On Oct. 1, over 30 Middle Eastern American groups gathered at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., to discuss something that is only whispered about in their native lands: freedom.
The Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy, a conference organized by the Washington-based Center for Freedom in the Middle East along with a number of Middle Eastern American pro-democracy groups, had hundreds of participants representing a wide range of countries, ethnicities and religions.
The participants challenged the conventional wisdom about a region that often is regarded as little more than a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Perhaps more importantly, they presented a moderate, patriotic alternative to radical Islamist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which have largely shaped much of the dialogue about the Middle East in the United States.
“Our families left the Middle East because no Middle Eastern nation provided the unequaled freedoms, liberties and religious tolerance which the United States guaranteed us,” says Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which was represented at Friday’s event. “Because of that, the fight for freedom and liberty and against the theocrats of the Middle East is a charge that must be led by American citizens of Middle Eastern descent.”
For organizations like Jasser’s, as well as others such as the Saudi Institute, the Reform Party of Syria and the U.S. Alliance for Democratic Iran, Friday’s conference—which was the largest of its kind to date in the United States—represented an opportunity to challenge those who generalize the people of the Middle East as hopelessly incompatible with democratic principles.
Indeed, despite scant media coverage, in recent years Arab and Muslim pro-democracy advocates—both in the U.S. and abroad—have begun to make their presence felt, largely through previously unavailable venues such as satellite television, clandestine radio and the Internet.
This has made for some often harrowing experiences, particularly in the Middle East, where freedom of expression is forbidden, the media is tightly controlled, and dissenters are more likely to be found in places like Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison than in the halls of Parliament. Nevertheless, the voices for change, both in the Middle East and in the U.S, have not fallen silent.
“For years we have been told by the governments in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria that if we challenge them, the region will fall to Islamic fundamentalists, since there is no other alternative,” says Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria. “Of course, these governments have also made sure that such alternatives do not exist by systematically jailing, torturing and executing anyone who dissents.”
Friday’s conference provided Ghadry and others with a forum to contest what they call “common biases” associated with the Middle East and its attitudes toward the U.S.
Most public polls, for instance, suggest that Arabs and Muslims strongly disagree with American policies in the Middle East, including the promotion of democracy. The reality, however, is more nuanced. While many in the region undoubtedly dislike the U.S.—the inevitable result of a daily barrage of Islamist and state-sponsored anti-American propaganda—there is still much reason for hope.
For example, Reza Bulorchi, director of US Alliance for Democratic Iran, notes that 70 percent of the population of the Middle East is below the age of 30.“The aspiration for freedom is shared by a vast majority of the Middle East, and, particularly, the younger generation,” he says.
Considering that the Middle East is usually known for exporting conflict and strife, Friday’s gathering represented the beginning of a new and vital stage in the war of ideas. For the first time, a large number of Middle Eastern American groups in the United States came together publicly to reject terror, repression and fanaticism and to embrace the principles of freedom and democracy on which the U.S. was founded.
“There are many different perspectives in the Middle East, but, until now, the extremists have largely been able to set the tone when it comes to public debate,” says Michael Meunier, executive director of Center for Freedom in the Middle East and president of the U.S. Copts Association, one of the organizers of Friday’s event. “We want to change that.”
Since 9/11, we have learned all too well about the extremism and totalitarianism that pervade much of the Middle East. On Friday, Oct. 1, America finally saw that there is an alternative.