21st Annual Conference

CSID 21st Annual Conference 

Why the US should Support Democracy in the Muslim World, and How?


Thursday, June 1, 2023     |    The Mayflower Hotel, Washington D.C.



The 21st Annual Conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) was held on June 1, 2023 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC on the theme of “Why the US Should Support Democracy in the Muslim World, and How.” 

The Conference began with opening remarks by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Chair of the CSID Board of Directors and Professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. Remarking that this is the first gathering in person since 2019, she reflected that the last meeting had a certain sense of poignancy and emergency attached to our concerns for democracy and democratic values, particularly in the context of the Trump Administration. And three years later, this sense of urgency remains, as democracies globally continue to be threatened by authoritarianism, anti-immigrant populism, and Islamophobia. She brought up the case of Tunisia, and the recent arrest of Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, lamenting that our understanding of Tunisia as the sole success story of the Arab Spring has now reverted to what we must reluctantly call an aborted Arab Spring. 

CSID has been pushing hard to wrestle with these issues, and given that the U.S. has the most global power, we will explore in particular how the U.S. stands to promote democracy in the Muslim world, particularly given its lack of consistency in doing so. 

Dr. Fahmi


In her opening remarks. Prof. Dalia Fahmy, Chair of the Program Committee, welcomed everyone to the 21st Annual Conference of CSID, which has been at the forefront of educating the public and the policymakers about the compatibility between Islam and democracy, and the necessity for the United States to put promotion of democracy and human rights around the globe, and particularly the Muslim World, among its top foreign policy priorities, and and not supporting and defending oppressive and tyrannical regimes, or coup d’etats, in the name of “stability”, at the expense of human rights, accountability, and democracy.




The Cost of Authoritarianism: Assessing U.S. Middle East Policy in the Long Term



The first panel of the conference was a riveting one titled 


“The Cost of Authoritarianism: Assessing US Middle East Policy in the Long Term.” 


It featured Sarah Lee Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN), Wa’el Elzayat, CEO of the advocacy organization Emgage, Dr. Ismail Numan Telci, Vice President of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at ORSAM in Turkey, and Dr. Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. 


Sarah Lee Whitson began the discussion by reflecting on how successive US administrations have signaled big plans for a new foreign policy, predicated on a withdrawal from the Middle East, only to find themselves more deeply ensnared in the region. Whitson centered her discussion on the Biden administration. Despite its earlier promises to center its foreign policy on human rights, she maintained, the Biden administration has in its latest steps completely abandoned any putative re-calibration of its relationships with dictatorships in the region. 


Coining the neologism “from withdrawal to full service shop,” Whitson began with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and withdrawal of some US Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia, as well as a cut in military spending to Saudi Arabia, as the early phase of the Biden Administration’s policy shift. But in reality, she maintained, the factual record demonstrates that these promises of a paradigm shift in Middle East policy in the end proved futile. She relies at length on a speech made by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (WINEP) on May 3, in which he clarified the administration’s updated priorities for a stable, integrated, and prosperous Middle East. He identified: Partnerships, Deterrence, Diplomacy and De-Escalation, Integration, and Values. 


Whitson described Sullivan’s speech as a full-throttled manifesto designed to put a nail on the coffin of any talk of a pivot from the Middle East. No longer even bothering to mention a national security interest in preserving or promoting democracies against authoritarianism, a point raised in the administration’s previous two democracy summits. In Sullivan’s recent speech, he omits the word democracy altogether, save in reference to our own imperfect government. Sullivan’s emphasis on partnerships are not predicated on the values of those putative partners, but on the transactional value they stand to provide. Accordingly, the fact that the bulk of our partners in the region are oppressive regimes no longer concerns the administration. 

Whitson ended with the reminder that we should be focusing on the emerging multipolar reality, which stands to harm not only people in the region, but also threatens American democracy more broadly. 





Alzayat invoked Edward Said’s thesis on Orientalism, to argue that we are presently confronting an updated version of Orientalism among new foreign policy practitioners within both the Republican and Democratic parties. They reject the notion that people of the Middle Eat are capable of self-rule, and devise foreign policy prescriptions accordingly. To bolster his case, Alzayat reminded his audience that the US has now spent over $75 billion on the war in Ukraine – a war he saw as totally worthwhile, to defend a sovereign country under illegal attack by its neighbor. Yet that same visceral identification and love for a people and its democracy doesn’t extend to the Arab world. And that lack of identification, Alzayat maintained, costs the United States dearly. 

He drew a direct parallel between the events of January 6th and America’s unwillingness to help the people of Syria: the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s bombardment, with impunity from the United States and international community, gave rise to right-wing elements all over Europe. That xenophobic sentiment, moreover, was weaponized by Donald Trump, who came to power promising a ban on “Muslims entering the United States”. This topic, moreover, was a subject of considerable debate during the question-and-answer period.

