SALT LAKE CITY — While the world is focused on Iraq, one of the most intriguing developments in the Islamic world is taking place in neighboring Iran.
Lumped together with North Korea and Iraq as part of President Bush's "evil axis," Iran is becoming the starkest example of confrontation between a theocratic Islamic regime and student forces for moderation and openness.
Student demonstrations have been triggered by the arrest of a history professor, Hashem Aghajari, sentenced to death for criticizing the government in a speech. The demonstrations have underlined the disconnect between Iran's radical ruling mullahs and a new generation of Iranians who do not wish to abandon their Islamic religion but despise the excesses of its extremists.
While one should not overestimate the strength of this trend by looking at one Islamic country, it nevertheless is welcome. Iran is not an Arab country, but if the other lands of the Middle East are to emerge from their centuries of decline and backwardness, Muslims who champion moderation, openness, and progress must vanquish those who have perverted their faith and overlaid it with layers of bitterness, hatred, and terrorism.
Yale University's authority on Islam, Bernard Lewis, has documented in his new book "What Went Wrong?" the once-greatness of an Islamic civilization, and its decline from being rich and strong to weak and poor. Muslims have blamed this eclipse variously over time on Mongols, Turks, Western imperialism, Americans, and Jews. But Mr. Lewis says what underlies so many troubles of the Muslim world is lack of freedom. He cites "lack of freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny," as basic obstructions on the road to Muslim democracy.
Western countries like the United States bearing the brunt of Islamic terrorism are first and understandably preoccupied with protecting their citizens from harm. Most want to further democracy in the Arab world. Many, after the battle with terrorism is won, will want to be involved in the economic reconstruction and development of affected Arab countries. But moderate Muslims must bear a major responsibility for disassociating themselves from the radicals and recapturing their religion from the fanaticism that has bred terrorism. Upon them must lie the principal burden for reform.
In a searing column in The New York Times last week, author Salman Rushdie attacked Muslim moderates who have hunkered down in the face of Muslim extremism. "Where," he cried, "is the Muslim outrage at these events? As their ancient, deeply civilized culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs, racists, liars, male supremacists, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies, why are they not screaming?
"At least in Iran the students are demonstrating, But where else in the Muslim world can one hear the voices of the fair-minded, tolerant Muslim majority deploring what Nigerian, Egyptian, Arab and Dutch Muslims are doing? Muslims in the West, too, seem unnaturally silent on these topics. If you're yelling, we can't hear you."
Mr. Rushdie, himself a victim of death threats from Muslim extremists, was roused by a string of oppressive incidents by Muslim extremists in recent days in a range of countries from Nigeria to the Netherlands.
Earlier this year, a UN Development Program report painted a desperate picture of the plight of most Arab lands. Of 280 million Arabs in the region, 65 million are illiterate. Two-thirds of these are women. One out of every 5 Arabs lives on less than $2 a day. The work of reputable Arab scholars, the report identified three major causes of this misery: lack of freedom, few rights for women, and limited education.
As the report declared, the Arab world is at a crossroads. The choice is between backwardness and inertia, or "an Arab renaissance, anchored in human development."
In his latest audiotape, Osama bin Laden suggests one road to follow. His formula is one of hatred and negativism, lashing out with violence at those he mistakenly blames for the plight of the Arab world's Muslims. Elsewhere in the Muslim world there are brave, but isolated, voices who advocate a different, nonviolent solution, looking inward at their society for the roots of their distress.
What Arabs need are not more Osama bin Ladens, but Muslim Gandhis or Nelson Mandelas who will lead them in a campaign against injustice, extremism, and bigotry in the Arab world.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.