Sima Wali, Champion of Afghan Women’s Rights, R.I.P.


Sima Wali, who fled the Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan in 1978 to wage what she called a “jihad for peace and equality” by women against “gender apartheid” imposed by the Communists and then by the Taliban, died on Sept. 22 at her home in Falls Church, Va. She was 66, The New York Times reports:

Ms. Wali had worked for the American Embassy and the Peace Corps in Afghanistan in her 20s before the 1978 coup. She then settled in Washington, where she became a United States citizen and organized Refugee Women in Development, an advocacy group, now dissolved, that sought to empower victims of war and genocide.

She further championed the rights of Afghan women after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to rout the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalists whom Washington accused of providing a haven for the terrorists who had masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. With the formation of a new Afghan government under United Nations auspices, Ms. Wali successfully lobbied to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul, the country’s capital.

The late Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and Democratic congressman from California, once lauded her for “pioneering culturally specific approaches in assisting refugee women to resist trauma and violence,” The Washington Post adds:

After the Taliban, which seized power in 1996, drew international condemnation for its brutal subjugation of women, Ms. Wali often acted as a cultural interpreter for Westerners seeking to understand the perils facing the country. She defended Islam, blaming the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights on a grotesque distortion of the faith.

“Everybody is talking about the burqa,” she told Agence France-Presse in 2001, referring to the head-to-toe veil the Taliban forced women to wear. “That is the least of my problems,” she said, listing concerns that included access to medical care, education and work.

When she visited Afghanistan in 2005 under a program financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, Ms. Wali barely escaped being taken hostage near the Pakistani border by what she described as a mob of armed Taliban insurgents and other fundamentalists. Still, she insisted that the problem in Afghanistan was not Islam but the Taliban, The Times adds.

“The Taliban is using culture and religion to keep women down,” she said in 1998 at a seminar for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, “but there is nothing in my religion that teaches keeping women at home, not educating them, starving them and withholding medical treatment from them so they die.”

She added, “Islam teaches us to care for and protect women.”

How to put the demos back into European democracy

Liberal democracies confront a range of domestic and international challenges. In Europe, the most serious threats come from a blend of ideological and institutional inertia in the face of a virulent upsurge of illiberal populism, analysts suggest.

For the second year in a row, the European Parliament hosted a conference in celebration of the International Day of Democracy on 27 September, teaming up with four democracy support organizations: European Endowment for Democracy (EED), European Network of Political Foundations (ENoP), European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), and Office of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) to the EU, as well as the European External Action Service and the European Commission, the EED notes.

How to put demos back into democracy?

Civil society plays a key role in promoting political engagement, Šimon Pánek, Co-founder and Director of People in Need, told the conference (right).

“Young people engage more easily in society and politics, but many others remain indifferent, considering the limited outreach of NGOs,” he said. “However, even if only 20 per cent of youth are getting involved, one should not forget that these are allies when it comes to reaching out to others.”

According to The Paris Statement, a manifesto of conservative intellectuals, “recovering an awareness of political agency and a spirit of national loyalty would allow Europe to take on its challenges.” The statement is in part a defense of the nation-state, which also “reads, quite plainly, as a manifesto for a certain kind of social conservatism that opposes a certain kind of modernity,” one observer notes.

But the statement “strikes an ambivalent tone” on the populist movements stalking Europe, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes for The National Review, as it states:

We have our reservations. Europe needs to draw upon the deep wisdom of her traditions rather than relying on simplistic slogans and divisive emotional appeals. Still, we acknowledge that much in this new political phenomenon can represent a healthy rebellion against the tyranny of the false Europe, which labels as “anti-democratic” any threat to its monopoly on moral legitimacy.

The Paris Statement diverges from The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, issued in May, which called for renewal of democratic commitment.

“Faith in democratic institutions has been declining,” in part because young people “have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism,” said the signatories, who added that democracy is “a precondition for decent, inclusive societies.”

The different manifestos appear to reflect two directions taken by the heirs of Jacques Maritain’s Integral Humanism, a book that influenced both the founders of the European Union and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, Matthew Schmitz writes for First Things:

With a few admirable exceptions, those who are most committed to democratic values speak less than ever about those values’ Christian roots, and those who are committed to the Christian roots are more skeptical than ever of democratic values. According to the signers of the Prague Appeal, we should return to faith in a system that has “intrinsic value.” According to the signers of the Paris Statement, we must secularize politics, retreating from the quasi-religious declarations that stud the Prague Appeal.

Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies, Sasha Polakow-Suransky adds:

But they also contain the seeds of their own destruction: if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate, then the votes of frustrated and disaffected citizens will increasingly go to the anti-immigrant right, societies will become less open, nativist parties will grow more powerful, and racist rhetoric that promotes a narrow and exclusionary sense of national identity will be legitimized.

Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation

The rise of antidemocratic opinion is more closely linked to shifting social and cultural values, in particular burgeoning antisocial attitudes, than to growing public dissatisfaction with the operation of the democratic system, according to two articles in the latest issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. Disregard for democratic norms is part of a larger social transformation that has seen rising disengagement and alienation, particularly among younger generations and lower socioeconomic classes, Paul Howe writes in Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation.

There are viable options for rebooting European democracy, according to Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor of law at HEC Paris. While the EU has attempted to gather feedback with projects such as the thousands of Citizens’ Dialogues orchestrated by the EU Commission across Europe this year, this doesn’t go far enough, he writes for the World Economic Forum.

“An EU-driven, top-down debate is very distant from the demand for change that is emerging from the bottom up, and contrasts with the vivacity of many democratic innovations happening at the local level,” he contends, offering “a fresh set of five ideas to reboot EU democracy:


There is a need to empower individuals by democratizing access to decision-making processes and dialogues, political parties, technology – and also potentially to a basic income, argues Natalie Hatour, Associate Director, Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum. The peace process in Colombia is an example of how complex it can be to combine individual empowerment with visionary leadership, she writes:

President Juan Manuel Santos initiated the negotiations that culminated in the peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. He held a referendum to legitimize the accord – which raises questions. The outcome of the vote was not what he wanted, however: a narrow majority of the over 13 million Colombians said no to the accord. The fact that Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process is significant, and not something that has been missed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

As China attacks Western democracy, are non-democratic options emerging?

China’s official Xinhua news agency attacked Western democracy as divisive and confrontational on Tuesday, praising on the eve of a key Communist Party Congress the harmony and cooperative nature of the Chinese system……. Xinhua took aim at the “crises and chaos swamp(ing) Western liberal democracy,” Reuters reports:

China’s system leads to social unity not the divisions which are an unavoidable consequence of the adversarial nature of Western democracy, Xinhua said. “Endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals, which make the hallmarks of liberal democracy, have retarded economic and social progress and ignored the interests of most citizens.”

“Unlike competitive, confrontational Western politics, the CPC and non-Communist parties cooperate with each other, working together for the advancement of socialism and striving to improve the people’s standard of living,” it said. “The relationship maintains political stability and social harmony and ensures efficient policy making and implementation.”

The Xinhua broadside is the latest manifestation of Chinese President Xi Jinpeng’s pursuit of ideological legitimacy for the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.

Sen. John McCain defended the U.S. commitment to advancing democracy and warned against “spurious nationalism” during a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Monday night.

“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history, ” McCain said.

“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.  We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world,” he told the audience. “That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t.”

“We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to,” said McCain, chairman of the International Republican Institute, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

His defense of democracy coincides with the publication of a 38-nation Pew Research Center survey which concludes that “there are reasons for calm as well as concern when it comes to democracy’s future.”

“More than half in each of the nations polled consider representative democracy a very or somewhat good way to govern their country,” the survey said. “Yet, in all countries, pro-democracy attitudes coexist, to varying degrees, with openness to nondemocratic forms of governance, including rule by experts, a strong leader or the military.”

Democracy confronts a formidable set of domestic and external challenges, including an ominous authoritarian resurgence, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, writes for The American Interest.

“The post-Cold War era is now truly over. We have entered a new era in which two great-power adversaries are, with formidable subtlety, resourcefulness, and technical sophistication, threatening our democratic way of life,” he observes.

Non-democratic options?

“There could come a day when, even in wealthy Western nations, liberal democracy ceases to be the only game in town,” notes Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy. “And when that day comes, those who once embraced democracy could begin to entertain other options,” he writes for The New York Review of Books:

Even Ronald Inglehart, the celebrated eighty-three-year-old political scientist who developed his theory of democratic consolidation more than four decades ago, has conceded that falling incomes, rising inequality, and the abject dysfunction of many governments—especially America’s—have led to declining support for democracy. If such trends continue, he wrote in response to [Roberto] Foa and [Yascha] Mounk [writing in the NED’s Journal of Democracy], “then the long-run outlook for democracy is indeed bleak.”