He ended with the reminder that we need to invest in a new cadre of foreign policy leaders and thinkers who are values-aligned, and are committed to democratic governance and respect for human rights, both here and abroad. 




Next came Dr. Shadi Hamid, who recollected experiences nearly twenty years ago under the Bush Administration. For all the misdeeds of that administration, Hamid maintained, it did temporarily offer a moment of optimism, during Bush’s proposed Freedom Agenda. Living in Jordan at the time, Hamid felt a sense of possibility then, just as he did again in 2011, only for both moments to give rise to the pessimism of the present moment. 

At present, U.S. policymakers are obsessed with the Middle East being “stable,” which Hamid interpreted as relying on the myth of authoritarian stability. Yet, a cursory glance at U.S. support for authoritarian regimes over the past several decades in the Middle East reveals an utter lack of stability in the medium to long term. The Arab Spring, he maintained, was an indictment of this ‘stability-first’ policy; mass uprisings were a direct rejection of that paradigm. Hamid then nodded at his co-panelist Wa’el Alzayat that the rise of Trump was a direct response to the failures of the Obama Administration in Syria and in Egypt. Hamid remains firm that supporting democracy in the Middle East is a moral imperative, but he has lost hope in the notion that appeals to morality will prove persuasive to US policymakers. Instead, he stressed the need to emphasize that authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable. And when the Arab world inevitably experiences another round of mass uprisings, we will be returning to these same debates. 


Hamid referred to some thirty interviews he conducted with senior US officials working on the Middle East, in the current and previous administrations. These are people with strong convictions, and deep sense of morality. As was President Obama, whose sense of morality regrettably did not prevent him from relying on a retrograde understanding of Muslim societies, seeing them as desperately in need of a Reformation. This orientation towards Arabs and Muslims has been in place since the 50’s, and even well-intentioned policymakers will be forced to work against it. Accordingly, George W. Bush in 2007 lamented that he saw himself as a dissident in fighting for democracy in the region. 


Undoing these structural limitations at even the highest levels of government requires fundamentally reorienting the thrust of our Middle East policy. The structure of U.S. policy will need to change, though Hamid didn’t have the best answer for how to accomplish this. He did say, though, that a new generation of principled policymakers and activists working on the Middle East can stand to do transformative work when the next major opening resembling an Arab Spring takes place in the region. 




Following Shadi Hamid, the panel was concluded by Dr. Ismail Numan Telci, who directed his talk to the case of Tunisia. He saw Tunisia as exceptional on five fronts: it had some extant democratic institutions, it had a distinctly non-violent regime change, there was the inclusion of democratization, there was a functioning civil society, and in the beginning there was little foreign interference. Sadly, the latest attacks on Tunisian democratic institutions has compromised Tunisia’s exceptional status in this regard. He then pointed out that the Middle East is a fundamentally different place from past decades, because the United States is no longer the sole external actor there. Still, the United States has a unique role in the Tunisian political process. 


Dr. Numan emphasized that the U.S. should support democratic values and institutions in Tunisia, exerting diplomatic pressure to push for democracy and defend civil society. He then turned to Europe, pointing out how democratic backsliding in Tunisia might directly affect European countries with repercussions like migration waves, or even the reemergence of terrorist groups. Thus, in supporting democracy in Tunisia, the United States can serve as a global example. In so doing, it can improve its diminishing image across the masses in the wider Middle East. 




Middle East Authoritarianism and the subversion of Western democracy:

A Conversation with David Kirkpatrick



Following this first panel came an open conversation between Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, and David Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since December 2022, following a 22 year stint as a reporter for the New York Times in New York, Washington, Cairo, and London. During that tenure he received three Pulitzer Prizes, and was Bureau Chief in Cairo from 2010 to 2015. 

Hashemi began with a quote by Robert Fisk that “journalists write the first draft of history,” then he thanked Kirkpatrick for writing such an illuminating first draft. He referred to Kirkpatrick’s latest piece in the New Yorker, “The Dirty Secrets of a Smear Campaign,” which set the stage for the discussion between the two. Hashemi and Kirkpatrick began by discussing the story, a tale of personal tragedy of an innocent person unfairly victimized, then moved to discuss how the story relates to the core themes of the conference. 


Kirkpatrick then gave the broad strokes of his essay, chronicling an American passport holder of Egyptian descent, living in Switzerland but carrying the baggage of being a son of a prominent Muslim Brother. Hazem has little interest in his father’s native country, and instead invested in his scientific training (Ph.D. in applied math from Imperial College) to found a very successful oil trading company. But this success is compromised by an internet campaign against him accusing him of being tied to terrorism, which comes to compromise his business as banks refuse to lend to him. He eventually goes bankrupt, and at the nadir of personal ruin, he receives an ominous text message from a group of hackers that offer to reveal who destroyed him and his company. 


