It has been a tradition of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum to include an annual task force on governance and reform. The 2009 conversation about these issues which highlighted the impact of oil and globalization on reform efforts marked a shift in focus that was in part informed by the previous sessions and in part by the shifts in the broader perceptions about the nature of relations between the United States and the “Islamic World” as the Obama administration took charge of American foreign policy.
The issues of governance and reform were obviously important for the region and have been debated and discussed for decades. But they emerged as front burner issues for U.S. relations with Muslim countries particularly after 9/11, and following George W. Bush’s focus on spreading democracy as a central theme of American foreign policy. Whether or not this issue will endure as a priority in the post-Bush era remains to be seen. But there can be little doubt that, from the point of view of the future prospects of many Muslim countries and particularly those in the Middle East, the issue of political reform will remain central.
Still, there is no escaping the fact that the discourse about reform and governance in Muslim countries was highly influenced by the way the Bush Administration defined the issues and the way they related to American interests. To begin with, the very notion of speaking of reform in the “Islamic world” assumed a world that had more commonality than divisions and one where the Islamic characteristic was assumed to account for much of the behavior or conditions. At the outset of organizing the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, the initial conveners at the Brookings Institution, of which I was one, understood the potentially problematic nature of defining an “Islamic World” and contemplated alternate ways to characterize the issues. It was understood that, by virtue of adopting conventional discourse one might risk re-enforcing the mistaken notion that the characteristic of being predominantly Muslim, whether religious or cultural, accounts for more than it actually does in countries and regions of interest.