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Impressions from the First World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in Hebrew at “Can Think”. Both the Hebrew and English versions of this article were published at MITVIM’s website as part of the series “Impressions from the Region” 
During October 5-11 the first World Forum for Democracy of the Council of Europe assembled in Strasbourg under the banner: “Bridging the gap: Democracy: Between old models and new realities”. The Council of Europe was founded in Strasbourg in 1949 and has been working ever since in the fields of human rights and the promotion of democracy and international law. The member states of the Council of Europe all signed theEuropean Convention on Human Rights, the basis on which the European Court of Human Rights acts. Although the 27 member states of the European Union are full members of the Council of Europe, the council is not a part of the European Union. It is an independent international organization that includes 47 member states (Turkey, for example, is a full member in the council of Europe since its establishment and Israel was granted the status of an observer in 1957). Full membership in the council is considered as a necessary station on the road to join the European Union.

Most of the debates of the Forum for Democracy were held at the Palace of Europe (Palais de l’Europe), the seat of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The forum has a long list of supporters and partners, which includes organizations and governments among them, including the European Union, the French Government, the region of Alsace and the city of Strasbourg. From the obvious efforts put in to the prestigious décor and the impressive list of invited guests, it seems like the Council of Europe is trying to label the event as a prestigious international conference that assembles regularly, similar to the World Economic Forum that assembles annually in Davos, Switzerland.

The declared goal of the World Forum for Democracy is to bring together high-ranking political officials, leading international figures, experts from politics, civil society and academia, media figures, journalists, and young leaders alongside parliament members and world leaders, in order to generate a platform for an exchange of experiences and perceptions. The forum aims to define the main challenges faced by democratic societies in the beginning of the 21st century and to try and provide them with answer. The opening seat of the forum was launched by a speech of the Secretary General of the United Nations Mr. Ban Ki-moon and Ms. Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, a politician, a human rights activists and the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2011.
A brief history of the democratic discourse
It is interesting to observe the dialectic development of the discourse on democracy during the second half of the 20st century and the beginning of the 21st. After the Second World War, the Cold War divided the world between East and West. In the 1980’s the victory of the West and the rise of liberal democracy became apparent. This line of thought was expressed by the political economist Francis Fukuyama in his famous essay published on 1989 “The End of History” and was further developed in his book “The End of History and the Last Man” published in 1992.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 a process of democratization took place in many of the former Eastern bloc states. In the beginning of the first decade of the current century the European Union and the NATO expanded to the East and added to their ranks the east European countries, former members of the eastern bloc. From a bi-polar world the international system moved towards unipolar hegemony of liberal democracy led by the United States and Western Europe. Fukuyama’s prophecy was becoming true.

The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington challenged the concept of “The End of History” by suggesting his own theory, that he called “The Clash of Civilizations“. Huntingto
n claims that the world is not heading towards a better future but towards a series of wars that will take place between civilizations. This age will be characterized by the fading of Western civilization in the face of the challenges posed by the Islamic and Chinese civilizations.

Both theories describe a Manichean world of black and white. In contrast, the discourse that took place at the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg reflected a much more colorful world. Instead of utopia or collision, the current discourse reveals a complex multipolar and multicultural world. The organizers were not afraid to ask whether democracy is a universal value at all and whether it is possible or necessary to impose democracy. A large variety of topics were debated, among them economy, markets, and democracy in the global era. A central issue that kept coming up throughout the forum was the question of religion and democracy. The hottest topic in the Forum for Democracy was without a doubt Islam (throughout the world and in relation to the West) and the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring and the French Autumn
The list of speakers was varied and included participants from a great number of countries, from Russia and Canada to the Republic of Guinea and Mexico. But the Muslim and Arab presence, from Morocco to Pakistan, was particularly prominent. The highest demanded, speakers so it seemed, were the Egyptian and Tunisian delegates that explained and analyzed the developments in their countries. The Israeli diplomat Yehuda Lancry (former ambassador to France and to the UN) participated in a discussion on responsible democratic leadership and political ethics in a global age.
One of the most interesting figures I saw during the forum was Moez Masoud (معز مسعود), a popular and influential religious preacher from Egypt (to Masoud’s website in Arabic). Because Masoud preaches his religious doctrine on Egyptian television and radio in colloquial Arabic, he can be referred to as a Muslim televangelist. Despite his young age, the 34-year-old Masoud is a highly sought-after speaker worldwide. Earlier this year he took part in The World Economic Forum in Davos alongside prominent world figures and religious leaders. Masoud is a respected Hafiz (حافظ, someone who has memorized the entire Quran) and a member of the distinguished Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan, he is also pursuing his doctoral studies at the prestigious University of Cambridge. This combination is also expressed in his speech, which is interwoven with quotations both from the Quran and from Western Philosophy. In the same breathe, Masoud interprets an Islamic term from classical Arabic and then quotes Hegel or Kant in eloquent English.

