The Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the Community of Democracies

Agenda for Civil Society Programs

Lisbon, Portugal 9-12 July 2009

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) participated in The Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the Community of Democracies, organized in Lisbon, Portugal on 9-12 July 2009, and organized a panel on “Democracy in Muslim Countries – Challenges and Opportunities”. Here is a brief report on the meeting and the discussions that took place during the panel.

After a brief introductory and welcoming comments by Bob Lagamma and Paul Graham, in which he introduced the Community of Democracies and the role of the Non-Governmental Organizations in furthering the dialogue and pushing for greater democracy and transparency in the Community of Democracies. Democracies have imbedded structures for the protection of human rights as well as sustainable development. Democracies also are better at preventing and managing conflicts. The Community of Democracies consists of governments (foreign ministries) and NGO representatives. NGO’s are an indispensable element in the success and progress of the Community of Democracies.

Branislav Misztal, from the Permanent Secretariat of the CofD stated that the newly-established Permanent Secretariat is based in Warsaw, and will be a permanent “cement” between all the major players, both governmental and non-governmental, to make sure that the CofD becomes more effective in addressing issues of democracy as they arise. The Secretariat is available to members of the Community as they need it. The expectations from the governmental side is that we (i.e. the Permament Secretariat and the NGO groups) will bring in more substance in terms of programs, projects, activities and recommendations. We need funding support and contributions from the various governments in order to make the CofD successful.

Larry Diamond chaired a panel on “Civil Society Initiatives and the Community of Democracies”. Former Ambassador Jeremy Kinsman mentioned fundamental dilemmas on how governments can support democracy and human rights activists. Ambassadors represent their governments in the countries in which they serve, not only to governments but also to civil society, and they need to reach out and work with local leaders and non-governmental organizations. It is insane that we do not talk with moderate Islamists in various Arab and Muslim countries since they represent an important component of their societies and must be included in any genuine democratization process.
Amb. Kinsman urged NGO’s and governments to use, promote, and contribute to the Diplomats’ Handbook. Bob Lagamma then talked about how you build a culture of democracy and focusing on democracy education, mentioned “The Pocantico Conference on Democracy Education in the Middle East and Muslim Africa” and the report issued by CSIS on “Democracy in U.S. Security Strategy – From Promotion to Support“.

Bobby Herman, from Freedom House, spoke about the Convening Group and how it decides which countries to invite to join the Community of Democracies.

Panel on Democracy in Muslim Countries – Challenges and Opportunities

RADWAN MASMOUDI: I want to start by thanking the CCD for inviting, and also DRL for providing the funds, for so many representatives from Muslim-majority countries to attend this meeting.
CSID was established 10 years ago to promote democracy in the Muslim World, and we have been very active in many countries to promote democracy and democratic values and institutions in the Muslim world. So, let me start by mentioning 4 initiatives of CSID that are specifically related to the themes of this meeting.

Network of Democrats in the Arab World (NDAW) – A network of over 1,000 democracy leaders and activists across the Arab World working together to support each other and promote democracy in their respective countries. I am happy that 4 members of the Executive Committee of this network are present today. One of the most important characteristics of this network is that it has succeeded in bringing together both secularists and moderate Islamists, in order to form a joint and united front for democracy, because I and we firmly believe that neither side can do this alone.

Democracy Education. CSID has developed a unique and innovative training methodology and set of 3 textbooks on “Islam & Democracy – Towards an Effective Citizenship” in order to build and promote a culture of democracy in Muslim societies and also to prove and show people that there is no contradiction between Islam and Democracy. So far, we have trained over 4,000 people in the Arab world (including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria).

The Importance of Modernizing Shariah Laws – It is very important not to pit Shariah against Democracy, demonize Shariah laws as some Westerners do, or to ask people to choose between Shariah and Democracy. Shariah simply means “rule of law” and it is in fact open to various interpretations and readings. The Gallup poll which was published last year clearly show that the huge and overwhelming majorityof Arabs and Muslims want both Shariah and Democracy BUT, they want a modern interpretation of Shariah, and they do not want religious leaders to play a clear role in politics. So, we need to promote a modern and progressive interpretation of Shariah, one which is compatible with Islamic values and teachings but also with the principles of human rights and democracy, as we know them today in the 21st century.

Urging Governments to Support Democracy – One of the important roles of NGO’s is to urge their governments and put pressure on them when necessary in order to defend and support democracy around the globe, and CSID has been active in this field especially since the recent elections and victory of President Obama. We have sponsored and published an OPEN letter to President Obama urging him not only to support democracy but also to engage moderate Islamists in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and we have collected over1,600 signatures from leading scholars and activists for the letter.

Reza Eslami-Somea – There are some challenges in understanding Islam and Islamic teachings in the 21st century. Shariah is a body of laws, but some of those laws contradict human rights and democracy. Most Muslim clerics provide the traditional views and opinions of Shariah, mixed with tribal customs. Not all the challenges are with governments, we also need to create a culture of democracy and human rights within everyone. Many NGO’s or opposition parties are not democratic themselves. The opportunities are there because the movement is strong. Many reform-minded religious leaders are also trying to provide a modern and democratic interpretation of Islam. Regional cooperation is also very important.

Mohammad Nasib – Lack of adequate economic development is a still a major handicap because most people think more about their basic needs for survival. There is also lack of effective civic and political institutions or leadership. The question of Islam and democracy also remains an issue in many conservative circles as many people think that democracy is a threat to their religious values. The fact that many Western countries favor their interests over their principles also serves to discredit democracy among many people. Democracy programs have to be cognizant and respectful of local traditional and Islamic values. Quality education programs are vital for the success of democracy in the long run.

