U.S. Relations with the Islamic World

2012 U.S.-Islamic World Forum Gala Dinner and
After-Dinner Panel

Gala Dinner Keynote Addresses
Tuesday, May 29, 7:00 PM-8:30 PM Doha (12:00 PM-1:30 PM ET)

The 2012 U.S.-Islamic World Forum Gala dinner featured keynote addresses by His Excellency Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

In his address of the Gala Dinner, His Excellency Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani spoke of the need to bridge the gap between the Arab World and the United States. He called for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, and called on the United States to play a fair role in brokering that outcome. He also shared his government’s support for the people of Syria, calling on the West to play a greater role in securing a peaceful transition for the nation.

Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, presented the initiatives for development and education that her government had undertaken in Bangladesh, highlighting great strides made in food security, primary school enrollment for both boys and girls, and rural health programs. She also highlighted the importance of religious tolerance, and spoke of Bangladesh as a model of this concept. She referred to religious freedom as a central tenet of her nation, a shared value that underpins the nature of Bangladesh’s friendly relationship with the United States. This peaceful ideal, she said, extends to her nation’s foreign policy: “Our foreign policy dictum is ‘Friendship towards all, Malice towards none’ as established by the Father of the Nation.”  Further, she spoke of how the deep personal pain of having lost many family members to terrorist acts informs and strengthens her leadership in the fight against terrorism at home and worldwide.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, focused his remarks on the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab World, which he refrained from calling the “Arab Spring”, saying that the word “Spring” conjures imagery of a short season, rather than the long, ongoing struggle for democratic governance being witnessed in nations like Egypt and Libya. He spoke hopefully of the political freedoms being gained and exercised throughout Muslim nations, saying that these lead to open debate on policy and rights, which in turn inspires other repressed populations to seek their rights of expression. He warned that the real challenge facing the emerging leaders of the new Middle East is meeting the unmet needs of their populations that led to the original uprising, such as social justice and employment opportunities for young people.

After Dinner Panel Discussion: Confronting Change: Challenge and Opportunity
Tuesday, May 29, 8:30 PM-9:30 PM Doha (1:30 PM-2:30 PM ET)

Moderator: Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow and Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings
Panelists: Abdallah bin Bayyah, Sheikh, King Abdulaziz University; Saeb Erekat, Chief Negotiator, Palestinian Libertation Organization; Tawakkol Karman, Activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate

On Tuesday, May 29, the Gala Dinner of the 2012 U.S.-Islamic World Forum concluded with a panel discussion entitled “Confronting Change: Challenge and Opportunity.” First to speak was Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, the eminent Mauritanian-born cleric based at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University. Sheikh bin Bayyah called for the reaction to the diverse and intense emotions seen in the events of the Arab Spring to be one of compassion and cooperation. Calling the revolutions “cries of anger”, he spoke of the need to find the right system for common ground, with populations needing “proper engineers and architects” to build their new realities based on consensus. He noted that principles of Shari’a emphasize the need for cooperation and merciful treatment, and thus dictate a peaceful and cooperative approach to emerging from the Arab revolutions. He also noted that the Holy Qur’an says that we are responsible for our actions, and thus Arab populations should not resort to blaming setbacks on the path to progress on their historical political enemies.

Saeb Erekat, Chief Negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then addressed the audience, speaking of the ongoing revolutions as the most momentous event for the Arab people of the past thousand years. He noted that efforts had been made by Middle Eastern leaders, such as Muhammad Ali in 19th Century Egypt and Mohammad Mossadegh in 1950s Iran, to assert popular will and gain true self-determination, but that they had been quashed with the help of western powers. He noted that, while chaos is being seen in nations like Libya and Egypt, there is great hope to find order emerging from the chaos, and that those who see struggles there as proof that Arabs are “not ready for democracy” are expressing racist beliefs, and that the popular momentum is so strong that those who think they can crush the Arab aspirations like the west crushed the Mossadegh government are mistaken. As the Arabs gain momentum on the road to democracy, he added, the only way for Palestine to find true democracy would be with a free state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The third panelist was Yemeni journalist, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. She spoke proudly of the role that the youth had played in the Arab revolutions, expressing her belief that this positioned those nations for years of responsive politics based on the participation of those very same young activists. Asked about the “Yemeni model” of managed transition that took place with the forced resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, she mentioned that it could be applied the similarly intractable conflict continuing in Syria – though she stated that, having seen Saleh continue to influence aspects of Yemeni politics, it would be advisable for the Syrian opposition to reject any possibility of immunity for Bashar al-Assad. She said that, based on the need to not only topple a corrupt leader but deconstruct the systems such leaders install and rebuild institutions, the Tunisian model exemplifies the ideal path to follow.