Is Islamic Democracy Possible?

The suicide of a Christian bishop in Pakistan last week over the blasphemy death sentence issued to a young Christian Pakistani for making "positive remarks about Salman Rushdie" has drawn into sharp focus the failure of so-called Muslim democracies to ensure civil liberties.

In this century, Christianity and Judaism have demonstrated that functional democracy can coexist with the worship of God. Islam, however, has failed to integrate the egalitarianism intended by its founders with the reality of the modern age - that global economic and technological forces are creating multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious societies.

But the confusion over whether Islam and democracy can coexist stems more from the inadequacies - some say hypocrisies - of US foreign policy than from the failure of key Islamic countries to find a balance between the role of the mosque and needs of the state. Washington has used democracy as a tool to pursue very narrow interests in the Islamic world. Gulf monarchies, for example, are permitted dictatorial regimes in order to protect cheaply priced oil, while non-strategic Muslim nations are labeled violators of human rights and purveyors of terrorism.

Perhaps equally important is that modernizing Islamists have found the need to integrate key elements of democracy into their governing for reasons uniquely their own and not due to pressure from the West.

Consider the examples of three Muslim countries engaged in democracy-building efforts while overcoming the foreign policy inconsistencies emanating from Washington:

Iran: President Khatami's surprise victory last year, born of an emerging power base of moderates that included women and youth, demonstrated that one person/one vote was possible in the early stages of introducing pluralism to an Islamic society. Yet Iran's viability as a democracy will not be complete until open dissent and the existence of minority political groups to represent different religious and racial interests are institutionalized and protected by the rule of law. Washington's encouragement of these nascent efforts rather than further sanctions might strengthen the hand of Iran's democrats.

Pakistan: Bishop Joseph's suicide highlights Pakistan's growing difficulty in freeing its people of the very religious persecution that led to its founding. Blasphemy laws have been tools of political oppression in Pakistan against Christians, Ahmadis, Aga Khanis, and other minority religions.

Rather than sanctioning Islamabad economically under the terms of new religious persecution bills recently passed by Congress, President Clinton should call on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with his unassailable parliamentary majority, to muster the political and moral courage in the face of Bishop Joseph's death and repeal Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Sudan: This week, Sudanese citizens - Northern Muslims as well as Southern Christians and animists - will vote on a new constitution. For the first time under Isl;amic holy loaw or sharia, khartoum's military junta will attempt to provide for the civil liberties of minorities. While Sudan's Islamic record of governance remains murky, the constitution's principal author, Hassan al-Turabi, must now show his ruling Islamic party's ability to endure a third critical rule central to functional democracy - the right of citizens to vote a party out of office. Washington can assist this process by encouraging Sudan's opposition to be a partner for peace rather than arming it and Sudan's neighbors.

Perhaps the most significant challenge facing modern Islamists is whether they have the courage to be true to their ideology. Practiced in its purist form, Islam is inherently a religion of democracy. Likewise, constructively engaging Muslim countries that struggle to determine a comfortable center of gravity for pluralism is a necessary form of self-evaluation in determining the West's own commitment to the principles of democracy.

* Mansoor Ijaz, an American Muslim of Pakistani descent, is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York.

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