The conference was convened by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Dar Al Watan, a leading Kuwaiti publisher of newspapers and magazines, including the Arabic edition of Foreign Policy. Participants included Islamic activists and intellectuals from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Iraq as well as scholars and policy-makers from the United States and Europe. Middle East participants included Muslim Brothers, Shiite clerics and members of Salafist and jihadist organizations. All, including the jihadists, rejected violence; most professed support for democratic principles. All were deeply suspicious of the United States and its policies in the Middle East, but expressed interest in continuing the dialogue. 

Views on Political Reform and Democracy

Reform. Participants agreed that Arab countries urgently need far-reaching political reform, but argued that only reforms rooted in Islam can succeed. Only Islamic movements have deep roots in Arab society and can express accurately the wishes of the umma, or community of believers. Furthermore, secular political programs have failed utterly.

Nevertheless, participants identified several constraints to Islamist groups' ability to bring about political reform. These include the Islamists' lack of a coherent program of political reform and the fragmentation of their movements, non-Islamists' doubts about the sincerity of Islamists' commitment to democratic principles, low levels of political awareness among Arab publics, and the persistence of authoritarian rule. Most participants agreed that Islamists needed to offer better-defined programs and to articulate their commitment to democratic values more clearly.

Political participation. Most participants asserted that the majority of Islamic political movements have adopted a strategy of peaceful participation in politics combined with social action to achieve gradual reform. Governments should not fear the participation of Islamic groups because political inclusion leads to moderation. Some participants warned, however, that there could be a resurgence in radicalism and violence if Arab regimes exclude Islamist groups from political participation and otherwise repress them. In support of this idea, a participant pointed out that Gamal Abdel Nasser's repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt radicalized some members of that movement, leading them to establish violent groups. (See also section on jihad.)

Democracy. Most participants accepted democratic principles including separation of powers, rotation of power, and pluralism, and argued Islamic movements should forge coalitions with non-Islamist groups on issues of mutual concern. The issue whether such cooperation should extend only to other Islamist groups or liberals, secularists, and non-Muslims as well was never addressed sufficiently.

Many fundamental issues concerning democracy remained unclear throughout the debates. One is how the concept of the collective good of the umma, which all participants saw as their ultimate priority, can be reconciled with the concepts of individual rights and freedom of expression that are fundamental to democracy. Some members of Salafist groups, which adhere to a strict interpretation of Islamic texts, argued that democracy is incompatible with Islam because it elevates individual rights above the communal wishes of the umma. Other participants did not address this issue clearly.

The participants were also ambiguous about the nature of an Islamic state, the establishment of which is their main objective. They provided few details about what such a state would look like and how it would function, except that it is clear that such a state should be based on sharia, or Islamic law. But no definitive answer was offered to the question of what would happen if an Islamist group came to power through a democratic process, implemented sharia, and subsequently was voted out of office. Would Islamists accept the successor government's reversal of the implementation of some aspects of sharia

All but one participant agreed that Islam recognizes women's rights, including full rights of political participation. The dissenter argued that giving women political rights goes against the Quran and the Sunna (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed).

Jihad. Participants argued that the true meaning of jihad is peaceful striving for reform, thus reform and jihad are integrally linked. Muslims who seek political reform, one participant argued, ought to wage jihad as the optimal third way between political passivity and violence. 

Some participants challenged the idea that jihad always means peaceful action, arguing that the form jihad takes is contingent on the actions of incumbent regimes. When debate and participation are open, jihad is peaceful; when regimes repress Islamic movements, violence is justified and becomes part of jihad.


Participants from Iraq shared their perspectives on the emergence of the Islamist (predominantly Shiite) movement in post-Saddam Iraq. Severe repression under Saddam Hussein's rule has led the Iraqi Islamist movement to be more pluralistic and more moderate than similar movements elsewhere in the region.

Iraqi participants also pointed out that in contrast to the experience of other Middle Eastern countries, what is happening in Iraq is not reform but a wholesale remaking of the society. Reform must rise from within society and must not be "imported" from the United States. They emphasized that the situation in Iraq is dangerous and complicated and it is impossible to predict what will happen, although it is likely that Islam will play a major role in politics.

The Role of the United States

Participants were deeply skeptical of the United States as a promoter of democracy in the Middle East, with the exception of the Iraqi participants who expressed a somewhat more positive opinion about the U.S. role. They saw democracy promotion by the U.S. as inseparable from the use of military force, and were convinced that other countries will be invaded and occupied as Iraq has been. They also pointed out that the U.S. has a long history of supporting friendly authoritarian regimes in the region; despite the recent shift in American rhetoric to emphasize democracy and human rights, that policy remains unchanged, as does U.S. support of Israel. Finally, many participants worried that the "American project" to promote democracy involves not only the use of force but also the exporting to the region of values that will undermine Islam.

A few participants appeared more open to a U.S. role but doubted that the U.S. was ready to accept what political reform might bring. "Those who want democracy will have to suffer the consequences," one participant warned. Most, however, rejected any role for the U.S., because American interests inherently clash with those of the umma. They also believe that the U.S. is fundamentally hostile to Islamist movements because they represent an alternative view of modernity that challenges Western cultural and political hegemony. They called for an end to foreign intervention in Arabs' internal affairs. Most participants agreed that how the U.S. reacts to Iraqis' political choices will be the main test of the U.S.'s commitment to democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Conference Participants
Mohammed Abdul Jabar, Iraq, editor, Islam and Democracy
Maher Abdullah Ahmed, Jordan, Al Jazeera television
Hussain Abbas Al Adli, Iraq, Islamic scholar
Henri Barkey, United States, Lehigh University
Francois Burgat, France, Institut de Recerches et d'Etudes sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman
Les Campbell, United States, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs
Abdul Wahhab El Effendi, Britain, University of Westminster
John Esposito, United States, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University
Raheel Al Gharaibah, Jordan, Islamic Action Front
Amy Hawthorne, United States, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Khaled Sultan bin Issa, Kuwait, Islamic Heritage Society; former member of parliament
Mohammed Al Jassem, Kuwait, editor in chief, Al Watan
Ibrahim Al Jafaari, Iraq, Dawa party; member, Iraqi Governing Council
Salahildeen Al Jorashi, Tunisia, editor, Al Maarifa; Al Nahda party
Lisa Kaplan, United States, Department of State
Jamal Al Khashogji, Saudi Arabia, Embassy of Saudi Arabia, London; former editor, Al Watan (Saudi Arabia)
Bassma Kodmani, France, Ford Foundation, Egypt
Abou AlIlah Al Mahdi, Egypt, Al Wasat party
Ziad Majed, Lebanon, International IDEA
Michael Miklaucic, United States, U.S. Agency for International Development
Adel bin Abdul Rahman Al Muawadeh, Bahrain, member of parliament
Marina Ottaway, United States, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Mohamed Qahtan, Yemen, Islah party
Kamal Al Saeed, Egypt, Islamic movement
Sheikh Hassan bin Moussa Al Saffar, Saudi Arabia, Shiite scholar; co-founder, Islamic movement
Sheikh Ali Salman, Bahrain, National Islamic Islamic Society (Al Wifaq)
Hassan Salman, Iraq, Islamic scholar
Ismail Al Shatti, Kuwait, Gulf Institute for Future and Strategic Studies; former member of parliament
Mohamed Shamman, United States, Al Watan (Kuwait) Washington bureau
Jamal Sultan, Egypt, Islamic Reform Party
Montasir Al Zayat, Egypt, lawyer