This hacking ensemble reveals that he was targeted by private investigators working on behalf of the United Arab Emirates, who grasping at straws were trying to show their clients had *some* connections to Islamist terrorism, however tenuous (or farcical). Hazem was thus a pawn in an Islamophobic conspiracy aided and abetted by a Muslim authoritarian regime. Hazem’s story, then, went beyond the UAE, but dealt with the role of authoritarian regimes abroad circumventing democracy even in the West – and relying on Islamophobic conspiracies to do so. Hazem was not the only victim of these conspiracies; many individuals and charity organizations, like Islamic Relief, were similarly subject to smear campaigns, forcing them to divert their budget away from charitable projects to legally defend themselves. 


Nader discussed the role of authoritarian regimes in damaging the reputations and lives of private citizens – even American citizens. So authoritarian regimes go beyond destroying democracy in their own country, they also undermine it in the West. He brought up the final passage in the article, quoting Ron Diebert of the University of Toronto, “anyone with enough cash these days can hire a private Mossad. Subversion is a big business. As it spreads, so do the practices and culture of impunity that go with it.” 


The conversation then proceeded with deeper questions about how to circumvent politically-closed authoritarian regimes monkeying around in the relatively open American political process. Is the solution to close off our political process? Additionally, it proceeded with deeper questions about the role of Islamophobia weaponized specifically by Muslim autocrats.

The conversation ended with a reminder that one of the most powerful defenses of a robust democracy is a free press, and Nader thanked David for offering precisely that service. 



Keynote Luncheon:

Democratic Backsliding and Threats to Democracy in the Arab World



Following this open conversation with David Kirkpatrick, the conference proceeded to the Keynote Luncheon. Titled “Democratic Backsliding and Threats to Democracy in the Arab World,” it was moderated by Radwan Masmoudi, Founder and President of CSID.


Masmoudi opened with the reminder that in 2018, the CSID keynote speaker, in the same room and platform, was the martyred Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He thus asked the audience to offer a moment of silence and prayer on Khashoggi’s behalf. Masmoudi continued that five years later, the fight for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world continues, with several setbacks. He referred at length to the case of Tunisia, in which democratic backsliding goes against established U.S. laws and interests. 


Dr. Masmoudi


More specifically, U.S. law prohibits offering any kind of support to a country that witnessed a military coup, yet the Biden administration is ostensibly not abiding by this law. Similarly, Masmoudi brought up how the bulk (nearly 70%) of aid offered to Tunisia since 2011 has been in the form of military and security aid, a fact that has led to a dramatic expansion in the Tunisian military unseen in the country’s history. 




Rather than being an addendum to Tunisian society, the military is now a central part of the state apparatus, with several still-in-uniform generals now serving as ministers. 

Masmoudi offered these warnings in the context of introducing the keynote speakers, who offered a more hopeful evaluation for democracy in the region. 


First was Damon Wilson, President and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Wilson emphasized that even amid democratic setbacks, the world overwhelmingly supports democracy. This fact is bolstered by protests in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, and by Muslims in China. Throughout the Muslim world, we continue to see a demand for freedom, but we also see authoritarians equally committed to stifling it. 


Democracy is, of course, not perfect, but over the long term democratic societies offers higher economic and political freedoms, growth, and stability. The National Endowment for Democracy sees this desire for freedom as universal, and the Muslim world is no exception to it. 


Wilson then brought up the Golden Age of Islamic history in the 8th century, to push back against the racist proposition that Arab and Muslim societies are somehow incapable of democratic governance. Islamic civilization’s cultural and economic achievements demonstrate that there is no inherent contradiction between democratic and Islamic values, that Islamic principles recognize individual freedoms, human dignity, the rule of law, and consultative decision making. 


The region’s obstacles to democracy are thus more of a product of political, historic, and economic factors than religious exceptionalism. Rather, the biggest challenges to democracy are autocrats doing everything they can to stifle popular demands for democracy. 


Still, we as a democratic community must support democracy and its advocates even in places where it seems impossible. And the NED’s work has allowed it precisely to double down on defending democratic advocates around the world. As an independent organization, the NEDhas been able to weather the storm of this or that political climate. Such that when the United States suddenly pulled out of Afghanistan two years ago, the NED was able to stand by its partners and evacuate them to safety, even as they double down support for Afghan democrats remaining inside the country, under the Taliban, such that Afghanistan today remains one of its largest programs. 


Even as American policy makers often give in to the false promise that partnerships with military dictatorships offers stability, the NED recognizes that this stability is short-lived, and hurts American interests fin the long run. The NED has instead been steadfast in its commitment to support democratic movements and organizations around the world. 


The current threats to democracy in the Muslim world, Wilson emphasized, are not isolated incidents, but are linked to global collaborative authoritarian regimes committed to undermining democracy. Bolstered by invasive technologies, regimes like China and Russia are undermining democratic efforts around the world. 


