The dream of democracy

At a recent business conference, I witnessed all that Arab-Muslims are “incapable” of.

Just a few weekends ago, I participated in the annual conference for the International Academy of Business Disciplines (IABD) in San Diego.,What’s all this nonsense about Arabs and Muslims being incapable of democracy, modernization and dialogue with those dubbed “infidels?”

At a recent business conference, I witnessed all that Arab-Muslims are “incapable” of.

Just a few weekends ago, I participated in the annual conference for the International Academy of Business Disciplines (IABD) in San Diego.

Since 1989, the IABD has brought together businesspeople from around the world to discuss issues concerning economies, emerging technologies and political and social communication.

Unlike similar but more competitive forums, IABD prides itself in its collaborative rather than combative nature.

The president of this year’s conference was Emerson’s own Dr. J. Gregory Payne. He invited 15 Emerson students to the conference to both take part in and report on the event. The group worked closely with the founder of IABD, Abbass Alkhafaji, a professor at Slippery Rock University.

Alkhafaji is a man of great warmth and impressive character who carries a remarkable life story. After serving as a conscript in Saddam Hussein’s army, Alkhafaji fled Iraq in the 1970s and arrived in America without the luxury of knowing English.

Since then he has not only mastered the language but also his field. Today, Alkhafaji is a prominent figure in the world of business management, serving as a popular keynote speaker and a bestselling author. And Alkhafaji is not unique.

In fact, of the approximately 300 people in attendance at the conference, as many as half did not fit the typical profile of a businessman: white and male.

Among the Americans were a plurality of blacks and women, and comprising the international crowd were Indians, Arabs, Hindus and Muslims.

These were rooms full of people who should have been fighting one another. Instead, this intelligent group was conversing, thanks to previous access to education and subsequent economic success. And that-education and economy (or rather, lack there of)-is the rub.

Consider for a moment Islamic society during the Ottoman Empire. While “civilized” Europe was busy bludgeoning itself with feudal wars, the Muslim world sat on a social and cultural pinnacle.

Certainly, this was not a period of democracy, and Islam of course played a leading role.

But with commerce came cross-cultural conversation. The economy was sound and non-Muslims were treated well. This was especially the case for Jews, whose treatment during this time period in the Muslim world may very well rival the current Judeo-Christian relationship (Prophet Mohammed designated the followers of Abraham and Christ as “protected peoples”).

Unfortunately, invasion from the East, followed by brutal colonization from the West and a global dependency on stable oil markets replaced agreeable aristocracies with atrocious autocracies.

With resources pillaged, economies destroyed and education limited to serving the state, the people were robbed of everything. Terrorism is never justified, but it is understandable that some facing this desperate situation find striking at those perceived as the cause of their plight to be an answer.

Clearly then, Arab-Muslim extremism is not in the genes, but in the politics. Fortunately, politics can change if we make the effort. The IABD conference was a perfect prototype because it allowed for both intra-and intercultural communication.

The focus of the conference was neither democracy nor Western-Arab relations, but it did not have to be, because democracy is merely an idea; business, global economics and political communication is how democracy tangibly manifests itself. Discussing the latter therefore promotes the former.

The state cannot be democratic if the people are not first so. Before democracy can march across the Middle East, before elections can be held and before free expression can be guaranteed, there must be dialogue.

After all, how can government be established of, for and by the people if the people do not know how to design and implement one?

Democrats around the world must unite to construct the institutions and foundations that will eventually support a robust democracy in places where today only tyranny reigns. This process requires patience, diligence and a grassroots mentality.

Democracy begins small, at non-governmental and apolitical forums like IABD that bring together people to discuss ideas and alternatives, problems and prospects.

Contrary to popular political thought, it is a quiet conversation over coffee, not the loud shot from the sheriff’s gun, which yields the democratic state.

It begins not with a bang, but a whimper.