituting significant challenges to the democratic project, Tunisia has thus far proven not only that people can come together for a cause, but that they can compete fiercely in elections and still find common ground and work toward a common goal afterwards.
Congressman Ellison concluded by highlighting the impact that a democratic Tunisia will have on neighboring countries: “I believe that if the Tunisian experiment lasts and sustains, it will be a great light for the region. I don’t believe the flame of democracy has been snuffed out in Egypt; it has been suppressed. the flame of democracy is still burning in the hearts of the people.”
Countering Extremism, Promoting Democracy
The first panel of the conference was chaired by Professor Tamara Sonn, Professor in the History of Islam at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, who welcomed and introduced the panelists. The first panelist of the day was Hassan Abbas, Professor and Chair of the Department of Analytical Studies at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA) at the National Defense University (NDU), presented his paper on “Iraq’s Anti-ISIS Militias: Implications for Democracy.” Because most of the writings regarding ISIS are policy-oriented and speak almost exclusively from the lens of security, Dr. Abbas traveled to Iraq 9 times in the last two years conducting interviews with religious and civic leaders in Baghdad, Karbala, and Samra in order to go beyond the security lens and bring a nuanced and informed reading of the spike in violence and discord in Iraq.
Iraq’s Anti-ISIS Militias: Implications for Democracy – Hassan Abbas
Focusing on a fatwa (religious decree) of prominent Iraqi spiritual leader Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani – in which al-Sistani called for all Iraqis to support Iraq’s military in the fight against ISIS – Dr. Abbas explored the ways in which this fatwa was interpreted and used by three different types of armed militias, those of Muqtada al-Sadr, ones that centered around various Sunni and Shii religious shrines, and the armed groups funded directly by Iran. In this field work, Dr. Abbas explained that not many Iraqis were aware of al-Sistani’s fatwa and still more expressed misunderstandings of its message, believing it to sanction armed group activity in general. While it is important to recognize that some of these militias have been successful in fending off ISIS’ advances, Dr. Abbas recommended that greater effort be put toward converting these groups into local police forces that may come to serve a common national goal.
Rethinking Counterterrorism in the Age of ISIS – Sahar Aziz
The next speaker, Sahar F. Aziz, Associate Professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, presented her forthcoming article “Rethinking Counter-terrorism in the Age of ISIS” in which she explains that failing states have been serving as a haven for extremism. Dr. Aziz explained that although the causes of violent extremism are often local, the repercussions are worldwide and the approach to addressing it must therefore take these converging angles into account. “Global counter-terrorism strategies,” she said, “often focus on the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes of the violence,” leading to counterproductive results.
But beyond failing states, Dr. Aziz argued that “dictatorships inculcate violence, [where] violence becomes the only means to affect change,” and she presented the case of the rise of non-state violence in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt as a prime example of this phenomenon. In the Sinai, she demonstrated, where the majority Bedouin population has been politically, socially, and economically disenfranchised, Egyptian security forces have been imposing harsh crackdowns and collective punishment tactics that have driven an already disgruntled civilian population further to the edge. This, Dr. Aziz concludes, illustrates the need for a paradigm shift in developing counter-terrorism strategies, in that by addressing the root causes of the violence – in this case, providing legal employment opportunities previously denied – non-state actors would become increasingly less inclined to violent means to voice political grievances.
Democratic Peace Theory Revisited – Nader Hachemi
Dr. Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver, who stepped in at the last minute to fill an absence, provided a glimpse into his work, “Democratic Peace Theory Revisited.” In this piece, Dr. Hashemi posited his unique variation of peace theory: the more that democratization advances, the less the likelihood of violence. While focused on the Middle East, Dr. Hashemi noted that “there are bragging rights that go along with democracy, hence the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic Republic of North Korea,” underscoring the universal acknowledgement of the particular eminence of democratic systems. He continued, “when democratic openings are closed, when moderate Islam is pushed out, militant and violent Islamic groups are empowered,” pointing to the example of Egypt under President al-Sisi.
Beyond excluding and persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood and consolidating power for the military, Dr. Hashemi drew attention to the experiences of Mohamed Soltan, a former political prisoner in Egypt, within the Egyptian prison system, and the extent to which prisoners were exposed to violent extremist ideologies and radicalized within. A cause for great concern indeed, and a testament to the role played by authoritarian regimes in fostering extremism. Noting the unfortunate statements of prominent U.S. politicians, including House Speaker Paul Ryan praising “democracy in Egypt,” it does not appear that the United States remains committed to democratization.
