Islam's defining moment with democracy

Islamist parties now dominate the constitution-writing process in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia. If they can make Islam compatible with democracy, they will give hope to others in the Middle East still struggling in the unfinished Arab Spring.

Hassene Dridi/AP PHOTO
Islamists pray during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, March 25. Thousands of conservative Muslims marched through the capital calling for the application of Islamic law. Photo/)

Muslims living in democracies of the West and Asia already know their practice of Islam can best flourish where religious freedom is protected and women’s rights are honored. Now two Muslim countries liberated from dictators in last year’s Arab Spring are trying to define their own line between mosque and state.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamist parties that won postrevolution elections are leading efforts to write new constitutions. Their choices could reshape the Middle East if they decide that Islam must be compatible with democracy rather than the other way around.

On Monday, the leading Islamist party in Tunisia, Al Nahda, announced that sharia (Islamic law) should not be the source for all laws. It said the constitution should simply acknowledge that Islam is the state religion, as the old constitution did.

The party prefers to unite all Tunisians and set an example for other Arab states in transition. A woman, in fact, is heading up the panel to define rights and liberties.

Egypt, however, is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, once the modern source of radical Islamic ideas that inspired groups like Al Qaeda. While the Brotherhood has become pragmatic during six decades of military rule, it decided last week to use its majority in the new parliament to dominate the constitution-writing process. And it is also pushing for a candidate in the coming presidential election who has “an Islamic background.”

Still, much can happen in Egypt’s ongoing political flux between the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, and pro-democracy youth who led last year’s protests against Hosni Mubarak.

Most Egyptians, who are largely rural, care more about clean government and a growing economy than democracy. Any party or person who becomes president later this year will have a difficult time delivering on those hopes.

The possibility of failing to fix the economy restrains the Brotherhood from being out front in leading Egypt for now. And recent dissent within the group reveals a healthy clash of ideas over Islam’s role in defining a new identity for Egypt, where 10 percent of the population is Coptic Christian.

Both Tunisia and Egypt have two models in the region that illustrate Islam’s long and difficult encounter with Western ideas of freedom and plurality.

Since 1979, Iran’s ruling Muslim clerics have botched the country’s minimalist democracy, while in Turkey the ruling Islamic party has ruled since 2002 with mostly liberal policies.

In fact, Turkey, once the seat of the Islamic Ottoman caliphate, has praised the virtues of democratic secular rule to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It has also scolded Iraq’s Shiite-led government for not easing tensions with minority Sunnis. And it has told Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon to raise their voices against the violence in Syria or else “remove the word ‘Islam’ from their names.”

It took centuries and many wars for Christians in Europe to come to terms with democracy. Muslims in the Middle East are on a faster track to reconcile their religion with representative government and rule of law. And they have plenty of models to help them see that democracy gives Islam its best protection from sectarian strife.

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