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American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama

About the author
David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy, which he co-founded in 2000. He has written textbooks on human rights and terrorism, and was a contributor to Town and Country (Jonathan Cape, 1998). His work has been published in PN Review, the Irish Times, El Pais, the Iran Times International, the Canberra Times, the Scotsman, the New Statesman and The Absolute Game

He has edited five print collections of material from the openDemocracy website, including Europe and Islam; Turkey: Writers, Politics, and Free Speech; and Europe: Visions, Realities, Futures. He is the editor of Fred Halliday's Political Journeys - the openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011)

President Barack Hussein Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr President:

First of all, congratulations on your victory in November 2008. Like so many others throughout the world, we find ourselves both hopeful and inspired. Your election is proof of America's continued promise as a land of opportunity, equality, and freedom.  Your presidency presents a historic opportunity to chart a new course in foreign affairs, and particularly in the troubled relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. This letter was published under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) -

in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

We are heartened by your promise to listen to and understand the hopes and aspirations of Arabs and Muslims. By shutting down Guantánamo Bay and forbidding torture, your administration will inspire greater confidence between the United States and the Muslim world. In February 2009, in your first major interview, millions of Arabs heard your call for mutual respect on one of the middle east's most watched television channels. They were encouraged to find that you hold a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as an urgent priority, as evidenced by the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as your envoy. Reaching out to the people of the region so early on in your presidency is a step of no small significance. But it is a step that must be followed by concrete policy changes.

Improving relations between the United States and middle-eastern nations is not simply a matter of changing some policies here and there. For too long, US policy toward the middle east has been fundamentally misguided. The United States, for half a century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticise them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities. US support for Arab autocrats was supposed to serve US national interests and regional stability. In reality, it produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism, and instability.

In his second inaugural address, President George W Bush pledged that the United States would no longer support tyrants and would stand with those activists and reformers fighting for democratic change. The Bush administration, however, quickly turned its back on middle-east democracy after Islamist parties performed well in elections throughout the region.  This not only hurt the credibility of the United States, dismayed democrats and emboldened extremists in the region, but also sent a powerful message to autocrats that they could reassert their power and crush the opposition with impunity.

In order to rebuild relations of mutual respect, it is critical that the United States be on the right side of history regarding the human, civil, and political rights of the peoples of the middle east. There is no doubt that the people of the middle east long for greater freedom and democracy; they have proven themselves willing to fight for it. What they need from your administration is a commitment to encourage political reform not through wars, threats, or imposition, but through peaceful policies that reward governments that take active and measurable steps towards genuine democratic reforms. Moreover, the United States should not hesitate to speak out in condemnation when opposition activists are unjustly imprisoned in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, or elsewhere. When necessary, the US should use

its considerable economic and diplomatic leverage to put pressure on its allies in the region when they fail to meet basic standards of human rights.

We recognise that taking these steps will present both difficulties and dilemmas. Accordingly, bold action is needed today more than ever. For too long, American policy in the middle east has been paralysed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power. Some of these fears are both legitimate and understandable; many Islamists advocate illiberal policies. They need to do more to demonstrate their commitment to the rights of women and religious minorities, and their willingness to tolerate dissent. However, most mainstream Islamist groups in the region are non-violent and respect the democratic process.

In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the right to participate in reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process.

At the same time, to reduce the future of the region to a contest between Islamists and authoritarian regimes would be a mistake. Promoting democratic openings in the region will give liberal and secular parties a chance to establish themselves and communicate their ideas to the populace after decades of repression that left them weak and marginalised. More competition between parties of diverse ideological backgrounds would be healthy for political development in the region.

In short, we have an unprecedented opportunity to send a clear message to the Arab and Muslim world: the United States will support all those who strive for freedom, democracy, and human rights. You, Mr President, have recently relayed such a message in your inaugural address when you said: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the

wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

We are fully aware that, with a worsening global economic crisis, and continuing challenges in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, political reform and progress toward democratic reform in the middle east will need to compete with a whole host of other priorities on your agenda. Policy is often about making difficult choices. However, as you work on other middle-east priorities, we urge you to elevate democratic reform and respect for human rights as key considerations in your engagement with both Arab regimes and Arab publics.