Still, even as democratic aspirations have not produced the results we have sought in recent years, we know that defenders of democracy provide the crucial foundation for the next chapters of the democratic renewal. Accordingly, we owe it to those courageous enough to fight for freedom in the region to stand with them and their aspirations. 




Following Wilson’s speech came Dr. Amaney Jamal, Dean of the Princeton University School for Public and International Affairs.


She began her discussion with the genesis both of CSID and of the Arab Barometer project she runs at Princeton, both of which are products of a post-9/11 world. In both cases the issue on the table is whether there is support for democracy in the Middle East and Muslim world.



Whereas CSID approached this from an advocacy perspective, Dr. Jamal and her colleague Mark Tessler took to documenting public opinion in the region, making it accessible to policy makers, practitioners, and educators about what Arabs really think.


The Arab Barometer has been conducted since 2006, involving over 125,000 personal interviews, 87 nationally representative surveys, and seven waves across 16 countries providing trend data on how views have changed and evolved. The Arab Barometer is now commencing its wave 8 of research, with data being open source and publicly available for analysis. 


Dr. Jamal emphasized that democracy is not an overnight process, and that transitions to democracy take time. Despite whatever setbacks Arab societies have endured, Arab citizens still overwhelmingly believe in democracy. But queries offer more nuance to how that support manifests itself. Respondents reported increasing economic frustrations under democratic transitions. There was also an upward trend that democratic regimes are indecisive and full of problems. There is more stability in Arab monarchies, which explains why countries that undergo regular electoral contests is where we see the idea of indecisiveness take hold.


But as pushback, Jamal reminded us that the fear of democratic contestation is not necessarily negative or indicative of a rejection of democratic values. Even among economically struggling countries, the majority felt that democracy is better than alternative systems of government. This is important because there are misinformation campaigns targeting the region the convince the citizens that democracy is counterproductive. Despite these campaigns, citizens remain steadfast in their commitment to democracy.


What accounts for changing views? One concern is influence from autocracies like China, Russia, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, who deliberately undermine democratic thought. There is also the issue of less-than-perfect government performance in MENA during the ‘democratic transitions.’ Finally, these changing views are in line with global retrenchment of democracy more broadly. The China model is a challenge to the correlation between democracy and economic development. Accordingly, countries that feel democracies lead to weaker economy all want a stronger relationship with China. Economic issues, moreover, often trump a desire for democracy at the outset. Similarly, many support a leader who bends the rules in order to get things done, even separated by education brackets. 


Jamal then moved specifically to Tunisia, where she noticed considerable trust in the President after his suspension of parliament in late 2021, shortly after the July 25 coup. There was a renewed sense of economic optimism among Tunisians as well. Whether this will be maintained in wave 8 will be the ultimate litmus test.


In conclusion, she discussed how democracy works. The primary characteristic of democracy, to Arab citizens, meant jobs for all, and to a lesser extent government ensuring law and order. Concerns over free elections and freedom of the press mattered, but not as much as a country’s economic viability. A clear majority in the MENA region still think democracy is the best system of governance, but it is no longer understood as a panacea – likely because of the weakness of democratic experiments in the region, and the rise of authoritarian alternative models.


MENA citizens are primarily concerned with a system that will deliver results, and the majority understand democracy in substantive terms (economic and political outcomes) over purely procedural terms. 




Political Islam and Democracy: A 45-year Retrospective


Following lunch came the third panel, on Political Islam and Democracy: A 45-year Retrospective. Moderated by Dan Brumberg of Georgetown University, Brumberg began by identifying democracy as used by Philip Schmitter, defining it as a system of institutions, norms, rules, values, laws, that prevent the political exclusion of any group that agrees to practice politics peacefully. Anything else would be electoral autocracy. 




The panel began with Jocelyne Cesari from the University of Birmingham, who discussed Political Islam, in contradistinction to Islamism. The main narrative talks with Islamic political parties resisting a secular state. Offering a quote by Saddam Hussein discussing the concept of jihad, Cesari offered a definition of political Islam as a multiform set of political cultures, intimately tied to the nation-state.




It is premised on religion as a community, which entails expectations shared by individuals about the religious dimensions of their lives and community. Such a standpoint, moreover, is effective without the active awareness of those experiencing it and systematically translated into political parties or competition for power. She teased out distinctions between Muslim political culture and Islamic ideology more broadly. 


Whereas political Islam is a political culture, Islamism is a product of that political culture, whereby Islamist movements operate within the national frame, building on existing connections between citizenship and Muslim identity. Islamism assumes the state is the guardian of religious morality, and is thus concerned about the moral behavior of citizens.


Offering Turkey as a case study, she offered a series of political consequences of this binary between political Islam and Islamism. It requires taking into account the status of Islam within each national political culture, as well as expanding our understanding of the political power dynamic beyond the state. Additionally, Cesari advocated discarding predictions of the end of political Islam, arguing for transformation rather than termination. 



