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Democracy and Anti-Semitism
Remarks by Carl Gershman,
President, The National Endowment for Democracy
at the conference on "Anti-Semitism - A Threat to Democracy"
December 16, 2004

In 1969, after a short stint at the ADL, I went to work for Bayard Rustin, who for many years had been the principal strategist in the civil rights movement and who was the organizer of the March on Washington. Bayard had been around radical politics for most of his life, and he knew the fault lines that separated democratic activism from extremism. He said on many occasions that anti-Semitism was a barometer with which one could judge the health of democracy in a country, in a political movement, or in the world. He knew from experience that anti-black racists were invariably anti-Semitic as well, and that the militant black activists who turned away from integration and nonviolence also turned against Jews. Of course, his view was also based on what he witnessed on the world scene -- the Nazi period and the Holocaust as well as the growth of anti-Israel fervor at the United Nations that was orchestrated by a coalition of countries hostile to democracy.

For Bayard, a principal lesson of the 20th century was that anti-Semitism is not a problem for Jews alone since the enemies of Jews are also the most determined enemies of democracy. As David Brooks pointed out earlier this morning, anti-Semitism is not just a prejudice but also an ideological weapon used by totalitarian movements. This was the case not only with Nazism but also with Stalinism, which was Nazism's successor after the Second World War as the leader of the anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and-democratic camp in the world. Stalin's campaign against the Jews coincided with the start of the Cold War, and it was continued by his successors who conceived and orchestrated the first worldwide campaign against Zionism, portraying it as not just racist but the incarnation of evil itself.

The center of the global movement against democracy has now shifted to the radical Islamist and Baathist movements that have emerged during the last several decades in the Middle East and Iran. These movements have drawn upon various sources: Nazism's glorification of violence and hatred of aliens; communism's belief in the vanguard party; the Koran's vilification of Jews for rejecting Mohamed's prophesy; and Christian world's myths of the blood libel and Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Whatever their differences, the Baathists and Islamists share a visceral hatred of liberal values that finds its most potent expression in the vilification of Israel and the Jewish people. For the Baathists, Israel is a "deadly cancer" that must be removed from the Middle East, while the Jews, according to Sayyid Qtub, the ideological founder of Al Qaeda, are the "eternal enemies" of Islam.

The war that these forces have launched against the United States and other countries that refuse to submit to their will has had the ironic and unintended consequence of placing the issue of democracy in the broader Middle East at the top of the international agenda. Before the events of 9/11, the international community disregarded, for all intents and purposes, the dysfunctional social and political systems that have spawned Baathist and Islamist totalitarianism. In effect, it embraced the doctrine of Arab exceptionalism, according to which the Arab Middle East, alone among the major regions of the world, is held to be incapable of achieving significant democratic progress. After 9/11, the international community no longer had this luxury. This was the central message of President Bush's seminal address to the NED last year, when he said that the time had come to end "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East."

While the President's message was initially criticized in the official press of the Middle East as an attempt to impose democracy from the outside, it soon got picked up by Arab intellectuals meeting in Sana'a, Alexandria, Doha, Beirut, and other cities, who issued declarations citing the urgent need for fundamental democratic changes. Before long, a broad agenda for economic, social, and political reform started to take shape. Building upon the UNDP's Arab Human Development Reports, this agenda calls for addressing three fundamental deficits in the Middle East: the absence of basic human freedom as the cornerstone of good governance; the failure adequately to acquire, diffuse, and utilize the knowledge needed for integration into the modern world; and the subordination and marginalization of women in society.

While the implementation of an agenda that addresses these deficits will require the collective efforts of many different actors, the lead will have to be taken by non-governmental activists and practitioners in the region. It is they who will have to mobilize pressure from below to defend rights and promote reform and to foster a new consciousness of engaged citizenship. It is also necessary that governments in the Middle East move forward rather than block change or make grudging concessions under pressure from within and without. They are more likely to take constructive steps if the United States and its European allies are united in pressing for reform. In addition, Western governments will have to be decisive in defending the human rights of democracy activists in the Middle East, many of whom are now in prison or threatened with retribution if they advocate basic freedoms.

In this regard, I'm delighted that Italy is beginning to play a major role in forging a new coalition for democratic change in the Middle East. It was an Italian organization, No Peace Without Justice, that took the lead in bringing together the Sana'a meeting last January that started the process within the region of calling for fundamental democratic reform. Italy is now also partnering with Turkey and Yemen in convening the Democracy Assistance Dialogue, an initiative that was agreed to in June at the G-8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia. The Dialogue will be a forum where NGOs from the Broader Middle East will be able to discuss with governments such issues as the promotion of human rights, women's participation, independent media, democratic elections, and religious and ethnic tolerance. The results of these discussions and the monitoring of democratic reforms in individual countries should give structure and momentum to the process of change in the region. Such, at least, is the goal of the new Dialogue.

