Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, page 53

Muslim-American Activism

CSID Conference Predicts Improvement in Muslim-U.S. Relations

THE CENTER for Study on Islam and Democracy (CSID) held its tenth annual conference, on the theme: “How to Improve Relations with the Muslim World: Challenges and Promises Ahead,” at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel, in Arlington, VA on May 5. CSID president Dr. Radwan Masmoudi welcomed attendees, saying he hoped panel discussions throughout the day could help clear up misunderstandings which have increased in the past 8 to 10 years. “Nearly 50 percent of Americans think Islam encourages terrorism and violence. Nearly 85 percent of people in the Muslim world think America is at war with Islam,” Masmoudi said. With the election of President Barack Obama, he noted, whose father was Muslim, there is a “new window of opportunity“ to develop programs to improve relations.

Dr. Tamara Sonn, chair of CSID’s program committee, introduced an all-female panel which discussed, “Developing Democracy in the Arab World.” Geneive Abdo, a foreign policy expert from the Century Foundation think tank, discussed “the Islamist dilemma.” The West wants democracy in the Middle East but fears election results, she said, and is reluctant to engage Islamist political parties. The West helps manipulate the electoral process to prevent Islamist parties from running or winning and bringing about badly needed reforms, and even gives the green light to repress Islamist groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Abdo (a former Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, correspondent from Egypt) reminded listeners that when opposition parties become part of the political process they often moderate their views, so it’s important to engage popular Islamist movements.

Turning to new U.S. efforts to engage Iran in order to end Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, Abdo said Israel has created unrealistic, unhelpful benchmarks, including imposing a six-month limit to dialogues before launching military actions.

Cecile Coronato, a legislative assistant with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), discussed Iranian civil society. Noting that the nuclear issue has overshadowed any discussion about what Iranians want from the United States, Coronato said Iranians want support for their efforts to bring freedom of expression and democracy. However, she added, U.S. support for regime change is actually “counterproductive” to their efforts.

Iranians also want people-to-people engagement, an end to economic sanctions, as well as the easing of restrictions on visas for Iranians, especially students. Increasing contacts between private citizens and businesses will strengthen the middle class and help foster better relations with a new generation of Iranians and Americans, Coronato concluded.

Dr. Sudha Ratan discussed the integration of women into democratic governance, and compared the situation of women in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

“Women are like the canary in the coal mine,” she explained. “What happens to women shows where societies are headed.” In countries where there are policies enforcing the integration of women into state institutions, women are doing well. In countries where women are caught in the crossfire of conflicts, or economic difficulties, women take the brunt. Educated and affluent women empower themselves, Ratan said, and added that the Qur’an and progressive Islam can empower women.

Abdo added that if Iran were left alone and not forced into “crisis mode,” women could flourish. Women’s rights have become a code word in Iran for Western values, which are not so desirable.

Delinda C. Hanley

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