• 30 April 2008
  • Posted By Shadee Malaklou
  • Events in DC, Panel Discussion

“[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.

Posted By Shadee Malaklou

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

  1. I am interested to read your responses!

  2. Michael Mahyar Hojjatie says:

    Democracy is encouraged, often violently forced upon other civilizations by Western muscle. But alas, as was the case in Palestine (a definite hotbed of non-Western ideologies), look how it can sometimes “backfire”. Hamas provides jobs, hospitals, schools, and security for the Palestinians, so why WOULDN’T they vote for “the bad guys”? One man’s terrorist is another man’s patriot. Dilemmas, dilemmas!

    And really, as we are seeing in this presidential election, democracy has this awful tendency to create identity politics. Now more than ever it seems a good chunk of the American populace is simply looking at the candidates then looking in the mirror and saying “yeah, I identify with that!” and choosing who to vote for without actually hearing the candidate’s credibility. Might as well just look at a photo of the candidate and decide, if we’re going to be so shallow!

  3. Mark Pyruz says:

    I wasn’t there, but it almost sounds like the debate revolves around Western liberalism and cultural alternatives, such as the Islamic Republic. Remember, democracy has its own variations, starting with example of anciant Greece in the Western tradition.

    I agree with your observation, Shadee, regarding the Iranian Revolution.

    Michael is also right to point out that the popular American notion of democracy is subjective, and that the American model containes constraints that are something near in comparison to the Iranian model, by means of its lack of viable political parties beyond the 2-party system. Hence, you have a condition close to Principalists and Moderate Conservatives right here in the US, and barriers to other parties.

  4. nader says:

    The two basic characteristics of the Western way of life are a prideful arrogance and a devotion to selfish pleasure. This prideful arrogance often manifests itself in the belief – by Western peoples of all races – that the Western way is superior, “progressive” and even “enlightened”. It is also manifest in the belief – backed if necessary by naked military force – that Western laws have or should have sway over the whole world: that is, that Western governments have the “right” to do what they like, such as invade another country on some pretext or other, or enforce their laws upon another people even if those people do not recognize and do not accept such Western laws .
    We must understand that the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
    As a student of American history, I get very concerned and somewhat frightened when I hear some of its citizens (private or other vise) talk about human rights,democracy and freedom in other parts of the world. America’s cheapening of the cause of human rights and democracy by getting involved in alleged or phony humanitarian crises under the banner of human rights to advance its own interest is a matter of public record.
    Today, the biggest obstacle to freedom and democracy around the world, the biggest obstacle to implementation of human rights, the biggest obstacle to human dignity and indeed the biggest threats to the survival of humanity itself is united states of America.

  5. Michael Mahyar Hojjatie says:

    Countries in Europe barely the size of Nebraska and with a trickle of America’s population have over a dozen parties represented. Yet America, which spans two oceans and has over 300 million documented people, is dominated by only two parties. I sense something is fundamentally very wrong with that!

  6. Friends,

    I want to take a moment to bring the conversation back to NIAC, and our goal to civically engage the Iranian-American community in exactly these kinds of debates.

    How does the disconnected mindset described at the conference affect the way legislators draft policies, especially towards Iran? One thing is clear: Washington is desperate for an Iranian-American perspective on these issues. We need to be more vocal.

    The Iranian-American community throughout the US, sadly, might not know that these kinds of conversations are happening in Washington, DC. The point I made about the Islamic Revolution, for example, is a little known fact inside the Beltway. (Most Washingtonians tend to think that the Iranians welcomed an Islamic state with open arms.)

    I encourage all of you to engage your legislators about topics like US-funded democracy promotion inside Iran. Many of you already know about NIAC’s efforts to combat the US State Department’s Democracy Slush Fund. We need your help to convince Congress that measures like these only hurt efforts towards democracy.

    You can read more about the Democracy Slush Fund and its disastrous consequences here: http://www.niacouncil.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1028&Itemid=2

    Again, thank you all for your thoughtful analysis.

  7. azadeh says:

    Democracy is an indigenous phenomenon. It is not something that can be exported with bombs and missiles to other countries. True democracy might take more than 100 years to settle in a culture. Things that might be considered elements of democratic society might be socially and culturally unacceptable in other societis. So we must be very careful when we talk about democracy, it is not one size fits all phenomenon.

  8. Mehdi says:

    I think NIAC has started on the correct path. Obviously, that is why I am a member. In the West, there is definitely a huge gap of understanding of the fabric of the Iranian culture. Most Westerners are confused about that whole region. And of course there are always opportunists who want to take advantage of this vacuum of data and sell their weapons or something of the sort.

    I think a lot of Iranians, especially those who have been living outside of Iran want to help fill that gap. But we need stronger leadership and direction. We need organization, training, etc. I think NIAC should plan for expansion, should draw up projects and ask us for support – financial or otherwise. I think a lot of people are willing to help but they don’t necessarily know what to do or how to effectively contribute. Leadership and organization is needed.

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Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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