Qamar ul Huda, U.S. Department of State and moderator of this second panel, spoke to the need to build upon Congressman Ellison’s morning remarks and address the next steps ahead to promote and protect democratic aspirations around the world. He then introduced the panel’s first speaker, Kamran Bokhari, Fellow in the Program on Extremism at the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security at George Washington University, who assessed the difference between the reality of what is happening as opposed to what ought to happen regarding the path to democracy, “which remains unclear because we lose track of the reality on the ground.”
Promoting Democracy in the Face of Autocratic Meltdown and the Rise of Geo-sectarianism and Jihadism – Dr. Kamran Bokhari
Dr. Kamran Bokhari presented his assessment outlining three main dynamics shaping the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and North Africa; those are autocratic meltdown (or, the breakdown of autocratic regimes), geo-sectarianism, and jihadism.While each of these dynamics have distinguishing features and effects of different shapes, they interact deeply; Dr. Bokhari remarked that one of the most evident interactive dynamics is seen in the way in which “both jihadism and geo-sectarianism are exploiting autocratic meltdown,” particularly in Syria and Yemen. In reaction and anticipation of these developments, he argued, the United States must initiate a more realistic and informed approach that shows constraint in some ways and shapes behaviors – particularly as far as limiting violence against civilian and minority populations – in others.
Citizenship and Authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia After the Arab Spring – Natana DeLong-Bas
Natana J. Delong-Bas, Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Theology Department at Boston College, presented her research on “Citizenship and Authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring,” which focused on the application of the two pillars of Saudi citizenship:wasatiyya and wataniyya, or moderation and citizenship respectively. Dr. Delong-Bas explained how wasatiyya and wataniyya are employed to sustain the Saudi monarchy, and the ways in which these terms are defined and applied to maintain divisions within the society while avoiding outright conflict. Dr. Delong-Bas noted the tension between “official opposition to extremism and leaving in place concepts that seem to promote or encourage extremism,” such as the concept of “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice,” which has been a rallying cry for groups serving as theological police.
Moreover, the minority Shia population – which thus far has been labeled as either subjects, objects, or foreign agents – has attempted to use wasatiyya and wataniyya to advocate for greater political inclusion and representation, motivated in large part by the Arab Spring revolutions. The Shia, like other marginalized groups in Saudi Arabia, have essentially been demanding that ” wasatiyya be a two-way street,” arguing that the state cannot expect moderation from its citizens without espousing it itself.
Aspirations for a Dignified Life_ Palestinians in a Post-National World – Maria Holt
Maria Holt, the third and final speaker to address this panel spoke on “Aspirations for a Dignified Life: Palestinians in a Post-National World,” with the rise of ISIS which seeks to erase the artificial borders that colonialism brought, the aspirations for a modern nation-state of Palestinians may fall by the wayside. Although feelings of attachment to a homeland called Palestine remain strong, the time of nations and their states seems to be passing, argued Dr. Holt. Palestinians, she said, have not been immune to the ideological debates between nationalism and Islamism, which sees beyond state borders and seeks an identity not bound by territory.
Dr. Holt explained that, for many activities and political leaders, “globalization renders the nationalist project anachronistic,” and that there has been a noticeable shift in tone from “territorial embeddedness to an a-territorial and flexible citizenship.” This point is one that Dr. Holt says demonstrates the diversity of opinion within the community of Palestinians across the world, reflected most notable in the West Bank and Lebanon, who have absorbed the paradigm shifts taking place and have been grappling to articulate an appropriate and just plan forward.
Keynote Banquet Luncheon
Human Rights and Democracy – The Antidote to Violent Extremism
Headlining the Luncheon panel was Abdelfattah Mourou, Vice-President of the Tunisian Parliament and Co-Founder of the Ennahdha party, who addressed the audience for nearly 45 minutes on the experiences of his party in participating in power in Tunisia and on the ways in which the international community, and the United States in particular, must help ensure the success of Tunisia’s democratic experience. “While the Arab nations escaped colonialism and developed sovereign states,” said Mourou, “they still don’t have autonomy over their political, social, or economic realities,” noting the influence of regional and international dynamics on the domestic situation in his country.
