I was in Doha last week for the US-Islamic World Forum—three days of debate between 247 people from 31 countries on the theme “New voices, new directions.” Held annually since 9/11, the forum builds “bridges of understanding between the United States and the Muslim World” through the creation of “networks of American and Muslim leaders across government and civil society.”
Mostly I came away inspired. I will never forget the passion with which Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman spoke of the courage of Yemeni women whose street protests have rocked not just the regime but also age-old male prejudice. “At first they made fun of us. But then we women swept through the streets and they stopped laughing.”
But the forum also left me troubled in two respects.
First by a pitch that was made by several speakers: throw Israel overboard, or at least send it down to steerage, and the good ship “US-Islamic Relations” will steam ahead. (I’ll write about the attraction that pitch may come to hold for US administrations in a future post.)
Second, I was troubled by a naive approach among some participants toward one of the most ideologically driven political formations in the Islamic world, yet also the wiliest, indeed the most duplicitous: the Ikhwani, or Muslim Brotherhood.
The trouble was the willingness to allow the forum’s debates to shuffle around the categories of “freedom,” “equality,” “democracy,” and “rights.” For as Paul Berman has pointed out, the Ikhwani prefer that kind of kumbaya debate, and for one simple reason: they don’t mean what we mean by such words, and they sense that we don’t realize that! They are masters at finding “words that elide and hide.” We think they are liberalizing Islam. They know they are trying to Islamize—to swallow whole—liberalism.
With the Ikhwani now poised to wield power in several countries, the better approach is to deal only in specifics. That’s why one participant (who must remain nameless under Chatham House rules) asked the constitution writers present to say whether or not they agreed with the following four “no”s (a cheeky reference to an earlier totalitarianism, that of Chairman Mao). First, no religious test for citizenship or for any public position, including president. Second, no second-class citizenship on the basis of religion. Third, no legal impediment or social restriction on the freedom of worship. Fourth, no imposition of religious identity upon the individual by society or state. So, free entry to religion—no coercion—and free exit from religion—freedom of conversion and apostasy.
The silence was deafening.
Photo Credit: Faris knight