Progress in the Muslim World

On Monday, when newspapers with late deadlines were able to get the Israeli assassination of a pivotal Hamas leader onto their front pages, an encouraging and important development in the Muslim world was reported inside.

It's doubtful whether that inside story, about Malaysia's national elections, would have found a Page 1 toehold even without Hamas. But it is worth noting as a reminder that since the US launched the war on terrorism, the Islamic world has made significant progress against terrorists and religious, political fundamentalism.

First, the elections. On Sunday, voters resoundingly rejected the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which sought to establish a strict Islamist state and which had gained in the previous election. This is not just a by-the-by kind of thing. The incumbent prime minister, a more devout Muslim than his predecessor, made religious moderation a campaign issue. Voters exceeded expectations in their overwhelming support for him.

So score one for religious moderation in Malaysia, and also in Iraq. Only 1.2 percent of Iraqis believe religious leaders should control their new government, according to a recent poll for the international broadcast media conducted by Oxford Research International. Also encouraging: 70 percent reported that they were doing well or quite well in their daily lives.

In the meantime, reform movements advocating greater political freedom are ever so slowly emerging in Saudi Arabia, across north Africa and in Gulf states.

As for fighting terrorists, there is nothing quite like attacks on your own soil to focus the mind. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, sobered by terrorist attempts on his life (and perhaps smarting over world reaction toward Pakistan's A-bomb exporter), is ignoring popular opinion and engaging Pakistani troops in this spring's anti-Al Qaeda offensive on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

At the same time, 9/11 has come in its own way to Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Indonesia. Al Qaeda-like bombings in these countries have pushed them into greater cooperation with the United States, especially in cutting off terrorist financing.

For a world impatient to end this fight, such progress seems too slow. One longs for a Turkey empowered as a European Union member, for a Saudi government that doesn't arrest reformers. A wish come true would be mass demonstrations across the Muslim world renouncing terrorism in favor of religious and political freedom. But like the war on terrorism, the march toward religious tolerance and democracy in Muslim nations is a step-by-step process.

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