Knowing that the topic of extremism and radicalization was foremost on the minds of most American policy-makers and academics, Mourou spoke to the platforms of a small but vocal minority of Tunisians, who support non-violent Salafist parties and believe that Tunisian politics must return to the first few centuries of Islamic rule in order to succeed, and remarked that post-revolution experiences have convinced many of these groups that this was not realistic and that if they did not change, they would become irrelevant. “The world today is a world of communication, a world of diversity, a world of divergent opinions,” and one that Mourou says requires all Tunisians to listen to one another and build a future together based on common purpose; “we want dictatorship to not come back, or oppression to return – how, then, can brothers oppress brothers after the revolution?”
This, he said, was the main success story in Tunisia, that ” the population at large has realized that divisions are unsustainable and damaging, and that there must be power-sharing in order to foster social peace”.
The main challenge ahead is to “prove that democracy can deliver results,” while also insisting that it is a long-term process that requires concerted efforts and a lot of time. Said Mourou: “we told our population not to expect immediate results from democracy; rather, democracy succeeds when a new culture is introduced and takes root, and for this we require a century of work.” Acknowledging that Tunisians themselves are ultimately responsible for their country’s success, Mourou appealed for the assistance of older democracies to keep hope alive in Tunisia. “I come to you from a small country, but a country that wants to participate in leading the world.” Thoughtful, articulate and engaging, Abdelfattah Mourou’s address was a reflection of the prevailing political winds that have made Tunisia’s transition to democracy a success in spite of incredible odds.
Bridge to Hope – Michael Kirtley
Following Sheikh Mourou, Mr. Michael Kirtley gave a brief presentation about a new CSID project that he is leading and directing, called ” Bridge to Hope” which seeks to educate the American people about Islam and Muslims and replace the growing fear of Islam and Muslims with feelings of love, compassion, and understanding. He appealed to the audience to support this project which comes at a critical time, when feelings of fear and confusion are rising on both sides of the Atlantic, which, if unchallenged, could make relations between Islam and the America (and the West in general) more difficult and complicated in the coming years and decades.
Muslim Democrat of the Year Award – Dr. Jamal Barzinji
The second half of the luncheon panel was the presentation of the Muslim Democrat of the Year Award for 2016, particularly unique this year as it was awarded to two towering figures within the American Muslim community – Dr. Jamal Barzinji and Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani – both of whom have recently passed and whose legacies deserve great admiration. Presenting these awards were Dr. Hisham Al-Talib, President of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and long-time friend and colleague of the late Dr. Barzinji, and Dr. Zainab Al-Alwani, Islamic scholar and daughter of the late Dr. Al-Alwani.
Muslim Democrat of the Year Award – Dr. Taha Jaber Alalawani
Both addressed the incredible scholarly accomplishments and spirit of community service that both Dr. Barzinji and Dr. Al-Alwani embodied, but also their kind and humble demeanor that earned the respect of thousands all around the world. Dr. Zainab Al-Alwani also presented the final written word of her father, which her son then read in English, titled “I am Muslim;” a short personal reflection that read like poetry, “I am Muslim” was an excellent testament to the extraordinary character and profound intellect that both Dr. Jamal Barzinji and Dr. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani espoused. CSID extends its deepest condolences to both families while honoring and endeavoring to continue the legacies of these two incredible men.
Islam, Moral Authority, and Political Rights
Palestine-Israel and the Neoliberal Ideal – Luke Peterson
With Dr. Asma Afsaruddin as the moderator, the first speaker of this third panel was Luke Peterson, Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the University in Pittsburgh, who presented his research on “Palestine-Israel and the Neo-liberal Ideal.” In this paper, Peterson highlighted what he found to be four distinct elements of the private business enterprises driving the ongoing conflict in Palestine-Israel. First, he argued that U.S. corporate expansion into Israeli and Palestinian lands was taking advantage of the “high reliance on state authorities by making deals that exploited local markets and benefited from low operational costs,” effectively prolonging the conflict from both sides.
Moreover, Peterson showed how the cooperation between Israeli and American police forces was not only benefiting the Israeli security apparatus but also transforming American police units into “hyper-militarized forces,” seen most evidently in Ferguson, Missouri. In addition to the “military-civilian technology exchanges” on improving surveillance mechanisms both here and in Israel, expanded U.S. defense contracts with Israel serve to expand the already gargantuan U.S. army while ensuring that Israel remains in constant need for military equipment and training, thereby keeping American defense companies in business. In closing, Peterson explored some of the ways in which the United States and its neo-liberal allies – in this case, Israel – continue to dominate geopolitics through self-gratifying military power.
