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April 30, 2008

Carnegie’s “Junior Fellows” conference looks at new models of government

“[Liberal Democracy] is where the world was, not where it is going.” –Daniel Patrick Moynihan

At yesterday’s Junior Fellows Conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one thing was clear: The moment for democracy has passed.

Democracy, as a Western, American export has long died in its appeal. According to panelists with expertise from all over the world, including China, Russia, and Bangladesh, the world is currently in a “reverse” democratic wave, where other government models, like semi-authoritarian ones, are gaining support.

The keynote address was delivered by National Endowment for Democracy President, Carl Gershman. He, along with panelist Marina Ottaway, Director of Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program, both made points about Iran.

Iran was cited as an example of a semi-authoritarian state. Though arguably one of the more democratic systems in the Middle East—with competitive elections, open debates in parliament, etc.—Iran’s democratic maneuverability is restrained by the Council of Guardians, and other imprints of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, said panelists.

Ottoway, who juxtaposed the democratic model with ideological alternatives, like an Islamic state, was reluctant to give concrete examples. Similarly, she was not willing to discuss how historical and cultural factors have led to a backlash against democratic systems of governance.

As a recent graduate with coursework in Middle Eastern studies, I’m very concerned that democracy as an explicitly American export is actively creating Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East.

It is an almost uncontested fact that the Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, for example, came as a direct response to America’s growing influence in the country; and that, at least initially, the Islamic Revolution had nothing to do with Islam.

I felt that panelists at the conference were unwilling to look beyond theory to analyze today’s political climate from broader, sociocultural and historical perspectives. I also think that this is perhaps the reason why we are spinning our wheels in Washington.
I’m a firm believer (and you can blame the Cultural Anthropologist in me) that without the proper cultural and historical critiques in place, it is impossible to make any political headway.

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