Now that Italy is engaged in such an active way in promoting democratic reform in the Middle East, I hope the Italian government might also consider establishing a publicly funded democracy foundation that could support initiatives agreed to within the Democracy Assistance Dialogue. Such non-governmental foundations now exist in most of the democracies in Europe and North America, and they have proven themselves to be effective instruments for providing the kind of technical, financial, and moral support that democracy activists in the Middle East will need if they are to be successful. The time is ripe for Italy to establish a democracy foundation of its own.

The long-term goal of all these initiatives is to awaken and bolster the moderate and rational forces in the Middle East that have been overwhelmed in the past by Islamic Jihadism and the legacy of twentieth century totalitarianism. There are naturally many skeptics who doubt that democracy can progress in the Middle East, especially if there is not significant progress in solving the Palestinian problem. Arab democrats, meeting in Doha last June, rejected this point of view, saying that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians should not be used as an excuse to rationalize resistance to democratic reform in the region. Natan Sharansky has now turned the skeptics point of view on its head, arguing in the tradition of Emmanuel Kant that there cannot be peace without democracy, and that the foundation of democracy should be established now in Palestine as the basis for a lasting peace agreement.

But there is an even more difficult question, and that is whether democracy can be established in a political culture where the kind of anti-Semitism and conspiratorial thinking that I described earlier is so widely prevalent and apparently deeply embedded. I am reminded here of a comment made by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, to the effect that we should not ask whether people are fit for democracy, but rather how they can become fit through democracy.

Democracy has many different functions. It can protect people from government abuse by limiting the power of government and giving people the freedom to express themselves and defend their rights. It can promote development by creating a lawful environment where people are encouraged to work, take risks, save, and engage in other forms of productive economic activity. It can, as Sharansky asserts, promote peace. And it can also help people learn from one another, grow, and take responsibility for their lives and their society. Sen calls this the constructive role of democracy since it involves the formation of values and the generation of "informed and considered choices" through public discussion and exchange.

I thought of this constructive role of democratic discourse recently when I read a statement issued on the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by a Qatari intellectual, Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, the former dean of the Faculty of Shari'a at the University of Qatar. Dr. Ansari asked why so many Arabs continue to believe that the Jews and the Israeli Mossad were behind the attacks, despite all the evidence to the contrary, including the lavish praise of the "19 exalted ones" at a convention of Islamic fundamentalists convened in London to celebrate the attacks. From whence, he asks, does such conspiratorial thinking come? Why are so many Arabs unable to place responsibility for this heinous act where it belongs? He then goes on:

"Why don't we want to acknowledge that these young people were the sons of a culture that is hostile to the world, not idiots or mad. No one enticed them, and they did not suffer from oppression, repression, or poverty. They carried out the operation because of their belief that it was Jihad and martyrdom. They were our young people and our sons, and they were our responsibility.

"It is we who stole their future, and we have sinned against them because of our backwards education, because of our harmful religious views, because of our inciting preachers' pulpits, and because of our violent media. It is we who have not succeeded in giving their existence value and meaning, and have not made life better for them than death. We have incited them to die for the sake of Allah, and have not taught them how to live for the sake of Allah.

"How long will we make life hell for our young people? How long will we continue to replay the record of American injustice…as pathetic justification for the violence and terror among us - as if we are the only nation suffering from injustice…

"Why, in fact, are we the only nation enchanted by the theory that a Jewish conspiracy stands behind events? Why does the tree of conspiracy bloom on our soil?"

What these remarks show is that the attacks of 9/11 have had another unintended consequence, which is to have started a public debate within the Arab world over the crisis of Islamic culture, a public airing of the moral sickness that led not just to 9/11 but also to the inability to confront its meaning and to accept moral responsibility for its consequences. This public discussion is only beginning in the Middle East. But it is only through such a discussion that the abscess of anti-Semitism can be lanced, giving the societies of the region the chance to grow in a democratic way.

This is a discussion that must take place within Arab culture. The most that the West can do is to create a political context that will encourage reform and allow such a discussion to proceed and expand. Most importantly, in its dealings with the region, the West should not indulge in any way whatsoever the culture of victimization and the conspiratorial theories it spawns.

Ultimately, though, the renewal of Arab culture must be undertaken by the Arabs themselves. There are more courageous voices in the Middle East than the world sometimes hears. We should wish them well, since they are not only fighting to save their own culture but also to make the world a safer place for everyone.

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