In conclusion, we are writing this letter to raise our profound belief that supporting democrats and democracy in the middle east is not only in the region's interests, but in the United States's as well. Perhaps more importantly, what we choose to do with this critical issue will reveal a great deal about the strength of American democratic ideals in this new era - and whether or not we will decide to respect and apply them in the middle east.

This letter, organised by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), has been signed by:

Coordination Committee

Radwan A Masmoudi, Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy

Shadi Hamid, Project on Middle East Democracy

Geneive Abdo,The Century Foundation

Larry Diamond, Center on Democracy, Development & Rule of Law, Stanford University

Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House

American Scholars, Experts & Organisations

Tamara Cofman Wittes, Saban Center, Brookings Institution

Francis Fukuyama, The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Matt Yglesias, Center for American Progress

Mona Yacoubian, US Institute of Peace

John L. Esposito, Georgetown University

Reza Aslan, University of California, Riverside

Morton H Halperin, Formerly Office of Policy Planning, US Department of State

Will Marshall, Progressive Policy Institute

Randa Slim, Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Neil Hicks, Human Rights First

Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch

Robert R LaGamma, Council for a Community of Democracies

Jack DuVall, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

Robert A Pastor, Center for Democracy and Election Management, American University

Jean Bethke Elshtain, University of Chicago

Peter Beinart,Council on Foreign Relations

Bob Edgar, Common Cause

Rachel Kleinfeld, Truman National Security Project

Robert Kagan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Dokhi Fassihian, Democracy Coalition Project

Dina Guirguis, Voices for a Democratic Egypt

Andrew Albertson, Project on Middle East Democracy

Nathan J Brown, George Washington University

Marc Gopin, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, & Conflict Resolution, GMU

Graham E Fuller, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver BC.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, Network of Spiritual Progressives

Farid Senzai, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Frank Kaufmann, Inter Religious Federation for World Peace

Ammar Abdulhamid, Tharwa Foundation

Arsalan Iftikhar, Islamica magazine

Richard Bulliet, Columbia University

Seth Green, Americans for Informed Democracy

Joseph Montville, Toward the Abrahamic Family Reunion

Joseph K Grieboski, Institute on Religion and Public Policy

Jim Arkedis, Progressive Policy Institute

Asma Afsaruddin, University of Notre Dame

Anisa Mehdi, Arab-American Journalist

Mohammed Ayoob, Michigan State University

Peter Mandaville, Center for Global Studies, GMU

Omid Safi, University of North Carolina

Sulayman S Nyang, Howard University

Naiem A Sherbiny, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development

Louay Safi, ISNA Leadership Development Center

Najib Ghadbian, University of Arkansas

Aly R Abuzaakouk, Libya Human and Political Development Forum

Robert D Crane, The Abraham Federation

Sally Painter, Global Fairness Initiative

Steven Brooke, Independent Academic

Sheila Musaji, The American Muslim

Hashim El-Tinay, International Peace Quest Institute

Antony T Sullivan, Near East Support Services

Clement Moore Henry, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin

Ahmed Subhy Mansour, The International Quranic Center

Yvonne Haddad, Georgetown University

Shahed Amanullah,

Hakan Yavuz, The University of Utah

Ibrahim Kalin, Georgetown University

Mumtaz Ahmad, Hampton University

Charles Butterworth, University of Maryland

John P. Entelis, Fordham University

Nahyan Fancy, DePauw University

Jeffrey T Kenney, DePauw University

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Minaret of Freedom Institute

