In his Cairo address, President Obama pledged to support governments that protect the rights of people to speak their minds and have a say in how they are governed, that respect the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, that are transparent and don’t steal from the people.
“America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them,” said Obama. “And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
The biggest challenge the Obama Administration faces in keeping that promise is finding a way to involve all Islamist movements in the process, according to Reza Aslan, a University of California associate professor of religion. He spoke at a recent conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
Aslan said President Obama must recognize that many of the Islamist groups whose policies and tactics the U.S. opposes are often the most dynamic political groups in the region. And, he notes, political participation has the power to moderate radical tendencies and take away the appeal of extremist ideologies.
Tarik Ramadan, professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University agrees. He said the only criterion for engaging the Islamists should be that they denounce violence as a political weapon and adhere to democratic rules.
“You may agree or not with Islamists trends, as long as they are against violence and are playing the political game, we have to talk to them,” said Ramadan. “There is no way to say you are good Muslim because you are supporting me and you are a bad Muslim because you are resisting me.”
Case in point: Egypt
Ramadan says the real test for President Obama’s support for democracy will be in Egypt. There, Ramadan says, the president has to pressure the Mubarak regime to open the political arena and stop using constitutional amendments to stifle real political competition.
Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, said that creates the sense that the U.S. does not trust Muslims with democracy.
“There is a perception that the U.S. does not really want democracy in the Muslim world because of the fear of what might come out of that and, in particular, that Islamist parties might prevail,” said Kull. “So that it is a key choice that the U.S. has to make; is the U.S. going to show more trust towards the Muslim people in terms of the choices that they may make in a democratic process?”