Preserving Stability in Jordan – Anja Wehler-Schoeck
The second speaker, Anja Wehler-Schoeck, presented her paper on “Preserving Stability in Jordan,” offering insight into a country long seen as an oasis of stability and relative peace in the Middle East and the paradox of it being the third largest contributor to jihadist groups in recent years. While Jordan’s authorities have “effectively shielded [the] country from attacks since the hotel bombings in 2005,” there are a number of factors contributing to the radicalization of youth. Beyond the need to improve educational curricula and focus on economic development and providing more employment opportunities, Wehler-Schoeck pointed to the fact that between seven and eight thousand mosques across the country have unauthorized Imams, of whom a significant percentage espouse ambivalent to outright celebratory positions on violent extremism; she therefore recommended that an education and official certification mechanism be instituted immediately in order to better control the rhetoric that prevails in mosques.
Wehler-Schoeck concluded with special attention to the ways in which Jordanian authorities have been dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood organization, which has a long and rich history of tolerance with state and society. Noting the 2014 arrests of MB leadership and the creation of the new “Muslim Brotherhood Society,” effectively sidelining the older organization and its thousands of members from public life, Wehler-Schoeck argued that this would produce greater radicalization and must be immediately addressed so as to provide space for peaceful political activity.
Negotiated moral authority in the struggle against violent Islamic dogma – Alexs Thompson
Alexis Thompson, PhD candidate in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago was third to address this panel, presenting his paper “Negotiated Moral Authority in the Struggle against Violent Islamic Dogma.” Thompson began by explaining how the American motivation for countering violent extremism is usually motivated by quid-pro-quo. While it is tempting to assume a moral authority over violent extremist groups like ISIS, Thompson argues that this tendency is at the heart of the West’s failure to dismantle terrorist activities thus far: “In short, our attempts to undermine a terrorist ethic fail because we are not them… We lose sight of the fact that our best intentions are not immediately obvious to our enemies,” and this comes from the fact that the West fundamentally misunderstands motivations of violent extremist groups.
Thompson explains that a better approach would be to problematize understandings and use of moral authority in the counter-terrorism approach and to fundamentally understand that moral authority can be readily claimed by any and all sides. Thompson insisted that this argument is not meant to imply that there is a relativism to morality; rather, he holds that counter-terrorism initiatives must become more acutely aware of the ways in which extremist discourse actually fuels violence in order to better diagnose and defeat it.
Challenging Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan – Arafat Mazhar
The last speaker on this third panel was Arafat Mazhar, Director of “Engage”, a non-profit organization in Pakistan, who presented his research on “Challenging Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan.” Mazhar addressed the main objective of his organization, which is to provide evidence to support the argument that Pakistan’s blasphemy law is “a perversion of the Islamic legal tradition it claims to protect and uphold.” Using the constructed binary of god-less secularism versus the custodians of God’s religion, Mazhar explained the ways in which the marriage of Pakistan’s religious leaders and right-wing movements has created a political climate in which any challenge to the immutability of the blasphemy law is extremely precarious.
“In the collective imagination of the mainstream society, blasphemy is God’s fixed law, and anyone who believes otherwise is also committing blasphemy,” said Mazhar, illustrating the extent to which support for the law extends. Providing dozens of religious rulings dating back centuries, all contradicting Pakistan’s blasphemy law in one way or another and unanimously prohibiting killing, Mazhar questions the absolutist discourse that surrounds this issue in Pakistan today and shares that he and organization have seen small openings of discussion start to appear, giving him hope that the controversial law may be challenged and overturned in the future.
The Future of Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring
The final panel of CSID’s 17th Annual Conference featured five leading academic and political experts to draw upon their experiences working on and in the Middle East and North Africa and assess the future of Islam and democracy in the region. Daniel Brumberg, Professor at Georgetown University, was the panel moderator and kept the discussion focused on pinpointing areas of potential rather than dwelling on the many pitfalls of recent years. He introduced Dr. John Voll, Professor of Islamic History at Georgetown University and the panel’s first speaker, who began by reflecting on the overarching topic of the day, that of the links between democratization, authoritarianism, and radicalization.