Next Dr. Monica Marks, Assistant Professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, spoke about “Ennahdha and Tunisia’s Transition: A Forensic Look at What Went Wrong”. Marks teased out the term “Islamism,” reminding her reader that the terms “Islamist” and “secular” must be problematized in the context of Tunisia and Ennahdha. 


Under prior Tunisian dictatorships, there was considerable propaganda against Ennahdha, seeking to present it as a terrorist group, rather than a center-right political party seeking to participate in free and fair elections.



Indeed, Ennahdha got much right, having properly participated in the political process, and going as far as giving up the entire house. This proclivity, moreover, has served as a lesson for Islamists around the region, convincing them that even the deepest compromises will not sufficiently lead to their acceptance. Ennahda leadership maintained compromises, not only on classically Islamist issues, but on important political issues like transitional justice and fighting corruption. However, Ennahda started to stumble in its pivot between giveaways and making the necessary reforms for Tunisia’s democracy to survive in its second phase. Ennahda did not sufficiently focus on an economic reform program, nor did it throw its full weight behind developing Tunisia’s judiciary.


Marks insisted that we need to transcend the Islamist and secularist framework and divisions. Kais Saied, in her estimation, is not really a secularist in the first place. 




Following Dr. Marks, Dr. Andrew March, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst spoke about the turn to “Muslim Democracy.” This was discussed in the early years of the AKP in Turkey, as well as with Ennahda in Tunisia.


In both contexts, members of these political parties insisted that they are not Islamists but Muslim Democrats. This poses the question, if Muslim democracy is a turn, what is it a turn from, and what is it a turn to? What is this in terms of a political structural analysis? And what does this mean from an ideological or doctrinal standpoint? 


In terms of a political structural analysis, we need to distinguish between movements calling themselves Muslim democrats in semi-authoritarian regimes and those operating in fully democratic contexts. In one sense, we can think of this as a ‘rebranding,’ for the purpose of electoral efficacy. But it can also be understood as a kind of signaling to other parties, moving from a counter-revolution politics to an internal regime-oriented politics. 


But for those interested in political Islam as a distinct kind of political ontology or vision, what is Muslim democracy a turn from? Traditionally, Islamism is an ideological movement characterized by possession of a grand idea, which presents an alternative to secularism and nationalism. Without this grand idea, the phenomenon doesn’t make much sense. That aside, Islamism encompasses a sovereigntist imaginary. Muslim democrats repeatedly double down on sovereignty, emphasizing that both God and the people are sovereign. Muslim democracy is primarily a turn to the issue of the concept of freedom, to organize politically, to be independent of the state. As an addendum to that, Muslim democrats recognize actually existing pluralism, and accept even their purported enemies as part of the political community.


Muslim democracy sets aside the idea of God’s sovereignty, and sees politics as a legitimate venue to pursue their ideological commitments and resolve diverging opinions about the state and about religion.




Dr. March was followed by Dr. Deina Abdelkader, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Abdelkader spoke about how political mobilization takes place in post-revolutionary contexts in the Arab and Muslim world. She discussed how informal networks operate, and how actors calculate their actions.


Comparative democratization demonstrates that regional cases, like the Global South, needs to be theoretically included in our studies of politics. Abdelkader then offered the reminder that in the Global South, we must contest with the power of the military, both in terms of its power over politics and the economy. Similarly, we must contest with antagonistic secularism, which presents both an existential crisis in its conflict with rival Islamically-oriented projects, as well as a debasement of the indigenous culture.


She then contended with U.S. foreign policy, referring to “anchor states,” which regardless of their repression are seen as critical to U.S. interests. She offered Egypt as an example of an anchor state, too important for the United States to let go, thereby justifying a bloated military aid budget. Democratic transitions thus require that these multiple overlapping challenges, from dismissing the democratic aspirations of anchor states to the antagonistic secularism guiding much of its politics, be properly confronted. 


The panel was concluded with William Scott Harrop, doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Harrop took a break with his colleagues, in analyzing democratic transition in Tunisia through the prism of Thomas Jefferson. He discussed correspondences between Jefferson and John Adams, which stand to offer formative lessons for the Arab Spring.

He then moved on to offer some stark comparisons between the rise of the alt-Right in the United States and antidemocratic forces in the Middle East, remarking how he finished teaching a course on the Arab Spring just as American white nationalists descended on the UVA campus. Returning to Jefferson, he wrestled with Jefferson’s observations about revolution, his support for the French Revolution, and his simultaneous skepticism for revolutions in Latin America.





The Role of Islamic Values in Building a Just Society and Political System



The fourth panel, on The Role of Islamic Values in Building a Just Society and Political System was moderated by Asma Afsaruddin. 


It began with Mark Tessler, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Tessler spoke on what Islam really says about the rights, status, and behavior of women, and the interpretations of Islam embraced by ordinary Muslim citizens in the Arab world. He offered multiple varying viewpoints on women among Muslim thinkers, ranging from restrictive to extremely liberated. 


