May 22, 2013 10:30AM

Policy Life Stirs in Doha: Islamists and Democracy

Big conferences can be enervating, especially when large panels are populated with establishment political figures spouting the conventional wisdom. However, the Doha Forum, which I have been attending in Doha (surprise!), Qatar, sported a burst of spontaneity at a workshop on the role of Islamists in the Middle East.

While competing discussions of economics and technology were sparsely attended, the Islamist workshop overflowed. Islamists from Bahrain, Egypt, and Tunisia made the case that Muslim fundamentalists in those countries were dedicated to democracy and intended to be inclusive of all within their societies.

Most in attendance—at least those who asked questions (or made comments in the guise of asking questions)—were skeptical. The audience included many Westerners, but fellow Arabs led the attack. Attendees from Jordan and Kuwait, which have been at the periphery of the Arab Spring, were particularly critical. A Gulf journalist complained about Islamists who said one thing for his broadcasts but behaved differently in power (no American politicians have ever behaved that way!). A young female professional complained about the treatment of women, who helped overthrow authoritarian regimes but then faced increased discrimination.

The panelists stood their ground, but they didn’t seem to win many converts. So many people wanted to comment that the session went overtime a half hour. Both sides wanted to keep going, but the translators insisted that they needed a break before the next session.

While the tension between Islamic fundamentalism and revolutionary democracy has challenged U.S. policy, it even more directly affects those who live in the Middle East. It’s one thing to toss overboard archaic monarchies if the result will be liberal societies with democratic political systems. Revolution is quite another matter if the consequence will be fundamentalist societies ruled by authoritarian democracies.

The session reached no conclusion. But it highlighted a debate that will only intensify as the Arab Spring continues to reverberate throughout the region.