Easing into Islamic democracy

Convinced by their experience in the US, American Muslims are helping form democratic coalitions in the Muslim world and are building their case on Islamic principles.

As the US debated going to war in Iraq last fall, some American Muslims were pursuing their own small antiterror campaign in the Muslim world. As part of an ongoing effort to promote democracy in the region, they provided an opening in three Arab countries for both Islamic and secular democrats to come together for the first time to debate the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

In Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen, government leaders, opposition members, and civic activists joined in frank private and public workshops on such hot topics as human rights, women's rights, and religious tolerance.

"What was so encouraging about the workshops was that we found the gap between moderate Islamists and secularists is narrower than ever," says Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), the US-based think tank that sponsored the meetings with local civic groups.

With the Islamic world in turmoil over the confrontation between militant groups claiming to defend Islam and authoritarian regimes standing for modernity, the key to a viable future is a coalition of moderate Islamists and non-Islamists committed to representative government, CSID says.

All too often, though, those committed democrats are isolated, without the resources or outlet to take their case to the people. In some places, they've been harassed, jailed, or even killed for their efforts.

• In Egypt, for example, democratic activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has just emerged from 2-1/2 years in prison for "tarnishing Egypt's reputation," after his research center issued reports critical of the government.

• In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar, the charismatic leader of Sisters in Islam, is under fire from clerics who charge her with insulting Islam, as she fights proposals for draconian state laws discriminating against women.

Sept. 11 has made it more imperative than ever, Dr. Masmoudi says, to support those activists and address questions about Islam and democracy in the West and Muslim countries.

The Muslim world, in the middle of an Islamic revival, is in ferment over which interpretations of Islam should define 21st-century societies. Millions yearn for more say in how their countries are run, but for Muslims, the Koran, the sayings of the prophet, and Islamic law are the authentic guides to individual and communal life. Do secularism and democracy conflict with Islamic law and teachings?

If you force people to choose between democracy and Islam, they will choose Islam, Masmoudi says, but they don't have to make that choice. "You can be a very good Muslim and [a] democrat at the same time without compromising beliefs."

Convinced by his own experience in the Arab world and the US, Masmoudi, an MIT-trained robotics engineer, founded CSID in 1999 to carry out the studies necessary to show the relationship between Islamic and democratic principles. It now involves some 500 Muslim scholars and activists, and other Islamic specialists from the US and abroad. They are working to disseminate their research on the convergence of democratic and Islamic values and promote constructive action. At CSID's annual conference in mid-May in Washington, for example, Nadeem Kazmi, of the Al-Khoei Foundation in London, spoke of the need for a diplomatic process to develop a "cohesive authoritative fatwa" for delegitimizing terrorism.

They have plans for Islam and democracy sessions this year in Algeria, Jordan, Turkey, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Iraq.

"Building bridges between moderate Islamists and other democrats is essential," says Abdulwahab Alkebsi, program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. "You can't have a democracy movement without Islamists in the Arab world."

In the workshops held in Yemen, for example, civic activists and top leaders of the ruling General People's Congress, the Socialist Party, and the Islamist Islah Party grappled with the difficulties of moving their country from "a superficial democracy to a real and viable one," as one official termed it. A patriarchal, tribal society, Yemen has experimented with democracy for several years even as it contends with elements sympathetic to terrorism.

Participants agreed on the compatibility of democracy and Islam, based on the values of justice, equality, and shura - the Koranic principle of consulting the people in matters of governance.

Stephenie Foster, a US political consultant who has visited Yemen to train local candidates and campaign managers (including women), says, "People want a say in how their lives are run and are responsive to the idea that democracy is the only system that gives that option.

"It's difficult for women," she adds, "but there are some - younger women particularly - who articulate very well the compatibility of Islam and democracy, based on the Koran and Islamic experience."

Some in the Muslim world and the West claim that Islamic democracy is an oxymoron or that Arabs aren't ready for democratic governance. Recent polls suggest otherwise. The World Values Study of 2002 shows that 87 percent of Muslims (in nine countries) see democracy as the best choice (see chart page 14).

Still, democracies are built on civil societies that value pluralism. Many Muslims see the intolerance in some countries as a recent phenomenon, sparked by radical Islam and narrow concepts of sharia, or Islamic law.

