ST. PETERSBURG — With Arab countries in the throes of revolution, Radwan A. Masmoudi's talk this week at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg seems aptly timed. ¶ Masmoudi, who was born in Tunisia, is the founder of the Center of the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. He was concerned about the future of the Muslim world under oppressive and tyrannical regimes when he decided to start the center in 1999, Masmoudi said. ¶ "I felt that as a Muslim-American, I had a duty and an obligation to be the bridge between the U.S. and the Muslim world and to help strengthen and promote the values of freedom and democracy'' in those countries, he said in an e-mail. ¶ Masmoudi, 47, recently returned from Tunisia and agreed to answer a few questions about developments in the Muslim world. Waveney Ann Moore, Times staff writer
Why was the world caught off guard when the struggle for democracy took hold in Tunisia and blazed across Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, Iran and other Muslim countries?
If the world had been listening to what I and my colleagues at CSID have been saying for the past 10 years, it would not have been caught off guard. A lot of people had been assuming falsely that Arabs and Muslims do not care about democracy and are not willing to fight for it. We knew, from visiting all these countries and talking with thousands of activists, that this was not true.
What's fueling these revolts?
There are two main characteristics of these Arab countries: Lack of basic freedoms, especially freedom of expression and freedom of organization, and excessive and out-of-control corruption. These countries are not poor. They have huge resources, but many people are poor because of excessive corruption and cronyism by the ruling family and elite.
What role is Islam playing in these rebellions?
Islam is the religion of most Arabs — 99 percent in Tunisia and 92 percent in Egypt. Like any other religion, Islam can be interpreted in different ways by different people. Traditional scholars of Islam unfortunately emphasize submission to the ruler as a prerequisite to social peace and harmony. Of course, the rulers have for centuries been corrupt and oppressive and so they have encouraged this traditional viewpoint. However, more and more in the 20th century and the 21st century, we are hearing more modern interpretations of Islam which emphasize human rights, equality and freedom, and make it compulsory on the rulers and the regimes to respect these basic values.
What role should the United States play in the internal struggles of these countries?
I was very happy and pleased that the Obama administration made it very clear to the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers and militaries that they cannot and should not use violence to quell the protests. This really helped to encourage the people to come out into the streets and express themselves peacefully. Once it became clear that the majority wanted the rulers to leave, it was "game over" for them. Countries that are not closely allied with the U.S., such as Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Iran, will be more problematic and difficult because the military will probably crack down on the peaceful demonstrations and there will be a lot of violence, as is happening today in Libya.
Since you are originally from Tunisia, what insight can you offer about the revolt that began there?
For the past 10 years, I have been traveling to at least one Arab country every month, so I have been to all of them, except Iraq and Syria. I have always believed and said that Tunisia is the country in the Arab world that is the most ready to become a real, progressive and genuine democracy. Tunisia has a small and homogenous population, a strong middle class, excellent education, a very good infrastructure, advanced women's rights, a strong and diverse economy, and not too much poverty or illiteracy.
Would you hazard a guess at what will be the outcome in Libya?
Ultimately, Gadhafi will have to go. The only question is, at what cost? If the U.S. and the international community immediately recognize the national coalition government as the only legitimate government in Libya, continue to bomb the Gadhafi brigades that are killing civilians and shelling entire cities, like Misrata and Brega, and provide arms and humanitarian support to the transitional government, then I think it can all end within a couple of weeks.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.