Islam and democracy - not an impossible marriage

Noah Feldman is writing a new constitution for Iraq

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the United States has begun the daunting task of bringing democracy to a nation that has not known freedom. The consensus among many experts is that the Arab world and democracy are incompatible. Islam, the argument goes, breeds a submissive attitude - not only to Allah but also to political and religious leaders as well - that makes Muslims inherently incapable of participating in the rough-and- tumble world of electoral politics and of respecting the rights of minorities who follow a different religious or cultural path.

In "After Jihad," Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor with a doctorate in Islamic Thought from Oxford, builds a compelling and persuasive case that this consensus is misinformed.

There is a tremendous appetite for democratic reform throughout the Middle East, he claims, and the US can play a leading role in encouraging Muslims to pressure their governments to hand over power.

But this will take a shift in American policy. The US has historically valued stability over the political and religious turmoil that democracy could bring, leading it to support autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia's. However, in the long run, Feldman says, democratic reforms can only draw the US and Muslim countries closer.

Unlike most academics, Feldman now has the opportunity to put his theories into practice. He was recently named head of the constitutional team with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. It will be the team's responsibility to oversee and advise on drafting the constitution for a new democratic order.

"The costs of sticking with the autocrats are great," he writes. "Continuing this policy will array the United States and the West against the interests of ordinary Muslims, who will be unlikely to forget what they see as a betrayal of the values of freedoms and self-government that the US and the West represent to them. Frustrated dreams of self-government will continue to attach themselves, however fleetingly, to any Muslim leader who purports to stand up to the US, even when he is a notorious butcher like Saddam or a marginal extremist like Osama bin Laden."

Feldman's optimism that Islam and democracy are a natural fit is based on his belief that they are both mobile ideas, philosophies that are easily understood in different cultures and carry universal truths, with similar basic elements. Both Islam and democracy hold that all humans are equal and that we have certain responsibilities to society. At its core, each treats human beings with respect and asks that we treat others the same way.

But Feldman tempers his optimism. The road to Islamic democracy will be bumpy, he warns, and its short-term effects will cause Americans consternation. Democracies need strong civil organizations to survive, and in much of the Muslim world, it's the Islamists who have built those organizations. They will undoubtedly win power in many Islamic nations, and there's no guarantee that they will seek closer ties with the West or be zealous in protecting the rights of non-Muslim minorities. That said, many of these same Islamists are, in theory, strong proponents of democracy because it's the key to maintaining power and building the trust of their constituents.

Muslim nations that embrace political freedom also won't be the type of democracies that the West is used to, Feldman points out. The separation of church and state, for instance, will likely never come about because Islam concerns itself with issues both public and private, a contrast to liberal democracies that generally limit themselves to public matters.

That said, Feldman is probably right that, despite the risks, actively promoting democracy in the Islamic world is a long-term win for the West. Eventually, the electorate will tire of anti-American and anti-Israeli politics and demand that politicians focus on local issues.

"Because Muslims already believe that America in the abstract stands for freedom and democracy, they will be quick to embrace America not simply as an idea, but as an ally," Feldman writes.

"Muslim anger at the hypocrisy of the United States may be wide, but it is not deep. It is a mistake to think that ordinary Muslims, or even Islamists, are inevitably or unalterably opposed to the US.... Indeed, the very fact that so many Muslims say they are prepared to embrace democracy, a system they associate with the United States and its successes, provides striking evidence that anti-Americanism may be overcome if the U.S. loosens its embrace of rulers who do not respond to the needs or concerns of their people."

If Feldman and his team are successful in helping Iraq during its transition from dictatorship to democracy, this will put immense pressure on Iran's religious leaders, Saudi Arabia's monarchy, and others to begin allowing their citizens to determine their own destinies.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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