Opinion

Islam and democracy can – and do – coexist

Just look at successes in Indonesia and Turkey.

By

Over the years American presidents have preached the power of freedom to the un-free nations of the world.

In recent times, the focus has been on the Arab world, where democratic progress has been scant. President George W. Bush's efforts – from candid speeches to Arab leaders to a costly war in Iraq – have yielded mixed results.

President Obama is pursuing a different course, using a blend of personal charm abroad and efforts at home to burnish America's image as a democratic example.

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Throughout all this, skeptics have argued that this is a lost cause, and that democracy and Islam are incompatible.

So it is heartening to see the integration of democracy and Islam taking place in three huge countries whose Muslim populations make up somewhere between a quarter and a third of the world's entire Muslim populace.

Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population (205 million), is undergoing national elections that will strengthen its steady democratic progress. India, which has a minority population of some 150 million Muslims, is finishing up month-long elections for a nation of more than 1 billion people. Turkey, with a Muslim population of 77 million, is a working example of a secular democracy in a Muslim country.

These examples may not offer a blueprint for the mostly undemocratic Arab world. But their success does offer welcome evidence that Islam and democracy can coexist, maybe even integrate.

Indonesia's emergence as a peaceful democracy is notable because its past has not always been free of violence or manipulation. When I worked as a correspondent in Indonesia in the 1960s, the Army put down a communist-triggered coup and wrought terrible vengeance across the Indonesian archipelago.

Estimates of the death toll rose as high as 1 million people. My own estimate was about 200,000. An investigating commission reporting to President Sukarno listed 78,000 people dead – a dreadfully inaccurate figure that was offered up, a source told me, because "We gave Sukarno the figures we thought he wanted to hear."

Indonesia's travail continued under the man who deposed him, General Suharto. Yet today, Indonesia has become a country of order and promise.

India is currently conducting its 15th national election since achieving independence in 1947. Indians proudly proclaim the process to be the "world's biggest exercise in democracy." Though India is predominantly Hindu, the Muslims who live there tend not to vote as a religious bloc, but spread their votes across a multiplicity of parties with differing policies.

Months ago, Mr. Obama said he wanted to make a major address in an Islamic capital early in his presidency. He hasn't done that yet, but it is no surprise that he chose Turkey for his "the US is not at war with Islam" speech. Turkey has proved, as Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, once said, "that you can have a democracy in a Muslim-majority country." In free elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has successfully maintained Turkey as a secular, free-market society since 2003.

There have been spats between Turkey and the US. Turkey barred US forces from using its territory as a launching pad for the war against Saddam Hussein. Its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been a blistering critic of Israel over Gaza. But Obama's visit was well received, and the US considers Turkey a useful potential interlocutor in the various challenges of the Middle East – a role that Turkey appears ready to assume.

Though Indonesia, India, and Turkey, each in their different ways, present welcome examples of compatibility between Islam and democracy, it is often democracy molded to accommodate local cultures and customs. It is freedom, but not necessarily democracy as defined in Washington or the capitals of western Europe.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his coverage of Indonesia. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor Weekly.

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