World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg: participants in a debate on media responsibility and potential to foster democracy (right to left): Elizabeth Linder (Facebook), Moez Masoud, Ali Ferzat (a Syrian political cartoonist), Tawakkol Karman (political Activist, Journalist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner) and Melissa Eddy (the International Herald Tribune).  
Masoud is a charismatic speaker of Islam and of the Arab world in the west. His discourse is moderate and calm as he analyzes the challenges facing the Arab and Muslim world with spiritual and religious tools. He focuses on philosophy, psychology and interreligious dialogue when he explains the Arab Spring as an opportunity for a modern Arab identity and Islamic renewal. Masoud presents a moderate Islam which aspires to integrate in the modern world, and at the same time completely rejects the western demand for secularism and dismisses it as patronizing. To watch Masoud in a filmed debate of the World Forum for Democracy on “Media responsibility and potential to foster democracy” click here (starting from minute 29:50)

Two speeches were made in the closing session of the forum, by the Egyptian writer Nawal al-Saadawi (her website), a pioneer of woman rights in her country, and the renowned Algerian writer Boualem Sansal. Al-Saadawi declared that “everybody talks about democracy, but nobody talks about justice,” and described how power relations come to practice through language. Al-Saadawi described a conspiracy theory about an American-Israeli plot that supported Mubarak’s regime on the one hand, all the while assisting the Muslim Brotherhood to snatch the revolution from the Egyptian citizens. In her own words Al-Saadawi turned the citizens of Egypt to passive subjects who lack the responsibility of their fate. Her claim that Egyptians are victims of a worldwide delirious conspiracy, which allegedly takes away from them their ability to change their own destiny, contradicts the very essence of the Tahrir revolution. Moreover, al-Saadawi accused the state of Israel in being a Jewish fundamentalist theocracy (and received applauds, while other shifted uncomfortably in their seats). The Israeli delegate Yehuda Lancry got the right of reply and invited al-Saadawi to visit Jerusalem. Indeed, Boualem Sansal was awarded the prize of the Arab novel (le Prix du Roman Arabe) for 2012, but the award was withdrawn in the last minute due to his visit to Israel and his participation in the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem. Sansal presented the “Strasbourg Appeal“, a brave writers’ appeal for peace that was launched during the forum by Sansal and the Israeli writer David Grossman.

Last spoke Jamel Eddine Gharbi, Tunisian Minister of
Planning and Regional Development on behalf of Ennahda, Tunisia’s center-right Islamist party. Gharbi surveyed the democratic challenges facing the country that sparked the Arab Spring. Presenting the role of the Ennahda party in the new Tunisian democracy, Gharbi talked about democratic Islam, which promotes values of progress and participation, and respects human and woman rights. Upon the end of his declaration a young woman, a Tunisian university lecturer who was sitting in the crowd, confronted Gharbi with some harsh facts reflecting the severe crisis of the higher education system in the country. Gharbi was given 60 seconds to publically reply to her claims. The mere existence of such a dialogue between the senior minister and the young lecturer is a testimony to the deep change that is currently taking place in the Arab World.