To counter this, some Muslim scholars are working on reinterpretations related to human rights, religious freedom, and tolerance. CSID has translated papers into Arabic and put them on the Internet. Some are publishing books, like "The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism" by Abdulaziz Sachedina, for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Indicators of change are multiplying in the Arab world, with Morocco moving to genuine elections, Bahrain holding its first vote, and Qatar announcing a new constitution. In Saudi Arabia, professionals are pushing to modernize the political system. And Turkey is offering an intriguing example. "A party with Islamic roots has come to power, but it now says it believes in secularism and that it is compatible with Islam," Masmoudi says.

Secularism is a huge issue in the Muslim world. It's not simply that Islam doesn't see a separation of religion from public life.

"In many Arab countries in the past, secularism didn't mean that no religion was privileged, but that governments and elites were in fact antireligious," says John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. Some secular regimes - such as Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Iraq - have tortured or killed religious leaders.

So negative is the feeling, that as CSID set up its workshops, secular democrats in the countries involved insisted they never be called secularists, but liberals or nationalists. Turkey's Justice and Development Party could change that perception.

At CSID's fourth annual conference in Washington this month, Muslims from several countries discussed issues such as attempts to implement sharia, the question of an Islamic state, lack of education needed for pluralism, and the role of women's rights in democratization.

Dr. Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo had been developing proposals for teaching pluralism in Egyptian textbooks when he was arrested and his files confiscated.

Muslims have the model they need, he told the group, in the prophet Muhammad's own charter for Medina. The 14 groups of non-Muslims who lived in the city, including Jews, Christians, and pagans, were to be treated equally in all worldly matters, he said. And in matters of religion, each group was simply responsible to God.

The idea of an Islamic state is a response to modernity, according to Kamran Bokhari, of the University of Texas at Austin. Historically, "there was nothing called an Islamic state," he says. The adjective "Islamic" is a contemporary attempt "to authenticate everything ... to capture the imagination of the masses."

What Muslims need to vigorously debate, all agree, is "What is sharia?" Most of what is called sharia today is opinions of scholars who lived centuries ago - it's not in the Koran or sayings of the prophet, Masmoudi says.

The Sisters of Islam in Malaysia, for example, have fought a proposal by the Islamic party to implement the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam, and harsh penalties against women. The group has spurred debate through the media, challenging clerics over their failure to see Islamic law in a historical context.

"I'm a feminist and a believer, and am determined not to be forced into exile," Ms. Anwar says. "Muslims need intellectual vigor, moral courage, and political will to open the door to ijtihad."

"The question is how we reinterpret sharia for the 21st century," Masmoudi adds. "This is the concept of ijtihad in Muslim jurisprudence, which means adapting religious teachings to the current needs of the community."

It's well accepted throughout the Muslim world that the decay of Muslim civilization began 500 years ago because religious scholars stopped reinterpreting Islamic law. Part of today's debate is who can legitimately participate. Many say the complexities of contemporary society demand it go far beyond religious scholars. "If you want to apply sharia to banking, you have to understand banking," Alkebsi says.

Many argue that women must be part of the process. Some are working with women in the US and abroad to reinterpret their role according to the Koran.

"One concept I teach from the Koran is that each individual is God's representative on earth," says Sharifa Alkateeb, head of the North American Council for Muslim Women. "That implies moral agency and ownership of her own thought processes; awareness of community; the ability to criticize any level of control, from the family to government. That concept is fundamentally democratic, and it can revamp society."

Reinterpretation is a huge task and also requires winning over the people. "In Islamic countries, people want more freedom, but at the same time, the vast majority want to live according to God's laws, which they believe bring them happiness in this world and the next," says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of "Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization."

They need to be convinced that democracy does not mean taking God's sovereignty and giving it to humans. "If in a democracy you have a parliament that passes laws which do not oppose those divine laws, there would not be a problem," he adds. "What would happen in the US if the Congress one day passed laws that negated the Ten Commandments?"

This is why it is so crucial that the democratic movement include moderate Islamists. And Iraq is a test. "It's very important we build real democracy in Iraq, and the key to success is being inclusive of all groups," Masmoudi says. "Secularism isn't popular because of Saddam Hussein. If we impose it, it will backfire."

But he doesn't think the majority will vote for theocracy either. "What they want is a moderate, progressive interpretation of Islam, a democratic state that respects the will of the majority and protects the rights of the minority. It's extremely important, because if we don't succeed ... democracy will lose credibility."

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