Insight on the Reform Agenda

US Islamic World Forum

Doha- Qatar

Insight on the Reform Agenda


Imam Al Sadig Al Mahdi

April 2005


Omar Ibn Al Khattab said: “blessed is the one, who presents me with my mistakes”. In similar vein Emanuel Kant said: “criticism is the most constructive tool discovered by Mankind’. My thesis begins by what I believe to be a critique of US policy and a note on self-criticism (part 1), this leads to the lessons that should be taken into consideration (part 2), and proceeds to outline a specific reform agenda (part 3).

Part One: Western and Self Critique


What is wrong with US Policy?

For a wide section of public opinion in this part of the world, US demonization has become pervasive. Various explanations have been advanced to explain this phenomenon. The terrorists have not invented it. They simply represent the active center of the volcano. The range is not the work of psychopathic deviants. It is not due to ascriptive factors, namely, the historic antipathy between Christianity and Islam, nor the contemporary antipathy between Islam and Modernity. It is not due to the ideological propensities and violence attributed to Islam. It is not due to economic deprivation and the frustrations between the affluent and the have-nots. It is not the result of Muslim frustrations about their ineptness and Western excellence. Such factors have always been there in one form or another. They have colored East/West encounters, and they have fueled both otherness and a degree of hostility. However, they never reached the depth of current hatred, nor the pervasiveness of current Demonization. The explanation for it is: The perception that the US is pursuing a single minded, oppressive, hegomonistic policy towards the Peoples of the Islamic/ Arab World, which articulates its actions in three ways: Its direct policies towards the Regions, its unyielding support for Regional aggressors, and its being the bull-work behind the local tyrannies. These causes of resentment and anger have been energized by two important contingencies:

  • The successful Afghan Jihad, which created a contemporary model of successful encounter to dismantle a major World Power. A success, which US policy contributed to by its support for the Jihadists without much concern for their ideology.
  • Globalization, which facilitated communication and financial mobility and enabled the experience gained from the Afghan situation to be incorporated into a Global network.

What is Wrong with the Societies in the Regions Concerned?

Two basic defects:

The First: Arguing from two sacred texts, the QURAN and the SUNNAH, the jurists of Islam have through a formalistic logic used analogy and consensus to encompass all aspects of individual and social life into a theocratic jurisdiction, which by its very nature became sacrosanct. The present and Future have been boxed-up into the Past. This straight jacket is responsible for the arrest of cultural and intellectual development.

The Second: governments in the successor states to the historic Muslim Super Powers, namely, the older ones, the UMMAYAD and the ABBASID, and the more recent ones: The OTTOMAN, the SAFAVID and the MOGOL; have become mainly one-man tyrannical Regimes. They have cowed down their people very effectively and deprived them of any genuine civil society organizations. They espoused policies of material and technological development, but blocked any real cultural, intellectual and human development.

Intellectual and cultural stagnation reinforced political stagnation, and the three pulled the Regions concerned outside History.

Angered by internal and external oppression, the extremists in the World of Islam have decided to advocate the case for the sacrosanct jurisdiction, to stand up to the local tyrants, and to challenge the external oppressors. Their experiences in Afghanistan, and the techniques of modern terrorist activities provided them with the know-how.


I shall not deal with all aspects of US policy toward the Islamic World, but only with it as it concerns political reform. Tyrannies in the Islamic World have employed all modern techniques to entrench despotic rule and to deprive civil society of any real autonomy.

Historically, such watertight dictatorships have only been dislodged as a result of direct external intervention. This was the case in Idi Amin’s Uganda, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and so on. Dictatorships, which are not so watertight, have changed under a two-pronged type of pressure: An internal pressure articulated by a relatively autonomous civil society movement, and external pressure. Regimes in the Muslim World today are in a position, where an internal and external pressure could complement each other towards the necessary reforms.



Part Two: Lessons for the Democratic Agenda

  • America’s adoption of a democratic Agenda for the Islamic/Arab World, and its decision to eschew the old alliance with dictatorial Regimes is good news. However, there are three catches that must be addressed, namely, that it is mere public relations for the war against terrorism, that it is another sign of arrogant unilaterism and that in the prevailing circumstances it will be tarnished by American unpopularity in the Region. The shift into a G8 initiative makes the initiative that much multilateral.
  • The initiative suffers from being that of outsiders. The Rabat summit, which sought to create a Forum for the Future with Arab States participation, is a partial redress. Civil Society in these countries is increasingly assertive. Its involvement at present is minimal. The Forum for the Future must be restructured to become truly threesome with powerful representation for political parties and civil society organizations. The aims of the forum must move from the generalities adopted at the Rabat Summit to specifics as, for example, “the Second Independence” declaration adopted in Beirut, March 2004. This or a similar document must be adopted as a Magna Carta for reform. It should specifically adopt a program of constitutional Monarchy for the Monarchies, and of a multi-party Democratic system for the present Republics.
  • US documents are full of declarations in favor of democracy, but when it comes to serious dealings, there is always preference for State authorities and/or armed groups to the neglect of the civilian mass organizations. When the US State Minister, Mr. Colin Powell, visited the Sudan in July 2004 out of concern for the Darfur crisis, he saw no reason why he should consult civilian mass organizations.

