Forum Provides a Glimpse into the New Middle East

Michael Doran
Michael Doran Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Hudson Institute

May 29, 2012

I just came out of the first session of the US-Islamic World Forum, and I followed the Twitter feed on the event as it unfolded in real time. For anybody under 35, such a Twitter-enhanced experience is hardly worth mentioning, but for me it was something new and exotic. I came away very impressed with my colleagues and fellow attendees, Shadi Hamid and Omar Ashour, who were tweeting in English and in Arabic. In Shadi’s case, he also fired off a tweet or two about Egypt. This ability to multitask in multiple languages is awe inspiring, and I hereby confess, with no little sense of failure, that I will never reach that level of proficiency.

The session was entitled “Political Change: The Dynamics of Domestic Transformations.” Here’s a small taste. Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamic Nahda party in Tunisia, depicted the rise of the Islamists as a case of self-determination, pure and simple. An agreed article of the constitution, he explained, now defines the Tunisia, officially, as Arab and Islamic. It came as a surprise, he stressed, that the Western democracies refrained from supporting the tyrant, Ben Ali, and his counterparts in other countries.  In doing so, the West established the basis for a better relationship with the Muslim world.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, asked about the status of religious minorities.  Sheikh Ghannouchi responded that, as we have seen in Islamic Spain and in the Prophet’s state in Medina, Islam respects Christians and Jews. It was certainly gratifying to hear the Sheikh extol the virtue of tolerance.  But he spoke in generalities and did not address the embattlement of Christians in, for instance, Egypt.

Hossam Bahgat, the Founder and Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights spoke on related issues from a different perspective.  He pronounced the Muslim Brotherhood the clear winner in Egyptian politics.  That victory, he said, was a reversal of the revolution that he had supported—the revolution, I assumed he meant, that sought to enshrine the principle of individual liberty.

For me, the session reinforced the sense that a window onto a more tolerant and democratic Middle East has indeed been cracked, but it was in danger of being closed.  History is replete with examples of beautiful windows being slammed shut violently.  As if to remind me of this fact, my Twitter feed was packed with news of the Houla massacre in Syria, where, God forbid, the window might be closing before our very eyes.