Jamal Barzinji, International Institute of Islamic Thought

H. Ali Yurtsever, Rumi Forum

Abubaker al Shingieti, American Muslims for Constructive Engagement

Nayereh Tohidi, California State University, Northridge

Nancy Gallagher, University of California, Santa Barbara

Safei Hamed, Alliance of Egyptian Americans

Ali Akbar Mahdi, Ohio Wesleyan University

Nader Hashemi, University of Denver

Nader Hashemi, University of Denver

Timothy Samuel Shah, Council on Foreign Relations

Sondra Hale, Islamic Studies, UCLA

Lester Kurtz, George Mason University

Mehrdad Mashayekhi,Georgetown University

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Salah Aziz, American Society for Kurds

Ali Banuazizi, Boston College

Mehrangiz Kar, Harvard University Human Rights Program

Tamara Sonn, College of William & Mary

Salam Al-Marayati, Muslim Public Affairs Council

Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco

Mike Ghouse, World Muslim Congress

David A. Smith, University of California, Irvine

Ziad K. Abdelnour, US Committee for a Free Lebanon

Samer Libdeh, Center for Liberty in the Middle East

Javed Ali, Illume magazine

Selahattin Oz, Georgetown University

Amin Mahmoud, The Alliance of Egyptian Americans

Maher Kharma, Islamic Society of Annapolis

International Scholars & Organisations

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ibn Khaldoun Center

Anwar Ibrahim, People's Justice Party, Malaysia

Emad El-Din Shahin, Department of Government, Harvard University

Radwan Ziadeh, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University

Atef Saadawy, Al-Ahram Democracy Review

Obaida Fares, Arab Foundation for Development and Citizenship

Mona Eltahawy, Commentator and public speaker, Egypt

Usman Bugaje, Action Congress, Abuja, Nigeria

Dogu Ergil, Ankara University, Turkey

Mohamed Elshinnawi, Journalist/Consultant

Mohammad Fadel, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

Jamal Eddine Ryane, Global Migration and Gender Network, Amsterdam

Najah Kadhim, International Forum for Islamic Dialogue, London

Maajid Nawaz, The Quilliam Foundation, London

Sameer Jarrah, Arab World Center for Democratic Development, Jordan

Ihsan Dagi, Insight Turkey

Santanina T Rasul, Former Senator, The Philippines

Can Kurd, Kurdish PEN Club / Germany

Muna AbuSulayman, UNDP Goodwill Ambassador in KSA

Saoud El Mawla, The Islamic Council for Dialogue, Justice and Democracy, Lebanon

Amina Rasul-Bernardo, The Philippines Council on Islam & Democracy

Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi,The britslampartnership Ltd, UK

Muhammad Habash, Islamic Studies Center, Damascus

Boudjema Ghechir, Algerian League for Human Rights

Kais Jawad al-Azzawi, Al-Jareeda newspaper, Baghdad

Rola Dashti, Kuwait Economic Society

Zainah Anwar, Sisters in Islam, Malaysia

Jafar M. Alshayeb, Writer and Advocate, Saudi Arabia

Daoud Casewit, American Islamic Scholar, Morocco

Anwar N. Haddam, Movement for Liberty & Social Justice, Algeria

Ashur Shamis, Libya Human and Political Development Forum

Hamdi Abdelaziz, Journalist & Human Rights Activist, Egypt

Dalia Ziada, The American Islamic Congress, Egypt

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Department of Political Science, United Arab Emirates

Wajeeha S Al- Baharna, Bahrain Women Association for Human Development

Abdullahi Mohamoud Nur, Community Empowerment for Peace and Integrated Development, Somalia

Brendan Simms, The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics, London

Alan Mendoza, The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics, London

Ashraf  Tulty, Justice & democracy for Libya

Hadi Shalluf, International Criminal Court, Paris

Aref Abu-Rabia,Fulbright Scholar

Omar Affifi, Hukuk Elnas

Jacqueline Armijo, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates

Sliman Bouchuiguir, Libyan League for Human Rights

Mohammed Mahfud, Al-Kalima magazine, Saudi Arabia

Walid Salem, Panorama, East Jerusalem

(The organisations are listed for informational purposes only)

10 March 2009

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