Relying on data from the Arab Barometer, Tesslerdemonstrated a very diverse understanding of whether women are required to wear headscarves, whether Islam permits unsegregated classes, and other metrics on gender relations. 


He then offered some regression analysis to show that age and education play a formative role in responses, with both older age and more education giving rise to more liberal interpretations of Islam. 

He ended with the reminder that the assessments people place on Islam is not a monolith, and is largely a basis of unique demographics. 



The second speaker was Mustafa Aykol, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, who spoke on how Islamic values can contribute to building a free society. 


Akyol discussed the lengthy history of Christianity, and its long track record of persecution and intolerance, and the idea of the divine right of kings. Christianity was forced to wrestle with these tensions in its reinterpretation. He brought up liberal thinkers like John Locke, who offered a new interpretation of Christianity that rejected the divine right of kings, but instead emphasized the right of men to live freely and maintain a contractual relationship with rulers. 


Aykol offered the corollary that an Islamic liberalism has been in development for the past two centuries, that has offered novel interpretations of the religious tradition that emphasize freedom. He referred to the Young Ottomans, as well as to Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi in Tunisia, both of whom emphasize freedom as central to Islam. Akyol then suggested that this critical perspective developed in the 19th century was largely lost in the 20th century, both owing to colonialism and to secular dictatorships. He suggested that Muslims today need to wrestle with the history of the shari’ah, particularly as it pertains to questions of freedom. 


He argues for freedom as central to the classical shari’ah, in that the shari’ah did not come from the ruler, but from a higher power that empowered people to even hold the ruler to account. He doubled down on the separation of powers as being central to Islamic civilization before thinkers like Montesquieu codified them. Yet he lamented this separation of powers as being lost in the 20th century.

Akyol lauded Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia, and addressed Ghannouchi’s views on the historical function of the shari’ah to hold rulers to account, as well as his emphasis on public freedoms.


Aykol was followed by Youssef Chouhoud, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University. Chouhoud discussed the issue of gender equality in the MENA region, by focusing on Tunisia as a test case. 


Beginning with the premise that democracy augments gender equity and equality, Chouhoud offered theoretical pushback, with the reminder that in MENA secular autocrats often weaponize gender concerns for their own gain. Prior to the 2011 Tunisian revolution, he documented sweeping reforms in family law under Bourguiba, including a minimum marriage age and a strict abolition of polygamy. Under Ben Ali, these gender protections expanded. 



After the revolution, we see a major expansion in women’s participation in government. Yet these wins are also balanced alongside challenges to gender equity, particularly to inheritance laws. Bourguiba didn’t want that smoke, of challenging the Quranic legal premise that men inherit twice as much as women. Post revolution, Beji Caid Essebsi's government proposed a draft law establishing parity between women and men in matters of inheritance in 2018. But this was met with a strong pushback from the masses, as well as the religious elites.


Chohoud then discussed his own survey research on gender equity in Tunisia. He found strong support for gender equity in his research, with the exception of the inheritance laws. Accordingly, he concluded that theoretical and empirical assessments should take this distinction into account, as inheritance falls outside the scope of gender equality matrices. Accordingly, both foreign and domestic policymakers should critically assess the backlash effects stemming from this issue.


Chohoud was followed by Prof. Lindsay Benstead, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at Portland State University. She sought to explain voter preferences in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Beginning with the empirical question of why voters vote for religious parties, she reflected on the extant literature, which suggests that they do so owing to programmatic appeals, particularly religious ideology, as well as economic programs. 


But owing to a lack of data, the literature has less to say about the role of clientelism and individualized services.


Yet, Benstead pushes back against this literature, arguing that Ennahdha proved successful precisely because of its utilization of clientistic services to mobilize voters between 2011 and 2014. Ennahdha provided more constituency service than other parties, and was more successful in translating these services into electoral support. She uses election data to demonstrate not only that clientelism proved more effective in explaining Ennahdha’s electoral successes than ideology, but that it also won over a critical mass of women through clientelism as well. 


She concluded that organizational capacity and services are key for electoral support in political transitions.


The panel was concluded by Marko Veković, Professor and Executive Editor of Politics and Religion Journal, Belgrade, Serbia. He made the case that democratization in the Middle East is deeply crucial for the Balkans. 


He began with the case of Ivo Andric, Yugoslav novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. Himself a product of Bosnia’s Ottoman influence, Andric made deeper reflections on the impact of the Ottoman legacy on Bosnian society. 



Veković then offered data that a critical mass of fighters from the Balkans wound up joining ISIS. He saw this as a product of the influence of the Middle East on Muslims in the Balkans, with the Balkans serving as a playground for Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. Accordingly, democratization in the Middle East will surely impact the Balkans as well.