Current US democratic initiative consorts too much with official leaders and/or democrats without constituencies. Arab officialdom has repeatedly shown that it prefers to comfort fellow states rather than make them face realities. The last Algerian Summit was the latest indicator that their attitude to the Reform Agenda was not far exceed the public relations limits.

  • The circle of political forces that clamor for democratic transformation has now widened. It includes:
  • Islamicists without fanaticism.
  • Arab Nationalists.
  • Communists and Ex-Communists.
  • The traditional Liberalists.

They have already adopted a number of fundamental democratization Programs that have moved from generality to specifics. However, there are three challenges, which they must meet to capture the initiative from extremists and the expatriates. They are:

  • For the Islamicist, to take on the issue of Religion and Cultural Reformation head-on, and so pull their societies from being shackled to the Past to addressing the Future: “A loyalty which has a Future”.
  • For all of them, to espouse an effective advocacy of Pan Arab and Pan Islamic Causes, which is capable of achievement without resort to terrorist measures.
  • And to assert themselves in terms of mass action and civil activities that pressure authoritarian Regimes in favor of democratic reform.

It is clear now that most current Regimes in the Region have lost their legitimacy, and if the political forces of non-fanatic Islamicists, Arab Nationalists, ex-Communists and Liberals fail to meet the challenges, then the inevitable vacuum will be filled by the Agenda of the extremists, which will inevitably provoke outside intervention.

The conclusions from these lessons must inform the current democratization initiatives; otherwise, the initiatives will not achieve their goals.


Part Three: The Reform Agenda

Democratic aspirations in the Region are very old. The present externally inspired initiatives bear the mark of improvisation. The issue is very serious and if sustainable changes are sought, then the approach to it must be more studious and more comprehensive.

I propose the establishment of an Institute for Democratic Transformation, which should be set up by National Democratic forces with multilateral International technical and financial support to research, analyze, study and recommend courses of action in the following fields:

  • Religious and Cultural Reform

Already, there are several initiatives by Muslim Ulama and thinkers, which should be reconciled and coordinated. The Ansar organization in Sudan has organized workshops on the most important issues, which Muslims encounter. They propose to distribute their findings amongst a hundred Muslim academics, theologians and thinkers, and invite them to an NGO conference to deliberate on the matter and hopefully issue a collective input on the different issues. Without this clearance of the deck, political reform will be blocked by cultural curtains.

  • Non-state Organizations: Political Parties, Trade Unions and NGO’s are in many countries generally coming out of the shackles of the Totalitarian State:
  • Political parties, which are the building blocks of democracy suffer from three problems: the shackles of ascriptive loyalties of tribe and sect, the skepticism of the intelligentsia, which finds the one-man one-vote too little to cater for their real clout and the adverse impact of despotic Regimes on them having tried by all means to uproot them. A thorough program to deal with these problems and strengthen political parties is imperative.
  • Trade unions are important partners in a modern economy. They have been spoiled by ideological socialist attempts to make them vehicles for their utopia. They also suffered from the unfree nature of the market economy. They have suffered from the manipulation of totalitarianism. Their rehabilitation is a corner stone in democratic transformation.
  • Non Governmental Organizations are necessary partners in the participatory democracy. It is necessary to recognize the existence of many traditional society NGOs, they have an important hold on grassroots. They suffer from certain ascriptive shackles. Their involvement in the development process is necessary. Without their gradual democratization, the democratic constituency will be all that limited. Modern NGOs suffer from different drawbacks: They are either Government manipulated (GONGOs), or Donor Driven (DONGOs) or personally manipulated (MONGOs), etc. Institutional NGO work is not reached yet. Their reform is necessary for democratization program.
  • The Economy

It is not possible to effect a successful democratization without a viable economy. The economy must at least cater for basic needs, sustain a level of production, which pays for the institutions of administration and security and maintain a pattern of distribution, which rewards enterprise, and avoids deprivation for the mass of the peoples. This requires internal reform to espouse macro economic policies in favor of saving, investment, production and so growth. Policies which favor a genuinely free market economy, which provides social security nets for the poor. A high level of commitment to these targets should be complemented by progressive North/South policies, which should forgive external debts and agricultural subsidies, enhance North/ South trade and make development a serious item in the International Agenda

  • The Civil Service:

The civil service has been systematically manipulated by dictators. Its reform in all aspects is imperative. So is the independence of the judiciary. Without it democracy will not function.

  • The Regular Forces

The military, police and security. These institutions were the fatted calves of the colonial regimes. This imbalance enabled the military to be the judge of political power after Independence. The coup d’etat makers and the Regimes they set up simply increased the imbalance. A program to discipline the regular forces, wean them away from the power play and box them in their legal functions is imperative.

The traditionalists had had no place for democracy; they manipulated all types of disinformation to brand it sacrilegious.

The politicized elites of the fifties and sixties of last century depreciated democracy. The West dispensed with it in favor of loyal despots. All this has now changed. The effort to build it must rise to match the need.

If the response to the threat of terrorism leads to new and more just and enlightened terms for US Islamic relations or more generally North South relations, then it would be a most coveted sublimation, a phoenix of civilization rising from the ashes of Barbarism.