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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Building Democracy in the Muslim World

Address by Lorne Craner
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. State Department

Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Fourth Annual Conference
Washington, DC
May 16, 2003

Thank you Radwan. It’s a pleasure to address the annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Dr. Masmoudi and his team at CSID are doing extremely important work to lay the foundation for the spread of democracy in the Muslim world. I cannot stress how important such efforts are.

I have been honored in my time to introduce Senators and Secretaries of State. But I have had no honor like the one I have tonight, sharing a billing with a hero like Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. His courage and his integrity truly inspire the rest of us who share his goal of advancing democratic values. We are fortunate and very happy that he is with us here tonight instead of languishing in his prison cell. And we look forward to his renewed efforts on behalf of the issues we have all come here to discuss.

I know you heard earlier today from Bill Burns, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. I have known Bill for over ten years, back to the days when he was Dennis Ross’s Deputy under Jim Baker in the first Bush administration.

You will not find a better mind or a more sincere, decent man in our government, and we are all very fortunate that he is working to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to the Middle East. And as Bill told you this afternoon, we all know that absent peace between Arabs and Israelis, and absent democracy in Iraq, our talk about democracy in the rest of the Middle East will get little traction.

Bill knows far more than I ever will about the region. So tonight I want to talk up front, for emphasis, about the broad policy, but then I want to give you my perspective as someone who has for almost two decades worked to advance human rights and democracy in different regions, cultures and societies.

Let me state plainly at the outset the perspective of the United States regarding democracy in the Muslim world. The U.S. Government has turned an important corner in our thinking. From the President on down, support for democratic reform in the Muslim world has moved to the very top of our agenda.

This approach is not solely a result of September 11. There have been voices who understood the need for such a policy for years – Bill Burns and Colin Powell among them – and our numbers were increasing even before that awful day.

But September 11th catalyzed the process and moved the doubters in our government to their proper place. The same old three- decade long approach to the Middle East specifically, and the Muslim world in general, is no longer tenable. There is no longer a Middle East exception.

You are looking at some of the underlying issues that must be resolved for democracy to flourish alongside Islam. The recurring question is whether Islam is compatible with democracy. I believe it is, but we need to discover not just how the two can be compatible, but rather how democracy and Islam can thrive from each other. Most importantly, your Muslim brethren must understand that democracy does not threaten their religion, but improves their lives.

So if you remember only one thing from my talk tonight, remember this: the U.S., for many reasons, has made the commitment to freedom in the region and we will stick to it. I know that many people think that, even if the U.S. is committed, it may be impossible to achieve the goal. We all know many skeptics, American, Europeans and Muslims, who simply believe that democracy can’t be built in the Muslim world. The skeptics point to history or religion or other factors to justify their point of view.

Now as I noted before, I have been in the business of promoting democracy for a long time, well before I took on my current job. We all know how complex and difficult our task in the Middle East is going to be. It takes enormous commitment to build democracy, and there are many obstacles and there will certainly be many setbacks before we reach our goal.

But the skeptics are wrong here, as they’ve been wrong before. I know, because I’ve met their type, the first time half a world away and twenty years ago, in Latin America in the early 1980s. Then, as Carl Gershman, Steve Steiner and others remember, the skeptics, “the experts”, noted how few Latin countries were democracies. They said that, for a variety of reasons, the situation could never improve.

The reason most often noted by the expert skeptics was that the Spanish-inspired “hacienda system” – essentially plantations – had ingrained servitude into the minds of Latins, and that they could therefore only understand rule by “big men”, generals and caudillos. Today, that sounds ridiculous, not to mention condescending. Today, all but one or two of the almost three dozen nations in Latin America are democracies – not perfect and not without imperfections, but democracies nonetheless. And the generals and caudillos are gone. With them went the skeptics of democracy in Latin America.

I met the skeptics again, in the late 1980s, in East Asia. The “experts” said the people of East Asia were not ready for democracy, again for a variety of reasons. The most prominent and patronizing was that the “Asian Way” – a communal way of thinking that we were told came from growing rice – was incompatible with the individual rights on which democracy is based. Over the last fifteen years, the people of Philippines, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, proved that there is no bar to democracy in Asia. Today, the only skeptics about democracy in Asia are the region’s aging authoritarians.

I could go on and on with stories of the skeptics I’ve met in other regions – the Balkans, Africa, on and on. Anyone who supports building democracy in the Muslim world will be operating for sometime in the space – which is growing – between such skeptics here and abroad. We need to overcome these new skeptics, the ones who say “it may have worked elsewhere but it can’t work here because.” We need to show them that people in the Muslim world, as elsewhere, want what people around the world now have – more control over their own lives.

The shortest way to make my point is to note that just twenty- five years ago, there were perhaps thirty democracies in the world. And with the exception of a few countries like India and Japan, democracy was essentially a Western phenomenon. Last fall, I attended the ministerial of the ministerial meeting of the Community of Democracies in Seoul, attended by 107 countries considered either fully democratic or well on the road to democracy.

If we’d had the meeting in 1975, as I noted before, it would have been largely a white boys club. Not now. Participants included African, Asian, Arab, Latin American and South Asian men and women. But even more interesting than the diversity of the attendees was the diversity of democratic systems represented. Each nation had crafted a unique system of democracy that allowed people in their countries, their culture, to control who ruled their country. Seoul illustrated not only that democracy is no longer a western phenomenon, but that it is sustainable and indigenous to every corner of the world precisely because it is homegrown.

That is why when I hear people accusing the U.S. of wanting to impose our model of democracy on Iraq or other countries, I laugh. We know that such an approach is doomed to failure. The United States cannot impose democracy on a country. Our model is suitable only for our own country. We can only help those who want to bring democracy to their own country. Democracy must come from within.

That is why we need to and will listen as you tell us what you need to craft and implement a democratic model that is compatible with your culture, your religion, your society. And indeed, across the Muslim world, people are doing exactly that. As the President noted last week, “about half of all the Muslim people live under democratic rule in nations from Turkey to Indonesia. The governments of Bahrain and Morocco have recently held free elections. Jordan will hold elections next month. The people of Qatar have approved a new constitution guaranteeing basic freedoms. And Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has proposed a new Arab charter calling for internal reform and enhanced political participation in nations of that region.”

As we learn what you need, we are helping diplomatically. We are also putting our money where our mouth is, helping materially. Last fall, Secretary Powell unveiled the Middle East Partnership Initiative, designed to support economic, education and political reform. The budget of this initiative was nearly quadrupled this year. My Bureau’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund is increasing its focus on the Muslim world, more than doubling our programming there.

This is a monumental task, but the moment has never been more conducive to democracy-building in the Middle East. So I wish you the best in this conference and with this historic task. The United States stands with you in words and deed. And you will see our actions speak for our sincerity. Thank you.

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