“What both American policy and Chinese Middle East policy have in common, rhetoric aside, is a shared focus on supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East,” stated University of Denver Middle East studies professor Nader Hashemi during a Sept. 14 webinar. Addressing the topic “Empowering Authoritarianism: Impact of Global Competition on Democracy and Human Rights in the Middle East,” he and his fellow panelists, many with solid anti-Israel records, distorted the 2020 Abraham Accords and Middle East democracy promotion.
Speaking in the framework of the Arab Center Washington, D.C.’s “U.S. Policy and Global Competition in the Middle East” conference, Hashemi noted American bipartisan support for the accords. Under this “widely touted agreement,” Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have established relations with Israel, something seen as “enhancing regional peace and stability,” he noted. Yet “in truth, the Arab accords represent a major setback for human rights and democracy in the region,” he objected, as if reducing Arab hostility to Israel had nothing to do with democracy promotion.
“The Abraham Accords is effectively an agreement between Israel and a set of Arab dictatorships to establish formal relations and to ignore Palestinian human and national rights,” asserted Hashemi. By contrast, any Middle East political liberalization “could jeopardize and destabilize the political rule of many of the key signatories of the Abraham Accords,” he said. Aside from the Iranian menace, the “more urgent threat in my view that binds Israel and its Arab allies together is the deep fear of regional democratization.”
He noted that “both Israel and many Arab authoritarian regimes strongly opposed the Arab Spring revolutions and they all celebrated the 2013 military coup in Egypt.”
Looking outside of the region, Hashemi’s analysis of Muslim reaction to Chinese repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang did not indicate any Muslim groundswell for human rights around the world. “Arguably, the worst human-rights crisis on the planet is unfolding in Xinjiang province in China,” which is “widely viewed by many people as a genocide,” he noted. Yet “regimes across the Middle East, whether they are allied with Iran or Saudi Arabia, have actually responded in unison to basically support Chinese policy against the Uyghurs.”
Hashemi and his fellow panelists saw no reason to temper their Islamic democracy boosterism after the false 2011 “Arab Spring.” The incessantly anti-Israel director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, noted that the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian governments have a “fear of electoral Islam” and “all share an interest in treating electoral Islam as Islamic extremism.” He gave no evidence why the presence of Islamist, sometimes violent, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parties throughout the region made such fears unjustified.
Similarly, Rutgers University law professor Sahar Aziz bewailed how American lawmakers “are persuaded by the fear-based narratives that Middle East authoritarians give them.”
“If you allow democracy the ‘radical Islamists’ will take over, we will have a civil war, it will become like the Syrian context, or the Libyan context, or the Afghan context,” she said, without showing why such disastrous outcomes are unrealistic. “I still am baffled as to why the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus continues to fall for these … laughable scenarios,” she added, again dismissing Islamists’ history of seizing power via “one person, one vote, one time.”
Particularly sobering had been President George W. Bush’s costly, failed democracy promotion strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Aziz implausibly dismissed them as insincere. “I don’t think it was genuine and authentic,” she said, without the slightest logic, of the “fraud of this so-called democracy promotion initiative under Bush and the neoconservatives.
She wrote on one of her slides that “Democracy Promotion is a Political Cover for Military and Political Intervention Post-Cold War”—an unconvincing explanation for Bush and other policymakers’ actions.
Aziz seemed to fantasize that free societies were the natural state for Muslim-majority nations. In one slide, she had written of “Middle East Exceptionalism, Not Islamic Exceptionalism” concerning a dearth of stable Islamic democracies, as if Pakistan or Indonesia were shining examples of liberalism. She instead ranted about “all of the Islamophobia that comes with discussions on democracy and the Middle East.”
Skewed political analysis also marked Sarah Leah Whitson, Roth’s likeminded anti-Israel former colleague at HRW. She now directs the pro-Islamist, pro-Qatari think tank Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), where Hashemi is a non-resident fellow. “There is, in fact, no true democracy in the Middle East at all. We have seen now a coup in Tunisia,” she observed in a pro-Islamist assessment of recent moves in that country against the Islamist Ennahda party. Her regional evaluation included the slander that Israel has “no more pretense that the mini-democracy within the expired Green Line qualifies as a democracy, given the apartheid rule over millions of Palestinians.”
In keeping with her pro-Islamist ideology, she noted “some semblance of political competition” in Iran and Iraq, ignoring widespread corruption and the mullahs’ tight control over candidate choices in Iran’s elections. Meanwhile, the UAE has a “complete absence of democracy,” she said, overlooking the UAE’s relative liberalism in the region.
Hashemi and his co-panelists’ preference for corrupt, authoritarian Islamist regimes over the signatories of the Abraham Accords lies in the latter’s willingness to adopt pro-Israel, pro-Western, anti-Islamist policies. From their sinecures as unaccountable tenured academics or ensconced think-tank directors, they represent a discredited status quo ante that, if reborn, will replace recent diplomatic advances with hostility and chaos. As with so many of our professional class’s policy prescriptions, this toxic one should be rejected.