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21st Great Debate lures impassioned crowd

Winners argued against U.S. pro-democratic action in the Islamic world

F. Gregory Gause, III, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, argued for the winning team at The Great Debate. Photo by Frank Curran

Should the United States promote democracy in the Islamic world? Around that question swirled two powerful arguments at Boston University’s 21st Great Debate, a semiannual event presented by the College of Communication, on April 5. As for previous debates, a large and opinionated crowd showed up at the Tsai Performance Center to hear experts and students do battle with words about ideas.

Arguing for the U.S. promotion of democracy in the Islamic world were Salameh Nematt, the Washington bureau chief of the London-based Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat, Steven A. Cook, a Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and undergraduate Daniel Chaparian (COM’07).

Those arguing the negative were John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, F. Gregory Gause III, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont, and Karin Esposito (LAW’07), a J.D. candidate at the School of Law.

While the affirmative team argued for the moral benefits of freedom of speech and assembly and the right to vote, the opposing side asserted that U.S. promotion of democracy in the Islamic world would lead only to more trouble for the United States, including weakened national security and nuclear proliferation in anti-American countries.  

“Today, nobody says it was a bad idea to get rid of Nazis, fascism, and Japanese imperialism,” said Nematt. “[This topic] brings to mind the messy war in Iraq . . .  [Efforts like that cannot be done] without the help of the United States and Western Europe.”

“American policy of forcefully democratizing other countries doesn’t make us more secure,” countered Esposito, who drew an enthusiastic response from both sides in the crowd for her dynamic presentation.

At one point in the evening, a young man who said he was Turkish encouraged people to look around the room, commenting on the value of such free public discourse, which he described as democracy at work. “Democracy is something Turkey could not have achieved without help,” he said. “It’s something that I wouldn’t want to live without.”

Such debate, said Mearsheimer, was indeed what a university should be about. “It’s bringing together people who have fundamentally different opinions about an important issue, letting them fight that out,” he said. “It’s letting people in the audience participate and then go home and think about the issue.”

At the end of the debate, audience members were moved, literally, to indicate their position on the topic — by walking to the side of the room designated “affirmative” or “negative.” In a very close vote, those who argued against the U.S. promotion of democracy proved most persuasive.

“This was a really fine issue and the panelists were prepared to offer perspectives that were quite different,” said Bob Zelnick, chairman of the COM department of journalism, who has moderated the Great Debate since 1999. “The negative side won, but it was a very close vote.”

Student debater Chaparian said that despite the intensity of the debate, he really enjoyed the experience. “I don’t know if I could have been paired with four more intellectual professionals and another more intellectual student,” he said.

Conducted as a traditional debate in accordance with Cambridge Union Society rules established in 1815, listeners were encouraged to shout, “Here, here!” and “Shame!” if a certain argument so moved them.

Those who missed Wednesday’s debate can watch it online later and cast their own vote on whether the United States should promote democracy in the Islamic world by visiting: http://www.bu.edu/com/greatdebate/.