On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world,” they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.
Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.
The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.
Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), the organization that organized the “Casablanca Call,” noted that education is at the core of any development effort and that freedom of expression must include academic freedom in schools and universities. Any punishment or silencing of academic, scientific, political, economic, or religious speech is wrong and does not contribute to real and meaningful democracy, he said.
This “Casablanca Call” – which was overlooked by an American media preoccupied with midterm elections – also demands the release of all political prisoners, an end to torture, an independent judiciary and the supremacy of the rule of law, independent political parties, protection and recognition for independent civil society groups, respect for press freedom, and much, much more.
The group has set a goal of 2,000 signatures. As of this writing, around 1,000 Arab leaders from across the region have signed the appeal, representing groups that are secular and Islamic, civil and political.
The appeal also takes aim at political divisions among Arabs that are rooted in disagreements over the role of religion in political life. It urges Arabs to address and recognize the “interconnectedness of political reform with the renewal of religious thought,” and supports “the dialogue that began several years ago between Islamists and secularists at the local and regional levels.” That dialogue, according to the statement, would provide a “solid ground for the protection of democracy and human rights.” The appeal also calls for “ijtihad” – independent religious inquiry – in a “climate of complete freedom of thought, under democratic systems of government.”
The statement comes at a fraught moment for Muslim democrats. Although some democracy specialists have estimated that around half of the world’s more than one billion Muslims live in “democracies, near democracies or intermittent democracies,” there are no fully free nations in the Middle East, according to Freedom House’s 2010 Freedom in the World Report. As the Report notes, “Violence remains a dominant theme in the politics of the region and a significant impediment to the exercise of fundamental freedoms” in many countries.
Why democracy is having difficulty taking root in Arab countries is puzzling because polls confirm that “Arabs show a clear preference for a democratic system….” The reasons for democratic failure are complex, according to specialists. Democratic transitions are difficult, and attended by many uncertainties. Distrust between competing groups, moderate Islamists, secularists, and others is widespread. It is the historic distrust among these groups that makes the “Casablanca Call” so impressive. While differences remain – differences which have religious and cultural dimensions – the “Call” reinforces the argument that these differences are not rooted in the belief that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
The statement’s fearless call for self-examination and reform within the Arab world does not let the rest of the world off the hook. It also urges “democratic forces in the entire world to put pressure on their own governments to refrain from supporting non-democratic regimes in the Arab world, and from adopting double standards in their relations with Arab regimes”.
Although the Casablanca participants did not single out the U.S., Muslim democrats have been disappointed with U.S. policy, under Presidents Bush and Obama, who are viewed as having put democracy and human rights issues on the backburner.
The CSID conducted the conference, in cooperation with the Centre MADA, a civil society organization based in Casablanca.