Ihsan Dagi – The wrong question – “whether Islam is compatible with democracy?” has blocked real progress and the identification of real obstacles. The problem of lack of democracy is not due to “religious” or “Islamic” values. The primary problem is the position of the ruling elites. Most Muslim people want to see democracy and good governance in their countries. In the Turkish case, the question is: Is Kemalism compatible with democracy? In the six principles of Kemalism, there is no democracy, and these principles are protected by the constitution. Islamic forces and even traditional groups have historically pushed for greater freedoms and democracy in Turkey. The established radical version of secularism (laicite) is a problem for the development of real democracy in Turkey. It defines secularism as a way of life, and not just separation between religion and politics. It is not true that Muslims will always vote for Islamists, because there is real competition between platforms and ideas.

Democratization will not lead to the rise of political Islam, in fact, it will force them to compete with other parties on a more even platform based on programs and accomplishments, and not on slogans or rhetoric. People change their votes depending on historical accomplishments and circumstances. Avoid the notion “Muslim exceptionalism” and refrain from an approach of gradualism, as this is viewed as support for authoritarian governments and for the status quo. You cannot democracy in Palestine without Hamas, or in Egypt without the Muslim Brotherhood. Let them share the burden of being in power rather than continue to enjoy the luxury of being in opposition. The way that Muslims are treated in the West matters to how democracy is perceived in the Muslim world.

The Panel on Building a Network for Muslim Democrats:

Members should be able to benefit from the network. Clear decision-making process is needed within the network. Would like to expand the network of Muslim Democrats, because regional networks are good but there is also a need to share knowledge and experience with other Muslim democrats in other countries and regions. Principle of accountability within democracy should be emphasized in order to stop or reduce corruption. Translating and adapting the CSID textbooks into other languages and other countries.

Middle East Civil Society Final Reports onthe State of Democracy in the Region

The Statement of the Network of Democrats in the Arab World – NDAW

The struggle to build democratic governance in the Arab world has achieved some recent success, notably in Kuwait and Lebanon, but also faces some major challenges and difficulties in most Arab countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

We believe that the war in Iraq and the plight of the Palestinian people continue to be a major impediment to democracy in the region.

The Network of Democrats in the Arab World (NDAW) is deeply concerned about the fact that major European and Western democracies (especially France and Italy) continue to support authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and put their financial benefits and profit-making ahead of concerns or support for human rights and democracy in the Arab world (especially Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia).

We note with great disappointment and dismay that a number of elections have taken place or will soon take place in various Arab countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan) that do not meet the minimum standards and requirements for free and fair elections, without a whisper of concern or condemnation from Western or European democracies.

We believe that secular and Islamic democratic forces in the region must work together to build a united front for democracy in their respective countries, and we urge democracies to support the process of democracy without trying to take sides or favor one side against the other as this is counter -productive and will backfire.

We urge continued support and funding for civil society and non-governmental organizations despite the concerns or protestations of regimes in the region.

Statement of Middle East and North Africa Civil Society Representatives

While the Middle East and North Africa is a pivotal region, it is the last region in the world to democratize. It is still dominated by autocratic regimes that are impeding a meaningful democratic progress. Despite this, budding forces of civil society and democratic hopefuls are slowly gaining grounds.
This was recently demonstrated for example by the fact that in 2007, there were fewer than 100 peaceful acts of civil disobedience (demonstrations, strikes, sits-ins). A year later, this number jumped more than ten folds to over one thousand.

In three other countries moderate and liberal forces have gained ground over conservative and autocratic hardliners. The reference here is to the Lebanese, Kuwaiti, Moroccan, and Iranian elections.
In one of the four, namely Kuwait, four women were elected to parliament for the first time despite vehement opposition by theocratic and tribal forces.

It is these democratic impulses that should be morally, politically, and materially supported by the community of democracies.

We recommend the approval of the following motions:

  • Calling on Middle Eastern members of the Community of Democracies to allow greater public space and increase the margin of freedom for civil society and other democratic forces in their respective countries;
  • Calling on Middle Eastern regimes to cease their periodic crackdown on human rights and democracy activists, and in particular, to keep hands off prominent democracy figures like Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ayman Nour, Abd al-Moneim Abou El-Foutouh, Riyad Turk, Siham Bin Sidreen, Saida al-Ikrimi , and others;
  • Calling for the restoration of the independence of the judiciary as a corner stone for the rule of law which is an imperative for democratic governance;
  • Calling on these regimes to respect the freedom of the Media including the freedom of bloggers who have been systematically shut down or detained in ME countries;
  • Calling on these regimes to remove the legislative and administrative restrictions on the formation and activities of the civil society organizations;
  • Exerting and sustaining pressure on the regimes in the region, including Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia to hold free and fair elections and respect the will of the people;
  • Saluting the young men and women in Iran for their courageous stand in exposing fraudulent electoral practices in their country;
  • Calling on the Community of Democracies to mobilize monitoring bodies and international public figures like Presidents Jimmy Carter and Marry Robinson to demand robust monitoring of the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Middle Eastern countries, notably in Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia in 2010 and 2011;
  • Calling on established members of the Community of Democracies to use creative leverage on autocratic regimes to implement the above motions.

For more info, please visit the website of the Council for the Community of Democracies.



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