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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

At Paris event, Muslim champions of democracy

Forensic police investigate a truck at the scene

Forensic police investigate a truck at the scene of a terror attack on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15, 2016 in Nice, France. Credit: Getty Images/ Patrick Aventurier

The attack in Nice, France, where a man apparently lured by radical Islamist propaganda plowed a truck into a crowd of revelers last week, is the latest strike in a war that has left many wondering whether Islam itself is incompatible with a free and democratic society. But only a few days earlier, on July 9, a convention center in a Paris suburb drew tens of thousands of Muslims proclaiming their dedication to democracy and human rights.

The event, Free Iran, is an annual gathering of Iranian exiles that has gained impressive support from all over the world. (Disclosure: I was one of several journalists attending at the organizers’ invitation and expense.)

The organization behind the rally, the 35-year-old National Council of Resistance of Iran, is not without controversy. One of its core groups, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, was once listed as a terrorist group; in recent years, that designation was lifted by the United States, the European Union and Canada because of evidence that it was based on disinformation.

Today, the council’s mainstream recognition can be gauged from the array of speakers at the rally. They included several French mayors and parliamentarians; European, Canadian and Arab politicians; and an American delegation that included Republicans such as former presidential candidate and House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democrats such as former presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

While the council is a secular pro-freedom movement, it certainly has many religious Muslims in its ranks; a majority of the women — who made up a good half of the attendees — wore head scarves. Yet the council’s platform champions pluralism, the absolute separation of religion and state, the rule of law, and gender equality. It is also worth noting that its current head is a woman, Maryam Rajavi. The wife (or possibly widow) of its missing founder, Massoud Rajavi, she is a charismatic leader in her own right. Her entrance on the stage to a wild ovation and her stirring speech were the highlights of the rally.

Rajavi and other speakers reaffirmed the group’s commitment to freedom and secular politics. Yet the rally was not without its paradoxical moments. The speakers included Prince Turki al-Faisal of the Saudi royal family, whose praise for Free Iran’s fight against theocracy and for human rights sounded somewhat jarring given the Saudi regime’s own record in this area.

A Palestinian representative briefly took the podium to denounce Israel as “the most racist regime in the world.” Yet only a few hours later, former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli slammed Iran’s leaders as war criminals who sponsor attacks on Jews — to deafening applause from the audience.

While speakers deplored Iran’s continuing repressions, the regime’s weakness in the face of discontent was a common theme. How much of that is wishful thinking is hard to say. The anniversary of the nuclear deal with the United States also came up frequently, both at the rally and at related panels on the previous day. While some speakers, including Torricelli, felt that the agreement had bought time for both sides — time in which Iran might see regime change from the bottom up — others were strongly critical of the United States. for taking the goal of regime change off the table.

Many speakers, both Iranian and Western, spoke of a future in which the mullahs will fall and the dissidents will emerge as Iran’s new leaders. If this scenario comes true, could it be a path to real reformation for the Muslim world? Given experience, any optimism should be cautious, but it should also remain alive.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.