I recently attended a remarkable gathering in Washington, D.C., the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, cohosted by the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar. For the past eight years this event has been held in Doha, Qatar.
This year, of course, the “Muslim world” is in the midst of seismic change. It was a remarkable experience to be — at this moment — with state and diplomatic leaders, civic and humanitarian activists, and senior religious authorities from Muslim majority countries around the world, as well as their counterparts from the United States and other nations.
So I found myself next to the Iraqi ambassador to the United States in one session and next to a young Bahraini human rights activist at another. She was juggling a laptop, an iPhone and an iPod simultaneously (and with notable ease). I made a lighthearted remark about how she was redefining the meaning of multitasking for me. She responded graciously, with a lovely smile, and then told me she was following new pictures just released on the Internet showing that Bahraini political prisoners are being tortured. Her father and two brothers, she told me, are in those prisons. She was fierce with dignity.
Representatives of Turkey, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves the “democratic model” of the Arab world that others want to study and emulate.
Key players from the emerging Egyptian leadership were also in attendance, as were ministers from the new government in Tunisia. And the Egyptians and Tunisians were, to a one, quite transformative simply to be around. They seemed to glow. They manifest a sense of having lived through a miracle, even as they face the tasks ahead with gravity.
“We have discovered ourselves,” one longtime Egyptian activist proclaimed. And there is clearly no turning back on this collective self-discovery, painful and uncertain as the road ahead may be.
In a sense, this moment challenges Americans to a new era of self-discovery, too. As we watched ordinary men and women, young and old, become citizens for the first time on Tahrir Square, we saw a version of our own national narrative unfolding. The economic and foreign policy challenges ahead of us are profound — and will become even harder as countries like Saudi Arabia inevitably experience their version of the “Arab Spring.”
These events force us to ask hard questions of the policies we condoned for years, of decades-long dictatorships that we helped hold in power. More presently and importantly, they ask us to bring the best of our virtues, and the complexity of what we have learned in our own 200 years of democratic experiment, to the changed world we inhabit now.