- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

The tensions and tricky crosscurrents in the debate over Islam and democracy can be seen in the battle over women’s suffrage in Kuwait.

The key vote in the debate was not cast by Kuwait’s male voters, not by the country’s parliament or even by the longtime emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, but by a small group of Muslim scholars in the government’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

In a March 19 fatwa, or religious edict, the ministry said clerics were divided on the question of whether the body of Muslim religious laws known as Shariah gives women the right to vote and run for office.

In the absence of a consensus, “a decision by the ruler should end disputes on the matter,” the fatwa concluded.

Reform advocates hailed the ruling, as the emir supports giving women the vote. An Islamic-based, undemocratic process had produced a democratic result.

“Human rights activists have tended to see Islamic activists as an impediment, as ‘not one of us,’” said Neil Hicks, director of international programs for Human Rights First. “That’s an attitude that has to change.”

The stakes in the debate over Islam and democracy are huge, and will shape the fate of President Bush’s strategy in the global war on terrorism.

The debate is taking place amid a remarkable series of political shifts across the Islamic world, from successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq to regime-shaking street protests in Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, to more cautious democratic experiments in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Bush, in his second inaugural address, his State of the Union speech and in his Middle East policy, has adopted a “forward strategy of freedom” for countries of the Islamic world.

The president rejected the idea that Western concepts of individual rights, limited government and popular sovereignty are incompatible with the Muslim faith.

“Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to representative government,” Mr. Bush said in his now-famous November 2003 address outlining an aggressive new U.S. democratic push in the region.

But, the president argued, “a religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, put the political transformation of Arab and Muslim worlds as the U.S. government’s top foreign-policy priority — ahead of such hot-button issues as North Korea and Iran’s nuclear program.

“I think the biggest test is the Middle East and the evolution of a stable and democratized Middle East. That’s really going to be the historical test,” she said.

The so-called “Arab Spring” of political reform has some of Mr. Bush’s harshest foreign critics reconsidering. “Was Bush Right After All?” asked a headline in the anti-Iraq war Independent newspaper of London recently.

Lined up against Mr. Bush is an unlikely combination of Islam’s harshest critics and its most fervent fundamentalist believers.

Author and Islamic scholar Ibn Warraq, writing in the just-published collection “The Myth of Islamic Tolerance,” calls Islam a “totalitarian ideology that aims to control the religious, social and political life of mankind in all its aspects.”

Islam, he says, “does not value the individual, who has to be sacrificed for the sake of the Islamic community.”

From the very other end of the spectrum, some radical Islamists agree.

Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born al Qaeda operative blamed by U.S. officials for much of the insurgent violence in Iraq, has harshly condemned representative democracy and open elections in Iraq as “un-Islamic principles” that violate the belief that all laws must come from a divine source.

“We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it,” a speaker believed to be Zarqawi said in an audiotape released just before Iraq’s Jan. 30 parliamentary vote.

“Candidates in elections are seeking to become demigods, while those who vote for them are infidels,” the speaker warned.

Zarqawi’s condemnation echoed similar writings by influential fundamentalist scholars.

Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist theorist and intellectual godfather to many of today’s fundamentalist leaders, rejected democracy based on a disillusioning stay in the United States as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s.

“Democracy, as a form of government, is already bankrupt in the West,” he wrote. “Why should it be imported to the Middle East?”

Despite the recent stirrings of democratic reform in the Muslim world, the overall numbers tend to support the skeptics.

The 2005 survey by the rights group Freedom House of political liberties around the world showed Muslim-majority countries clearly lagging, even as democratic revolutions have swept regions such as East Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America in recent years.

Just 10 of the world’s 47 Muslim-majority countries are true electoral democracies, the survey found.

In a broader measure of civil liberties and personal freedoms, 28 of those countries (60 percent) are rated “not free” — the lowest designation, and 17 countries (36 percent) are rated only partly free.

Of the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim political grouping, just four smaller members (Benin, Mali, Senegal and Suriname) are rated “free.”

