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Obstacles to Mideast Democracy Debated at US Congress


Obstacles to spreading democracy in the Middle East were a key topic of discussion at the U.S. Congress this week. An Iraqi politician, a former Israeli cabinet minister and human rights campaigner, and experts, were among those offering ideas about what the United States and others can do to help reformers maintain momentum for change.

They discissed choices between dictatorship and rule of law, a future determined by terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam, or one shaped and directed by reformers working for democracy and human rights.

At a House of Representatives committee hearing entitled "Defeating Terrorism With Ballots," Mithal al-Alusi, head of the Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation, sums up perhaps the biggest challenge facing Iraqis and those in neighboring countries. "We are going very fast, but we need also to understand that the terrorists in Iraq are a part of [a terrorist network] in the Middle East. They have their own agenda to stop any kind of change in the area, I mean positive change, reforms and democracy," he said.

Mr. al-Alusi says Iraqis must make clear they will not tolerate terrorists in their midst, adding this about what he calls the distortion of Islam by terrorist groups. "I believe that Islam is compatible with democracy, but the understanding of the new Islam, the radical Islam, is completely at odds with the main message of all religion, including the real Islam," he said.

Natan Sharansky, who campaigned for human rights in the former Soviet Union, and later served in the Israeli government, says elections in Iraq, events in Lebanon, and signs of change in Egypt should partially answer skeptics who say the Arab world is not ready for democracy.

But elections alone are insufficient, he adds, if the basic character of a nation remains one marked by fear. "Elections [are not by themselves] democracy. Free elections and a free society, that is what has to be the aim. A free society is a society which passes the town square test, that a person can go to the center of the town square, express his or her views, and not be punished for this," he said.

Mr. Sharansky compares President Bush's statements on Mideast democracy to what he calls the moral clarity of President Ronald Reagan.

Elizabeth Dugan of the International Republican Institute says Iraq's election last February showed the potential of the kind of democratic change President Bush is supporting in the Middle East. "While a great deal of hard work remains, Iraqis are firmly committed to the transition from an authoritarian regime to democratic government," she said.

Mona Yacoubian, special adviser with the Muslim World Initiative of the U.S. Institute of Peace, says there is growing suspicion in the region of U.S. motivations for reform. But she believes longer-term gains of pursuing real democratic change outweigh the risks.

"Genuine democratic change in the region would likely bring to the fore multiple voices, including those of radicals and militants. But it may also create an opening for moderate Islamists. Moderate Islamists who reject violence and are willing to participate in a democratic framework will be crucial in sustaining stable democratic governments in the coming years," she said.

Experts and lawmakers agree on the threat posed to democratic progress, the war on terrorism, and chances for Israel-Palestinian peace, by anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel propaganda in the broadcast media of many Arab countries.

Across the street from the Capitol, the Middle East Media Research Institute showed often disturbing video from internal, and satellite television broadcasts from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

New Jersey Democrat Steve Rothman says such broadcasts have an impact not only on millions of people in the Arab and Muslim world, but on Muslims in the United States, asking in his words, "where should be draw the line". "When our [Arab] allies, or so-called allies, are permitting this kind of hate speech not only to be broadcast throughout their own societies but into our society, how should we react to them, how should we convey to them how unacceptable it is to spread hate speech, to spread hatred and incitement to violence," he said.

U.S. lawmakers have held hearings on the issue of anti-Semitic and other hate propaganda, and continue to press the Bush administration to put pressure on key Arab nations to eliminate such programs from their airwaves.

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