Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2004
Volume 15
Issue 1
Page Numbers 182-86
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The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Iranian lawyer and human-rights activist Shirin Ebadi. The November 3 issue of the Weekly Standard featured an interview with her by Amir Taheri. Excerpts from her responses appear below:

I see the prize as a message from the international community to the people of Iran, especially to women, and beyond them, to the Muslim world. The message is that human rights belong to all mankind and that peace is possible only if they are respected. . . .

Those who fight for human rights in places like Iran, and many other developing countries, should always be prepared for the worst. But those who make threats would be wise to stop for a moment to ponder the undercurrents of history. They will see that the age of rule by fear is coming to a close throughout the world. Why should Iran be an exception? . . .

What we have in Iran is not a religious regime, but a regime in which those in power use religion as a means of staying in power. If the present regime does not reform and evolve into one that reflects the will of the people, it is going to fail, even if it adopts a secularist posture. I support the separation of state and religion because the political space is open to countless views and interests. This position is actually supported by the grand ayatollahs. So it is in conformity with the Shi’ite tradition. . . .

It is true that human rights are violated in most Muslim countries. But this is a political, not a religious, reality. We have had all sorts of regimes in Muslim countries, including secularists, Marxists, and nationalists. They, too, violated human rights. If corrupt and brutal regimes oppress their people, in what way is this a sign of Islam’s incompatibility with human rights?

Hossein Khomeni, the grandson of the founder and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, recently left Iran and relocated to Iraq. While on a visit to the United States, he gave a speech at the American [End Page 182] Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on September 26. Excerpts from that speech follow:

The important goal for the Iranian people in the revolution was the creation of democracy and political freedom, but after the victory of the revolution, as we all know, this was not followed and the goals were not achieved, and there were no freedoms . . . in Iran, and a greater and more ruthless dictatorship . . . became prevalent in Iran and still goes on.

Today, Iranian people again want democracy, they want freedom. Furthermore, they have experienced . . . a theocratic regime in Iran, and they have come to understand that religion and government cannot be one and the same. There should be a government of rationality, of people who believe in reason. There should be reliance, of course, on the wishes of the people, at the same time on the edicts of Islamic texts. There is no way to rule present communities in the Middle East, except the government of reason and rationality, and those forms of government which we call democratic regimes.

Democracy is compatible with all the basic values of Shi’ism and Islamic law, and faith is free; individuals . . . can follow a particular religion or not follow a particular religion, as they wish. A true Muslim is a Muslim that accepts religion freely. If everybody were supposed to become a Muslim, God himself would have turned everybody into Muslims. At the present time, the question is how we can get to democracy and freedom in our communities in the Middle East. Our nation is ready, but it cannot have any kind of activity because there is no leadership.

We cannot remain silent and watch the . . . further destruction of Iran and the Iranian       people. . . . What I have stressed in all my statements and talks is that I have asked all the free societies in the world to think and be concerned about those countries in the Middle East. . . . They should try to create hope in these people, in the Middle Eastern countries. . . . The establishment of freedom and democracy in Islamic countries is the guarantee of international peace. It is the guarantee of security in the world.


On September 18, Václav Havel, Arpád Göncz, and Lech Wałęsa— former presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, respectively—issued a statement published in newspapers around the world addressing the political situation in Cuba. The statement appears below:

Exactly half a year ago today Fidel Castro’s regime imprisoned 75 representatives of the Cuban opposition. More than 40 coordinators of the Varela project and over 20 journalists together with other representatives of various prodemocracy movements landed in jail. All of them were sentenced in mock trials to prison terms ranging from 6 to 28 years—merely for daring to express an opinion other than the official one. [End Page 183]

Yet the voice of freethinking Cubans is growing louder, and that is precisely what Fidel Castro and his government deservedly must be worried about. Despite the omnipresent secret police and government propaganda, thousands of Cubans have already demonstrated their courage by signing project Varela, which draws on the current Cuban constitution and calls for holding a referendum on the freedom of speech and assembly, the release of political prisoners, the freedom of enterprise, and free elections. The response of the regime to project Varela as well as other initiatives, however, is disregard in the better case and persecution in the worse case.

The latest wave of confrontations accompanied by anti-European diatribes by the Cuban political leadership can be regarded as nothing but an expression of weakness and desperation. The regime is running short of breath—just like the party rulers in the Iron Curtain countries did at the end of the 1980s. Internal opposition is growing in strength—even the police raids in March failed to bring it to its knees. The times are changing, the revolution is aging together with its leaders, the regime is nervous. Fidel Castro knows only too well that there will come a day when the revolution will perish together with him.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen then. However, the clearer it will be in Brussels, Washington, Mexico, among the exiles as well as Cuban residents themselves, that freedom, democracy, and prosperity in Cuba depend on the support for Cuban dissidents, the better the chances for a future peaceful transition of Cuban society to democracy.

Today it is the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition irrespective of how long the Cuban Stalinists still manage to cling to power. The Cuban opposition must experience the same international support as the representatives of political dissent did in the up to recently divided Europe. Condemning responses combined with specific diplomatic steps coming from Europe, Latin America, and the United States would thus be suitable means of exerting pressure on the repressive regime in Cuba.