The winds of the Arab Spring that started to blow in the Magreb (North Africa) and spread to the Mashreq (the Asian part of the Middle East) carry with them a new political mode, one within where the words ‘Islam’ and ‘democracy’ are expressed in the same breath. The events taking place in the Middle East have exposed the deep developments that were occurring in Arab societies. In Tunisia and in Egypt it was to a great extent the multitudes of young secular and educated man and woman who organized themselves through social networks and took to the streets in protests that ended up toppling the regimes. But in the democratic elections that followed, it was the Islamic religious parties who took power, Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Referring to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nawal al-Saadawi said “we didn’t rally in Tahrir Square in the name of Islamization and the implementation of Sharia.” On the other hand Moez Masoud described the moment when the fall of Mubarak was first known in the square. According to him, upon receiving the historical news, the first thing that the so called secular leaders of the protest did, was to recite the verses of al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran, and to shout the Takbir (Allah Akbar = “God is the Greatest) to the top of their lungs. According to Masoud this is a proof that the protest was not secular in its essence. Masoud also claimed that in literary Arabic there is no word that corresponds to the Western concept of secularism or laïcité (as he said, the term ilmaniyaعلمانية is modern and conceived as carrying negative meanings).

Even if there are no two homogenous and well-defined camps of “religious” and “seculars,” whatever is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt goes beyond the pragmatic and political discourse on the nature of government and the ways to implement a democracy. It is a discourse over the beliefs and the exalted hopes of both sides, reflecting different perceptions of self identity and culture. However, between the Western secular democratic model and the puritan “political Islam” a new way emerges – that of democratic Islam. This current trend is trying to integrate in the modern and democratic world without having to give up its cultural and religious uniqueness. Will it succeed? Only time will tell.

Some gloomy thoughts to conclude
The scarce representation of Israelis and Palestinians might be explained by their relative size in the global sphere. But this claim falls back in light of the fact the state of Fiji, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific Ocean was represented in the forum three times more than Israel, and that there were no Palestinians speakers at all. Despite this absence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was present almost in all the debates of the forum that I attended. There is no doubt about the implications of this conflict on Middle East and global stability. Because of that, the absence from the forum of Israeli and Palestinian activists from civil society organizations working to promote peace and democracy was especially obvious. Their participation in an international event of such scale could have been a significant encouragement for them. Moreover their presence would have enriched the forum and enabled a brave and direct debate with Israelis and Palestinians themselves rather than discussions about them in their absence.

In the conclusion of the forum a young female activist from Yemen asked the organizers how it could be that not one discussion had been dedicated to terrorism. She said that Islamic terror is the most significant threat to freedom and security in her country and that a real discussion on the challenges of democracy is not possible without an appropriate reference to the question of terrorism. The lack of a significant discourse on terrorism was made even more obvious by the fact that during the discussions of the forum, the French police raided an Islamic terror cell in the center of Strasbourg itself.

Impressive as it may be, such a public event cannot encompass all the variety and complexity of topics regarding the challenges of democracy in the modern era. The lack of a deep discussion in the World Forum for Democracy on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, the massacre in Syria, the Iranian nuclear program, the rise of the extreme right in Europe, anti-Semitism (Islamophobia was discussed), and immigration and xenophobia, constitutes a real miss and an escape from what could have been a brave involvement in hard but important topics. One can only hope that the lessons will be implemented next time.

Strasbourg’s first World Forum for Democracy did not end with a consensus. On the contrary, the forum represented a rich variety of opinions, cultures and colors. Its goal was to strengthen the participants and to empower their contribution to democracy in their countries of origin. Strasbourg is the capital of the region of Alsace, which passed between France and Germany about 17 times throughout the history. This city symbolizes the change that occurred in Europe – from a periphery of two countries and the heart of a long and bleeding conflict, to a European capital of politics, human rights and peace. Revolutions and wars erupt in an instant, but the success of democratic developments is slow and requires much time. 



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