U.S.-Islam in Qatar

The last leg of my just-concluded travels took me to Doha, Qatar, for the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, an annual conference coproduced by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the state of Qatar. For the concept, read this new interview with Saban Center head Martin Indyk.

This year’s forum was sedate compared to its predecessors. The two previous meetings (I witnessed both) coincided with peaks of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the lead-up and immediate aftermath of the Iraq war. The presence of the fire-breathing Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi on both prior occasions at the first conference, he spoke in favor of attacks on Israeli civilians generated headlines but got in the way of everything else. This time, the organizers dispensed with his services.

A few of the announced celebrities canceled: Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, and Qazi Hussain Ahmad (head of the Pakistani Jamaat-e Islami) bowed out for health reasons, and Tariq Ramadan (hero of Euro-Islam) didn’t show. That left the conference somewhat short of star power, and there were no fireworks. But a few sparks flew over the main theme of the conference: reform. The key questions: how can the “Arab spring” be turned into something more? And what role should the United States assume?

Not surprisingly, most Muslim participants adamantly rejected “foreign intervention.” At the same time, they begged the United States to use every kind of “soft power” against their own authoritarian governments, to create more political space. J. Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), gave a strong speech promising the United States would do just that. It was too unequivocal for my taste, since I wonder just how far Washington is prepared to push friendly rulers to reform especially if push comes to shove. But Carpenter talks the talk very persuasively.

The willingness of liberal reformers to welcome Islamists into the arena surprised me. They’re either talking to Islamists, or they’re just resigned to impossibility of excluding them. Most notably, the reformers are extending this blanket acceptance to Hezbollah and Hamas. Their theory is that these groups, once given a stake in the system, will stop roaring and begin to purr. Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim emerged as the weightiest champion of this idea. It all sounds like wishful thinking to me, and in a few private conversations I got a whiff of apprehension from some members of the reform camp. (Names withheld.) At the forum two years ago, I gave a strong presentation against inclusion of Islamists, but that case seems lost as far as the reformers go. They’ve crossed the Rubicon.

I don’t want to end without a word of praise for Richard Holbrooke. Last year he tackled Qaradawi. This year he appeared on a panel with Palestinian strongman Mohammad Dahlan, who gave a retro speech. Holbrooke told Dahlan and the audience the truth: they have it in their own power to make Israel flexible, if they say and do the right things. Badgering the United States to squeeze Israel won’t work. He was particularly tough on the anti-Israel incitement that permeates education systems. (Last year, Bill Clinton administered the same pill to this audience, albeit with more sugar-coating.)

The most colorful personalities? I’d say it was a toss-up between Sadig al-Mahdi, the beturbanned, white-robed Oxonian and descendant of the Sudanese Mahdi, who heads the Umma Party in Sudan and who fires off bullet points like… bullets; and Mustafa Ceric, the enlightened and witty grand mufi of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who studied in Al-Azhar and got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Both made insightful interventions all along the way.

The highlight for me? Anwar Ibrahim, former Malaysian deputy prime minister and finance minister who was thrown into jail by the mad Mahathir in 1998, sought me out to tell me that he’d read many of my writings during his six years in prison. (He was finally acquitted and released last September. Here’s a taste of his present line: Muslims should set aside suspicions and make the most of the U.S. democracy drive.) I can’t imagine a higher compliment.