The Future of Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring – John Voll
Professor Voll remarked on the assumption that authoritarianism offers stability, which he contends has allowed many U.S. administration officials and policy makers to argue that the road to democracy may include a period of authoritarianism and that this is an acceptable, perhaps even necessary, step in the democratization process. Insisting that all the evidence points to the contrary, and that “authoritarianism leads only to authoritarianism and does not lead to democracy,” Professor Voll cautioned American policy makers from privileging short-term fixes that will have dangerous long-term repercussions.
The Future of Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring – Nathan Brown
Dr. Nathan Brown followed on Professor Voll’s recommendations by lamenting that politics in the Middle East is broken and that it no longer holds the promise that it did five years ago, as the post-revolutionary periods in most of the Arab Spring countries have slipped back into repression and authoritarianism. In one sense, Professor Brown explains, “democracy is very, very much alive,” insofar as it remains the objective of political dissidents throughout the region, but it is a long way from being realized. As elements of old regimes reassume power, the fear, he said, is that faith in politics, that the political process can produce positive results, will be destroyed.
” This “discrediting of politics” will be the long-term cost if the dire situations in much of the Middle East and North Africa are not addressed immediately.”
The Future of Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring – Carl Gershman
Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), followed Professor Brown in focusing on the “authoritarian resurgence,” where 12 out of 18 countries in the MENA region hold lower political rankings now than before the revolutions, according to Freedom House. Gershman noted that respect for the important role of civil society organizations as critical components of democratic life – as seen in Tunisia – must be emphasized for countries like Egypt to return to the democratization process anew.
Following the challenges facing much of the Middle East, Gershman explains that the United States must avoid both the dangerous tendency of giving up on the region and the sorts of policy assessments that paint an all or nothing picture of the road map ahead, focusing instead on pursuing nuanced and carefully calibrated approaches. Finally, Gershman remarked on the danger of allowing terrorist groups to “succeed in creating an Huntingtonian situation;” to undermine this sort of discourse, he concluded, must be a top priority for both domestic and foreign policy.
The Future of Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring – William Taylor
Amb. William Taylor, Executive Vice President of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), closed out the final panel of the conference by speaking about the urgency of supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition. The success of Tunisia’s democracy is not only in its own interests, but “is an answer to the question of if democracy can succeed [at all]” in the Middle East and North Africa. Taylor noted the recent report on Tunisia released by the Carnegie Endowment which details the many ways in which foreign assistance can be directed in order to affect the greatest and most urgent change.
But while there are many ways for the international community to support Tunisia, Taylor insisted that the Tunisian people themselves must also assume some responsibilities, including that of explicitly requesting aid and assistance. “Our support in this campaign needs to be demand-driven,” said Taylor, and must therefore respond to Tunisian initiatives so that it is seen as support and not directive.
As the conference drew to a close, Dr. Radwan Masmoudi and Dr.Nader Hashemi reflected on the reports and analyses presented throughout the day and on the lessons learned from the trials and tribulations the MENA region is undergoing. Dr. Masmoudi argued that, at a minimum, the United States and democracies around the world have an obligation to do no harm, which means they must stop supporting dictators in their oppression; more than that, however, the world’s democracies must be more serious about promoting and supporting the democratic aspirations of nations by offering real and tangible assistance, and quickly.
Tunisia has accomplished a great deal, particularly as Dr. Masmoudi reminisced on the immense work of the National Constituent Assembly to re-write a new democratic constitution, and it has proven that democracy is possible. Now, with the economic challenges that remain, the United States and others must stand with Tunisia and help it realize the goal of seeing the world’s first Arab democracy to fruition.
Dr. Hashemi rebuked the current approach of top U.S. officials to ignore gross human rights violations in places like Egypt and elsewhere and proclaim, as President Barack Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan did, that Egypt is on the path to democracy. Hashemi highlighted the coded messaging in such statements – namely, that authoritarianism can lead to democracy – and insisted that as violence only begets violence, so too with authoritarianism. It is therefore imperative that the United States and democratic allies across the world develop more sensible strategies for dealing with crises in the Middle East and elsewhere, and not continue to aid and abet tyrants in their tyranny.
“The world’s democracies must recognize the threats that authoritarianism poses to stability and prosperity and learn to adopt strategies that combat radicalization through democracy promotion.”
Report written by Mariem R. Masmoudi, Graduate Student in Islamic Studies at Columbia University.