Concluding Keynote Speech: 


A Message from Tunisia:


The Role of the International Community in Defending and Supporting Democracy in Tunisia


Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi

Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament 2019-2021




The conference concluded with a final keynote, delivered on behalf of Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi. Sheikh Rached had agreed to join the conference and deliver this message in person, but his recent arrest by the Tunisian authorities precluded his physical presence. 


In his place, his speech was delivered by Ahmed Gaaloul, Member of the Executive Committee of the Ennahdha Party. Gaaloul began by referencing a speech Ghannouchi made during the gathering of the Salvation Front on the 25th of Ramadan, which marked a radical step forward in his own thinking. This speech was likely the reason he was arrested, Gaaloul commented.


Gaaloul then moved to articulate Ghannouchi’s project as a historical reconciliation between secular life and Islamic life, a project begun during the 90s during his exile in London. Additionally, Gaaloul articulated Ghannouchi’s project as a historical reconciliation between former President Habib Bourguiba and (Abdel Aziz) al-Th‘aalbi, the former a modernist and the latter a reformist Muslim thinker, whose thinking was linked to other Muslim reformists like Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi and Tahir Ibn ‘Ashour. Ghannouchi also offered a reconciliation with the Zaytuna University elite, which helped develop ideas of Muslim democracy. 


When he returned to Tunisia, in 2011, his work on the implementation of these thoughts was not a coalition between Islamists and other Islamists, but between Islamists and distinctly secularists forces. Ghannouchi made it a point to push for broad coalitions. The more recent coalition he pushed for was with Nidaa Tounes, further demonstrating his commitment to pluralism. 


When speaking at the gathering of the Salvation Front, he was pointing to an image in which all the political elite were imprisoned by Kais Saied. These elites go across the ideological spectrum in Tunisia. Ghannouchi pointed to them as the exemplification of the success of the Tunisian elite, in overcoming the historical hurdle from which most of the Arab elite are still suffering. In contradistinction to this group, he identified Kais Saied as a representation of the counter-revolution, which is wholly detached from the Tunisian Revolution. Ghannouchi concurs that Saied is more Islamist than Ennahdha. In that context, he condemned Saied’s constitutional provision that the state alone is the purveyor of maqasid al-din (higher objectives of religion). He declared this provision as bribery, and refused to accept it. 


Gaaloul describes himself as a deep student of Ghannouchi, having been with him since 1994 in London. He has been intimately involved in Ghannouchi’s study circle (halaqa), has seen these ideas develop, and is amazed at how these ideals have come full circle. Ghannouchi and his circle believe in these democratic values out of conviction, not out of a base desire to come to power, or because those values are embraced by the West.


Ghannouchi sees history as having a dynamic moment, and revolutions once started will not merely stop. What is transpiring in Tunisia is a downturn that we will overcome. This downturn will in fact become an agent that will enable us to strengthen the democratic process, so we can better defend democratic values moving forward. 


Gaaloul added that “We are very patient, so are in no rush. Still, we do not want this change to be costly on our people or nations. We can see the turmoil in other neighboring countries (Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya), and do not want Tunisians going through similar bloodshed. We will thus remain committed in our peaceful opposition to this coup, and remain patient until the opening presents itself for real change. Through his incarceration, Ghannouchi is giving legitimacy to these values.” 



* This Conference report was written by Daanish Faruqi, Ph.D., Duke University.


Co-Sponsored by: 



Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)

Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU)








Shadi Hamid

Dr. Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an assistant research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His latest book is The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea. Hamid is also the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize for best book on foreign affairs. In 2019, Hamid was named one of the world’s top 50 thinkers by Prospect magazine. He is also the co-founder and editor of Wisdom of Crowds, a podcast, newsletter, and debate platform.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Executive Director of DAWN. Previously, she served as executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division from 2004 – 2020, overseeing the work of the division in 19 countries, with staff located in 10countries. Whitson has led dozens of advocacy andinvestigative missions throughout the region, focusing on issues of armed conflict, accountability, legal reform, migrant workers, and human rights. She has published widely on human rights and foreign policy in the Middle East in international and regional media, including The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN.

Wa’el Alzayat

Wa’el Alzayat is CEO of Emgage, where he provides strategic and operational guidance and management for the organization. He is based in Washington, D.C. Alzayat previously served with distinction as a U.S. Middle East policy expert at the U.S. Department of State for ten years, including as Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and Syria Outreach Coordinator with Ambassador Robert Ford. As a first generation Arab and Muslim American, Alzayat has long been a passionate advocate for protecting fundamental American values and freedoms, and increasing the civic engagement of minority communities. Alzayat was recently named Top 10 Inspiring Arab Americans Leaders by Huffington Post.


Ismail Numan Telci

Ismail Numan Telci is the Vice President and North Africa Studies Coordinator of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara. ORSAM is the largest think tank in Turkeyfocusing on Middle Eastern affairs. He also works as an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and lecturer at the Middle East Institute (ORMER) at Sakarya University. His re- search focuses on democratic transformations in the Middle East, Arab revolutions, Islamic movements and political developments in the Gulf and North African countries. He is editor of Middle Eastern Studies, a peer-reviewed journal published by ORSAM.

