The Islamic world is often pictured as wrapped in tradition, with social conservatism and autocratic government the rule. But take a quick look at that world, stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, and a quite different picture emerges today.
Many predominately Islamic societies are undergoing changes that shake the traditional status quo. While the outcome is unclear, the possibility of greater democracy and tolerance exists.
In Algeria, for seven years the scene of vicious conflict between radicals and the Army, new president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is trying to move his country toward reconciliation. He has released 2,500 political prisoners and is likely to free many more as part of a national amnesty. The goal should be an environment where responsible viewpoints, Islamist or secular, are given a voice in government - and violence and annulled elections are relegated to the past.
To the east, Islam's Persian Gulf heartland is experiencing multiple shocks to the old order. Yes, Saudi Arabia remains a bastion of religious conservatism. Next door, however, Kuwait is poised to give women the vote and the right to hold office - a major challenge to traditionalists. Tiny Qatar is becoming a regional media giant, allowing uncensored news broadcasts on its Al-Jazirah satellite TV station. Among the offerings: debates on the applicability of Koranic teachings to modern life.
Across the Gulf, in Iran, student protesters want the Islamic Republic to embrace greater democracy. Their impassioned calls face dug-in resistance from powerful hard-liners. They also pose a delicate problem for reformist President Mohamad Khatami, who leans toward more gradual change. Iran's test is to move from theocratic excesses to democratic processes that still respect Islamic teachings and traditions. If this important country can pass that test, its example will reverberate widely.
Across the Indian Ocean, the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, is struggling to complete the transition from 30 years of one-man rule to an electoral system that can represent an incredibly diverse population. Moderate Islamic political parties could well play a key role in this transition.
Most of these changes are a long way from full realization. Still, they point to fresh thinking and the progress it makes possible.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society