Where Islamists Hold the Reins

Sudan and Saudi Arabia, which have adopted Islamic law, severely limit democratic freedoms

`ISLAM is the solution."

Daubed hastily on the mud-brick walls of Cairo's slums, blaring from campaign posters in Algiers, stitched onto banners outside countless mosques all over the Middle East, that slogan is the surest sign, wherever it appears, that the Islamic trend in one of its myriad guises is at work.

The sweeping simplicity of the statement assumes every Arab knows what needs solving: Poor job prospects, stark social inequalities, government corruption, and sub-standard health care.

But the sort of solution that Islam promises is far less obvious.

"There is a great discrepancy between Muslim fervor for self-assertion and Muslim programs of government, Islamic alternatives," says Sadiq al-Mahdi, the last elected prime minister of Sudan, who places himself firmly in the Islamic camp. "Many Islamist movements generate more heat than light."

Mr. Mahdi's arch-enemy, Hassan al-Turabi, naturally disagrees. "In the current stage, worldwide, we are focusing on principles, not details or forms," he argues. "The initial stage of any new principle is to entrench it in society, and Islam is in a stage of transition to public life."

Despite the lack of details, at the core of every Islamist movement in the Arab world is a call for the introduction, sooner or later, of the sharia or Islamic holy law. And it is precisely the interpretation and application of sharia that strikes fear into the hearts of secular and Christian Arabs.

Experience has shown, they say, that for all the fine words of Islamic scholars about the Koran's advocacy of tolerance and pluralism, Islamic law in practice has left little room for non-believers.

The clearest case in point is Saudi Arabia, where not only alcohol but also Bibles are banned; where women are forbidden to drive cars, and the religious police, the notorious muttawa, are empowered to arrest them if caught without a head scarf; and where defense lawyers in criminal cases are not allowed because they are considered un-Islamic.

The only other Arab country to have adopted sharia so explicitly, Sudan - President Jaafar Nimeiry introduced it in 1983 - takes a different path.

The Islamic dress code, under which women must wear ankle- and wrist-length clothing, and a head scarf, is imposed only "lackadaisically," says a Western diplomat in Khartoum. Traditional Islamic punishments, such as the amputation of a hand for thievery, have been abandoned by the present government. Churches prominently serve the estimated 15 percent of the population that is Christian.

That is not to say, however, that the Islamically oriented government shows tolerance and understanding toward the Christian minority, Sudanese Christian leaders point out. Although the Nimeiry regime pulled back from imposing sharia on the predominantly Christian and animist southern provinces, Western diplomats say religious persecution, government purges of non-Muslim groups, and the forcible conversion to Islam in return for food aid have been common.

If minority rights in Islamically ruled countries such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia enjoy scant respect, their governments' records on other democratic freedoms is equally poor. In both states the press is tightly controlled, opposition demonstrations are out of the question, political parties are outlawed, and dissidents are liable to harsh punishment. In countries where Islamists are still struggling for power, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria, the more moderate among them at least condemn such anti-dem ocratic rule, and insist that Islamic laws for personal behavior are of minor importance to their purpose.

"There are things that people should not be pushed to do if they don't want to," argues Fahmy Howeidi, a moderate Egyptian Islamist currently negotiating between the Cairo government and Islamic radicals waging a campaign of violence.

"There are three main issues that all Muslims should defend," he says: "national unity, freedom and democracy, and political and economic independence. Questions about veils and dancers and cinemas - they might be raised 30 or 40 years hence."

Sayed Dessouki, a professor of aerospace engineering at Cairo University and another prominent Islamist, agrees. "There is a difference between an individual feeling that something is wrong, and a state applying a law," he argues. "There is a transition period. When society is up to it, Islamic law will be appropriate."

Individual choice in personal behavior is alright by Adel Hussein too, although the editor of Egypt's foremost Islamist daily sets a condition: "that on other affairs, on the macro level, [non-believers] accept the general principles of Islamic culture and identity that will rule economic development, the political system, and strategic relations."

It is as hard to find a uniformly Islamic approach to strategic relations as to another issue, though. Saudi Arabia is Washington's closest ally in the Arab world, Sudan has stressed an anti-Western drive for self-reliance, and the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), "would not have changed all that much" in Algerian foreign policy had it been allowed to win last year's elections, one Western diplomat in Algiers says.

Islamists show equal diversity in their approach to domestic politics. In Kuwait, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) has no objections to the royal al-Sabah family, while in most countries hereditary monarchies are seen as strictly forbidden by Islam.

In Sudan, however, the only Arab country to have espoused an avowedly Islamic political system, the reality is far from democratic, Western observers say.

Sudanese officials insist that their abolition of parties after Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir's 1989 military coup, and the planned creation of "direct democracy" through a hierarchy of elected councils from village to national level, is a breakthrough in the Islamic world. Western diplomats who witnessed the first set of local elections, however, are skeptical.

"The government has just jacked up the country and rebuilt institutions the way they wanted them," one diplomat says. "The whole thing is simply an elaborately constructed sham, just cheerleading. There is no real debate."

If the Koran offers Islamists no model for political organization, merely setting out general principles, nor does it specify any particular economic system, beyond forbidding usury. Thus Islamic groups can pick and choose from models fashioned elsewhere. "Socialism reminds of zakat [the sacred Islamic duty of alms-giving], while capitalism offers a better path to development," Dr. Turabi says.

In Kuwait, where Islamic groups have been careful to tread a moderate path, ICM leader Ismael al-Shatti insists that "Islam means development, not holy war." Taking such spokesmen at their word, some prominent Arab figures are prepared to give the Islamists a chance.

"The competition is between Islamist groups using Islamic slogans, without being tested in the practical political arena, and other political forces that are dealing with problems in a practical way," argues Salama Ahmed Salama, editor of Egypt's semi-official daily Al Ahram.

If they win elections, "let's put these people in charge ... and let them face practical problems," he suggests. "Let's see if they succeed or fail. Then they can be really judged."

Others, unconvinced by the Islamists' promises of greater social justice, are unwilling to take the risk.

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