Damon Wilson

Damon Wilson is President and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an independent, nonprofit, grant-making foundation supporting freedom around the world. Prior to joining the Endowment, he helped transform the Atlantic Council into a leading global think tank as its executive vice president. Previously, Wilson served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council.

Amaney Jamal

Amaney A. Jamal is Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She is also the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics and a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton, and directs the Workshop on Arab Political Development and the Bobst-American University of Beirut Collaborative Initiative.


Jocelyne Cesar

Holds the Chair of Religion and Politics at the University of Birmingham(UK) and is Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at George town University. Since 2018, she is the T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peace building at Harvard Divinity School. President elect of the European Academy of Religion (2018-19), her work on religion and politics has garnered recognition and awards: 2020 Distinguished Scholar of the religion section of the International Studies Association,Distinguished Fellow of the Carnegie Council 
for Ethics and International Affairs and the Royal Society for Arts in the United Kingdom.


Monika Marks

Monica Marks is a scholar of Islamist movements, gender, and politics in the Middle East and North Africa, Her research focuses on broad topics across the region and beyond, but especially in regards to the tensions between pluralism and state power in the two countries where she’s lived longest: Tunisia and Turkey. Prior to joining NYUAD, Dr. Marks was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She completed her PhD, an ethnographic study of post-2011 Tunisian politics based on over 1,200 in-country interviews, in 2018 at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Dr. Marks studied in Tanzania, Tunisia, and Jordan, and in Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar, before completing her Masters and PhD at Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar. During her graduate studies, Dr. Marks was based primarily in Tunisia (2011-2016) and Turkey (2016-2018), where she published academic work and more public-facing analysis for leading North American and European think tanks, along with publications like Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.


Andrew March

Andrew March is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Fellow at the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University. In 2023-24 he will be a Visiting Professor at Harvard Kennedy School. He is the 
author of Islam and Liberal Citizenship (Oxford, 2009) and The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic 
Thought (Harvard Belknap, 2019). He is also the co-author of a forthcoming volume with Rached Ghannouchi, On Muslim 
Democracy: Essays and Dialogues (Oxford, 2023).

Deina Abdelkader

Director of Peace and Conflict Studies BA/MA Program Associate Professor, Political Science Dept., University of Massachusetts Lowell


William Scott Harrop

Long steeped in scholarship and teaching on Jefferson, on revolutions, on Tunisia and the Arab Spring, William Scott Harrop is finishing a doctorate in Foreign Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia (UVA). His dissertation focuses on “revolutionary struggles for international legitimacy.” (Chap. 2 is on Jefferson and “a decent respect.”)  Award highlights include being a Peace Scholar, US Institute of Peace, and twice a “Jefferson Fellow” with Monticello’s International Center for Jefferson Studies.


Mark Tessler

Professor of Political Science, University of MichiganWhat Does Islam Really Say about the Rights, Status and Behavior of Women? The Interpretations of Islam Embraced by Ordinary Muslim Citizens in the Arab World.


Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focuses on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity. He is the author of Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance (2021), “Why, As A Muslim, I Defend Liberty” (2021), The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims (2017), and Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (2011) — all of which have been translated into several languages. Akyol also teaches classes at the Islamic Civilization and Societies program at Boston College. He is the director of the “Islam and the Muslim World” course at the Foreign Service Institute as well.


Youssef Chouhoud

Youssef Chouhoud is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Christopher Newport University, where he is affiliated 
with the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution. His research in the US and the Middle East probes support for core democratic norms, focusing on understudied groups and contexts. Dr. Chouhoud’s work has been published in the 
journal Politics and Religion, the Oxford Handbook of Polling and Survey Methods, and most recently, the British Journal of Political Science.


Lindsay J. Benstead

Lindsay J. Benstead is Professor of Politics and Global Studies and Director of the Middle East Studies Center (MESC) at Portland State University. Previously, she served as Fellow in the Middle East Program and the Women’s Global Leadership Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC (2018-2019) and Kuwait Visiting Professor at SciencesPo in Paris (fall 2016). Her research on women and politics, public opinion, and survey methodology has appeared in Perspectives on Politics, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Governance, and Foreign Affairs.


Marko Vekovic

Marko Vekovic (Ph.D. in Political Science) is Associate Professor of Religion and Politics at University of Belgrade - Faculty 
of Political Science (Serbia). His area of expertise is religion and politics, with a particular focus on the political behavior of Orthodox Christian Churches in Eastern Europe. He is particularly interested in the regions of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, 
and the Middle East. Marko has been appointed as a Visiting Scholar at Temple University (2014), and Columbia University 
(2016). He was also a post-doc scholar at University of Erfurt (2019-2020).

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