It cannot be claimed that the American embargo of Cuba has brought about the results desired. Neither can this be said about the European policy, which has been so far considerably more forthcoming towards the Cuban regime. It is time to put aside transatlantic disputes about the embargo of Cuba and to concentrate on direct support for Cuban dissidents, prisoners of conscience, and their families. Europe ought to make it unambiguously clear that Fidel Castro is a dictator, and that for democratic countries a dictatorship cannot become a partner until it commences a process of political liberalization.

At the same time European countries should establish a “Cuban Democracy Fund” to support the emergence of a civil society in Cuba. Such a fund would be ready for instant use in the case of political changes on the island.

The historically recent European experience with peaceful transitions from dictatorship to democracy, be it earlier in Spain or later in the countries of [End Page 184] central Europe, has been an inspiration for the Cuban opposition. It is thus Europe in particular who should not hesitate now, in view of its own experience. It is obliged to do so by its own history.

Saudi Arabia

On September 24, a group of reformists in Saudi Arabia presented to King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah, and defense minister Prince Sultan a petition entitled “In Defense of the Nation.” Saudis from all regions of the country are numbered among its 306 signatories, 51 of whom are women. An excerpt from the petition, translated by Nada Abdelnour and Khalid Al-Dakhil of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, appears below:

Our country is witnessing increasing acts of violence by those who choose arms and bloodshed as a means of proving their existence, and impose their point of view instead of resorting to words and dialogue. This will result in costly damages to national security, social stability, and civil peace.

In such difficult circumstances, when our country is facing the most difficult internal and external challenges, expressing rejection and condemnation of the symptoms of extremism and violence in all its forms becomes a national, political, moral, and cultural necessity.

Based on our convictions that we—people and government—are partners in protecting the stability, security, and unity of the nation, we are all called upon to bear our responsibilities and to revise the steps we have been taking, and to recognize that holding out on reform for too long, and not allowing popular participation in decision making, are among the main factors that have led our country to the dangerous turning point at which it now finds itself. For this reason, we believe that denying all political, intellectual, and cultural trends in our society their natural right to express their views has resulted in the dominance of one [religious] trend that is incapable, by virtue of its own tenets, of engaging in a dialogue with others. Because this particular religious trend represents neither the tolerance nor the diversity of Islam, it has led to the rise of a school of thought bent on terrorism, and on accusing others of disbelief. Our country is still suffering from this.

Countering terrorism cannot be realized through security means and solutions only, but also by diagnosing the political, economic, social, and cultural factors behind it, and by immediately starting the implementation of the political and economic reforms, which have been expressed and developed in various forms of writings and speeches by many of those involved in the public affairs of our country. Among these was the petition entitled “Vision for the Present and Future of the Nation,” presented in January [2003] to the Crown Prince—may God protect him. In it a list of demands was made which included: setting up constitutional institutions of the state; allowing popular participation in decision making; turning the Majlis Ash-Shura (Consultative [End Page 185] Council) into an elected body, and enabling it to assume all the legislative and supervisory powers that go with this; implementing the principle of separation of powers; augmenting the independence of the judiciary; respecting human rights; legalizing the work of civil society organizations, and allowing for the evolution of religious, cultural and educational diversity that refuses unilateralism, takfir (excommunication), and all claims to the possession and monopoly of truth. Such a discourse would contribute to developing a pluralistic intellectual environment that helps to foster the values of a culture of tolerance and acceptance of the other, whoever he or she may be, and regardless of his or her national or religious affiliation.

The Arab World

The Arab Human Development Report 2003 is the second in a series of annual reports published by the UNDP to address the challenges to development facing the Arab world. The 2003 Report focuses in depth on the building of a knowledge society in Arab countries. Below are excerpts from a box (p. 149 of the report) headed “Knowledge and Government in the Arab World” authored by Ghassan Twainy. The report is available at

A major reason for the halting, if not arrested, progress of learning and cultural advancement in the Arab world may have been the failure of most Arab regimes, or so-called Arab systems, to relate to knowledge, in its multiple dimensions. From this governance gap there flowed a number of consequences:

. . . The absence, generally, as a corollary of absolutist governance, of critical thought. The obvious consequence of intolerant religious interpretations of values and ideals was the freezing of thinking into dépassé ideologies that permeated the minds and souls of a significant majority of so-called intellectuals. . . . The glorification of leaders and their systems led to rulers being equated with the nation, which rendered abject submission compulsory, and thus the persecution of free thinking admissible. Witness the endless numbers of jailed dissenters. Leadership was not questioned and the authority of the day, no matter how corrupt or despotic, was above accountability. . . .

A strange polity was born where excessive consumerism sometimes combined with an utter lack of imagination and inventiveness. Thus, the distressful spectacle of an Arab world where immense wealth was illicitly managed by despotic systems accumulating obscene fortunes while production, except of oil, sank, as did the Arab share of international trade. The people continued to live in a state of ignorance and indescribable poverty, hardly benefiting from this accumulated wealth and unaware of even their own most elementary rights to rebel or revolt, rights denied them by an oppressive force, the objective ally of neo-colonial exploitation. See Iraq!