Large Muslim minorities in Western Europe, often unassimilated and with conservative cultural values at odds with the majority, have proven a severe strain even for countries such as the Netherlands, which enjoyed a global reputation for tolerance.

Political realities will require both the Dutch majority and the Muslim minority to compromise, Netherlands Ambassador to the United States Boudewijn van Eenennaam observed.

“But I think it will be more that Islam will have to adjust to the Netherlands than the other way around,” he said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times last month.

Mr. Bush and democracy advocates counter that major Islamic countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, are vital if imperfect democracies, with regular elections, parliaments and a free press. Turkey is an example of an Islamic nation with a strictly secular form of government, one that is a member of NATO and has dreams of one day joining the European Union.

Iraqi and Afghan voters turned out in unexpectedly large numbers, despite the novelty of contested elections and the threat of violence.

Even Iran held a series of free parliamentary and presidential votes — won by reformers — before the most recent crackdown by clerical hard-liners.

Islamic scholars say the Koran — like the Bible — presents an uneasy and often contradictory fit when matched with Western political ideals.

One saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, holds that “difference of opinion in my community is a sign of God’s mercy.”

The first Muslim community established by Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia, featured a constitution-like “compact” with the various ethnic groups on how the community would be governed.

Khaled Abou El Fadl, distinguished fellow in Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles, argues there can be an accommodation of mosque and democratic state under Islam.

But, he noted in a widely read critique in the Boston Review, “for Islam, democracy poses a formidable challenge” because sovereignty rests with the people.

“In Islam,” he noted, “God is the only sovereign and ultimate source of legitimate law. How, then, can a democratic conception of the people’s authority be reconciled with an Islamic understanding of God’s authority?”

Middle East political reformers say the cause of democracy has been harmed by the history of the region — first by the distorting legacy of Western colonial empires, then by the support from the United States and other Western powers for authoritarian leaders in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Egypt after independence.

“We see the U.S. system as a model, but because of our past experience, the United States has zero credibility with the Lebanese people,” said Adib Farha, an adviser to recently assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor in Near East studies at Princeton and the dean of U.S. Islamic scholars, said that Islam’s emphasis on individual dignity, its condemnation of arbitrary rule, and its tolerance of different schools of religious thought bode well for pluralism and democratic government.

But he noted that basic concepts such as citizenship are alien to Islamic political tradition, while “freedom” has been defined as freedom from external domination, not freedom for individuals in the state.

“In the traditional Islamic system,” Mr. Lewis wrote, “the converse of tyranny is justice; in Western political thought, the converse of tyranny is freedom.”

Ismail Serageldin is director of Egypt’s Library of Alexandria and a prime force behind the March 2004 “Alexandria Statement,” a declaration by scholars and civil activists from 18 Arab countries demanding wide-ranging political, economic, social and cultural reforms.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has dominated his country’s political life since taking power in 1981, startled the region in February by ordering a major change to the constitution to allow challengers to run against him in the upcoming September presidential election.

During a recent Washington visit, Mr. Serageldin said Egypt’s reformers are locked in an “iron triangle of competing forces,” pitted against old-line authoritarian rulers who favor centralized control and an array of hard-line Islamist groups united in their rejection of Western ideals of tolerance, sexual equality and political openness.

“If there are Islamist currents that can accept the equality of men and women and who do not wish to impose Shariah law on society, then by all means they can join with us,” he said.

“But I am not at all sure in Egypt they are ready to accept those conditions,” he added.

Iraqi democracy activist Laith Kubba said rising education levels and modernization across the Muslim world, coupled with a sense that the Islamic world has fallen far behind the West in economic development, will improve prospects for a new synthesis of political reform and Islam.

“I have a lot of faith that this debate will lead to democracy and to full recognition of human rights, but it will come with local language and interpretation, and it will be approached from a totally different perspective than we are accustomed to in the West.”

Mr. Serageldin said attempts to impose democracy from the outside will backfire in the Middle East, but insisted political liberalism can triumph in the heartland of the Islamic faith.

“Yes, Islamist currents have come forward that make people uncomfortable, but I predict that at the end of the day people like me will win this debate handily,” he said. “History is on our side.”

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