- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

American Muslims can bridge the gap between America and the West and Middle Eastern countries attempting to establish democracy there, a panel concluded yesterday at a conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

“American Muslims can be a force for democracy in their countries of origin,” said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, speaking at the fifth annual CSID conference at the Washington Wyndham Hotel. “I’ve told Arab activists, ‘Don’t wait for the United States to take action. You take action.’”

He gave an example of the trade union Solidarity’s not waiting for American approval to help liberate Poland in the early 1980s.

About 140 people are attending the conference, which ends late today.

Mr. Gershman and Alina Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern Affairs, said that democratic movements in other parts of the world — such as North Korea, Tibet and Iran — have been abetted by their compatriots in the free world.

Paul Sullivan, a speaker from the National Defense University, said that “democracy and Islam go hand in hand.”

Democracy “doesn’t have to be taught to Muslims,” he said. “They know it in their hearts. The people in these countries especially desire democracy because they have done without it for so long.”

Much of the discussion during yesterday’s sessions was about whether democracy can work in the Middle East.

“In some circles in Washington,” Mr. Gershman said, there is pessimism or, at best, “a new realism” on whether democracy can work in the Middle East.

“Even if they don’t like the messenger,” he said of the U.S. role in the Middle East, “they have to accept the message.”

The American occupation, he said, has started discussion and activity, not the least of which was a May 23 Arab League meeting in Tunis where participants issued a 13-point statement calling for democratic reform in the area.

“This was a first,” he said. “We must be engaged for the long haul. Democracy is not just a matter of getting rid of a dictator somewhere. … It is also a matter of not giving up or retreating.”

Miss Romanowski said the United States is unjustly criticized for helping repressive Islamic regimes stay in power while doing little for ordinary people. She listed several initiatives, such as workshops in the Middle East to prepare women for political office and business internships for Middle Eastern women in the United States, that reach to a local level.

Mr. Gershman outlined a strategy to bolster democratic movements: supporting activists, offering technical assistance, grants and training and pressuring governments to allow reform. He cited Turkey as a country that, under pressure from European countries, is slowly reforming some of its policies so it can apply for membership in the European Union.

“No one is expecting Iraq to become a perfect democracy overnight,” he said. “The process of building a democracy is very long and very difficult.”

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