(CNSNews.com) – What political parties call themselves is less important than what they do, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday night, referring to Islamist parties boosted by this year’s upheavals in the Arab world.
Addressing a National Democratic Institute (NDI) awards dinner, Clinton tackled head-on an issue that has given rise to growing anxiety in recent months – concerns that the so-called “Arab spring” will catapult anti-U.S. Islamists to power.
Concern centers on the projected rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the victory of the Islamist Ennahdha party in Tunisia’s elections for a constituent assembly late last month, and Libyan interim leaders’ remarks about the primacy of Islamic law (shari’a).
Clinton in her speech implicitly dismissed the notion that Islam and democracy cannot coexist.
“The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous and wrong,” she said. “They do it in this country every day.”
Adherence to democratic principles was crucial, she said: “Parties committed to democracy must reject violence, they must abide by the rule of law and respect the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, they must respect the rights of women and minorities,” she said.
“They must let go of power if defeated at the polls, and in a region with deep divisions within and between religions, they cannot be the spark that starts a conflagration,” she added.
“In other words, what parties call themselves is less important than what they do.”
In an earlier background briefing, an administration official touched on this aspect of Clinton’s speech.
“I think our fundamental point is that we’re less concerned about … what a party is called than about what it does,” the official said. “We’re less concerned about whether Islamists win or lose than we are about whether democracy is winning or losing in the process.
“And so if parties come to power that don’t respect the rules of democracy, then everybody loses, and we will be on the side of the citizens in those countries who have put so much hope in the democratic process and who have the primary role in enforcing those democratic standards in their own societies.”
The official described the speech as “an opportunity to address some really fundamental questions about the United States and our role in light of the Arab spring and the changes in the Middle East.”
Clinton also confronted the issue of the differing – inconsistent, say critics – responses by the administration to various situations in Middle Eastern and North African countries.
The U.S.-backed NATO military intervention in Libya, but has steered clear of any discussion of similar involvement in the crisis in Syria, where more than 3,000 people have been killed since President Bashar Assad began clamping down on anti-government protests in mid-March.
The administration responded cautiously to the crackdown on protests in Bahrain and had relatively little to say about demands for reforms in Saudi Arabia, but backed a Gulf Cooperation Council plan requiring Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign.
President Obama’s calls for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to step down also came far more swiftly than his call for Assad to leave: It took him about a week and half from the outbreak of violence in Libya to call for Gaddafi’s departure, and one week from the beginning of the Egyptian uprising to call for a “transition” to democracy and about two more to prod Mubarak to resign – but more than 22 weeks had passed since the outbreak of violence in Syria by the time he urged Assad to “step aside.”
“Situations vary dramatically from country to country,” Clinton told the NDI event. “It would be foolish to take a one-size-fits-all approach and barrel forward, regardless of circumstances on the ground.”
“Our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans’ lives – including our fight against al-Qaeda, defense of our allies, and a secure supply of energy.”
“There will be times when not all of our interests align,” she conceded. “That is just reality.”
Clinton said the administration has spoken out about the need for reforms in Bahrain, and had shared with the Saudis “our view that democratic advancement is not just possible, but a necessary part of preparing for the future.”
For Assad, she had a warning that “he cannot deny his people’s legitimate demands indefinitely.”
“Those leaders trying to hold back the future at the point of a gun should know their days are numbered.”
At Monday night’s dinner, the NDI posthumously honored three “champions of democracy” – former vice-presidential candidate and ambassador Geraldine Ferraro; former ambassador and assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke; and former ambassador and Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt.
The institute also presented a grant award to an Egyptian women’s rights organization, Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development.