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McGill Reporter
February 19, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 11
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Wallenberg Lecture

"There are very few people prepared to stand, let alone be counted — Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of these people." These were the words of Professor Irwin Cotler in his introduction of the renowned scholar, author and former prisoner of the Egyptian government. There are those who campaign tirelessly for democracy and human rights, and then there is Ibrahim, who takes his place in the trenches on the front line. Last month Ibrahim gave a talk, "The Challenges for Islam and Human Rights" as the Wallenberg Memorial Lecture in McGill's Faculty of Law and became the most recent recipient of McGill's Robert S. Litvack Award. Ibrahim's message was clear: "We must encourage a more moderate Islam; more tolerant and enlightened Muslims."

After 9-11, Islam and Muslims were thrust into the spotlight; some of the scrutiny was out of curiousity, much was out of fear. "Islam is described by many as an ailing and desperate religion willing to engage in terrorism and suicide, but this is simply not the case," said Ibrahim. "A small percentage of angry and brainwashed militants exist who believe that the West is responsible for their misery." These militants may claim to fight under the banner of Islam, but they do not do so for the good of all Muslims.

In order to explain — but not justify — their actions, Ibrahim felt it necessary to recite a brief history of Islam. "The 7th to 12th century marked the glory days of Islam," he began. "The religion dominated the world and Muslim nations represented the world power — scientifically, culturally and militarily." Islam spread from the west coast of Spain to the Great Wall of China, but like many empires before and after, it became a victim of its own might and collapsed from within. Muslims felt threatened by the subsequent colonialism and exploitation of the rising Western powers. "The grievances may be legitimate," said Ibrahim. "But the means are certainly not."

Ibrahim is determined to bring about a change in the Islamic religion. "We need to compete, not defeat," he said. "We need to move forward, not retreat." According to Ibrahim, the voices of moderation have always been present in the Islamic world, but they have been quietened and marginalized by the leadership within their countries. Ibrahim has spent years campaigning for more democratic governments in Islamic nations. "Democracy has spread through almost every region of the world," he said. "There's no reason it cannot take hold in the Middle East as well."

Pressure for democratic change does not sit well with many leaders in the Muslim world — many are renowned for maintaining their grip on power by suffocating their closest opposition. Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has been criticized as being anything but democratic. On June 30, 2000, Ibrahim and 27 of his associates from the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies were arrested. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in prison for receiving funding without authorization, dissemination of false information abroad, and appropriating money by fraudulent means. The charges largely related to the implementation of voter education and election-monitoring projects funded by the European Union.

According to Amnesty Inter-national and Human Rights Watch, the charges against Ibrahim were politically motivated and were an attempt to muzzle civil society in Egypt. The cases were tried in the Supreme State Security Courts, which fall far short of the international legal standard for a fair trial. The elderly Ibrahim, in failing health, spent 300 days confined to a cell as punishment for his vision of a democratic Egypt. His plight made international headlines. It was a terrible abuse of power and proved Ibrahim's point. "No one is safe unless every citizen protests what in effect is a reversion to mediaeval practices of autocracy," he stated.

Mubarak, who has been in power for two decades, has done nothing to promote a modern, democratic succession in Egypt. Moreover, he seems intent on installing his son Gamal in power. The United States, which gives Cairo $2 billion a year, has done far too little to counter this. George W. Bush admitted to US support of autocratic regimes over the past 60 years, but stated that this will no longer happen. "Bush has said the right thing," said Ibrahim. "I just hope he follows through on his promise."

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