into Islamic democracy
By Jane Lampman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON – As the US debated going to war in Iraq last fall, some
American Muslims were pursuing their own small antiterror campaign in the
Muslim world. As part of an ongoing effort to promote democracy in the
region, they provided an opening in three Arab countries for both Islamic
and secular democrats to come together for the first time to debate the
compatibility of Islam and democracy. In Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen,
government leaders, opposition members, and civic activists joined in
frank private and public workshops on such hot topics as human rights,
women's rights, and religious tolerance.
"What was so encouraging about the workshops was that we found the
gap between moderate Islamists and secularists is narrower than
ever," says Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of
Islam and Democracy (CSID), the US-based think tank that sponsored the
meetings with local civic groups.
With the Islamic world in turmoil over the confrontation between militant
groups claiming to defend Islam and authoritarian regimes standing for
modernity, the key to a viable future is a coalition of moderate Islamists
and non-Islamists committed to representative government, CSID says.
All too often, though, those committed democrats are isolated, without the
resources or outlet to take their case to the people. In some places,
they've been harassed, jailed, or even killed for their efforts.
• In Egypt, for example, democratic activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has just
emerged from 2-1/2 years in prison for "tarnishing Egypt's
reputation," after his research center issued reports critical of the
• In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar, the charismatic leader of Sisters in Islam,
is under fire from clerics who charge her with insulting Islam, as she
fights proposals for draconian state laws discriminating against women.
Sept. 11 has made it more imperative than ever, Dr. Masmoudi says, to
support those activists and address questions about Islam and democracy in
the West and Muslim countries.
The Muslim world, in the middle of an Islamic revival, is in ferment over
which interpretations of Islam should define 21st-century societies.
Millions yearn for more say in how their countries are run, but for
Muslims, the Koran, the sayings of the prophet, and Islamic law are the
authentic guides to individual and communal life. Do secularism and
democracy conflict with Islamic law and teachings?
If you force people to choose between democracy and Islam, they will
choose Islam, Masmoudi says, but they don't have to make that choice.
"You can be a very good Muslim and [a] democrat at the same time
without compromising beliefs."
Convinced by his own experience in the Arab world and the US, Masmoudi, an
MIT-trained robotics engineer, founded CSID in 1999 to carry out the
studies necessary to show the relationship between Islamic and democratic
principles. It now involves some 500 Muslim scholars and activists, and
other Islamic specialists from the US and abroad. They are working to
disseminate their research on the convergence of democratic and Islamic
values and promote constructive action. At CSID's annual conference in
mid-May in Washington, for example, Nadeem Kazmi, of the Al-Khoei
Foundation in London, spoke of the need for a diplomatic process to
develop a "cohesive authoritative fatwa" for delegitimizing
They have plans for Islam and democracy sessions this year in Algeria,
Jordan, Turkey, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Iraq.
"Building bridges between moderate Islamists and other democrats is
essential," says Abdulwahab Alkebsi, program officer at the National
Endowment for Democracy. "You can't have a democracy movement without
Islamists in the Arab world."
In the workshops held in Yemen, for example, civic activists and top
leaders of the ruling General People's Congress, the Socialist Party, and
the Islamist Islah Party grappled with the difficulties of moving their
country from "a superficial democracy to a real and viable one,"
as one official termed it. A patriarchal, tribal society, Yemen has
experimented with democracy for several years even as it contends with
elements sympathetic to terrorism.
Participants agreed on the compatibility of democracy and Islam, based on
the values of justice, equality, and shura - the Koranic principle of
consulting the people in matters of governance.
Stephenie Foster, a US political consultant who has visited Yemen to train
local candidates and campaign managers (including women), says,
"People want a
say in how their lives are run and are responsive to the idea that
the only system that gives that option.
"It's difficult for women," she adds, "but there are some -
younger women particularly - who articulate very well the compatibility of
Islam and democracy, based on the Koran and Islamic experience."
Some in the Muslim world and the West claim that Islamic democracy is an
oxymoron or that Arabs aren't ready for democratic governance. Recent
polls suggest otherwise. The World Values Study of 2002 shows that 87
percent of Muslims (in nine countries) see democracy as the best choice
(see chart page 14).
Still, democracies are built on civil societies that value pluralism. Many
Muslims see the intolerance in some countries as a recent phenomenon,
sparked by radical Islam and narrow concepts of sharia, or Islamic law.
To counter this, some Muslim scholars are working on reinterpretations
related to human rights, religious freedom, and tolerance. CSID has
translated papers into Arabic and put them on the Internet. Some are
publishing books, like "The Islamic Roots of Democratic
Pluralism" by Abdulaziz Sachedina, for the Center for Strategic and
Indicators of change are multiplying in the Arab world, with Morocco
to genuine elections, Bahrain holding its first vote, and Qatar announcing
a new constitution. In Saudi Arabia, professionals are pushing to
modernize the political system. And Turkey is offering an intriguing
example. "A party with Islamic roots has come to power, but it now
says it believes in secularism and that it is compatible with Islam,"
Secularism is a huge issue in the Muslim world. It's not simply that Islam
doesn't see a separation of religion from public life.
"In many Arab countries in the past, secularism didn't mean that no
religion was privileged, but that governments and elites were in fact
antireligious," says John Esposito, professor of religion and
international affairs at Georgetown University. Some secular regimes -
such as Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Iraq - have tortured or killed
So negative is the feeling, that as CSID set up its workshops, secular
democrats in the countries involved insisted they never be called
secularists, but liberals or nationalists. Turkey's Justice and
Development Party could change that perception.
At CSID's fourth annual conference in Washington this month, Muslims from
several countries discussed issues such as attempts to implement sharia,
the question of an Islamic state, lack of education needed for pluralism,
and the role of women's rights in democratization.
Dr. Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo had been developing proposals
for teaching pluralism in Egyptian textbooks when he was arrested and his
Muslims have the model they need, he told the group, in the prophet
Muhammad's own charter for Medina. The 14 groups of non-Muslims who lived
in the city, including Jews, Christians, and pagans, were to be treated
equally in all worldly matters, he said. And in matters of religion, each
group was simply responsible to God.
The idea of an Islamic state is a response to modernity, according to
Kamran Bokhari, of the University of Texas at Austin. Historically,
"there was nothing called an Islamic state," he says. The
adjective "Islamic" is a contemporary attempt "to
authenticate everything ... to capture the imagination of the
What Muslims need to vigorously debate, all agree, is "What is sharia?"
Most of what is called sharia today is opinions of scholars who lived
centuries ago - it's not in the Koran or sayings of the prophet, Masmoudi
The Sisters of Islam in Malaysia, for example, have fought a proposal by
the Islamic party to implement the death penalty for anyone who leaves
Islam, and harsh penalties against women. The group has spurred debate
through the media, challenging clerics over their failure to see Islamic
law in a historical context.
"I'm a feminist and a believer, and am determined not to be forced
into exile," Ms. Anwar says. "Muslims need intellectual vigor,
moral courage, and political will to open the door to ijtihad."
"The question is how we reinterpret sharia for the 21st
century," Masmoudi adds. "This is the concept of ijtihad in
Muslim jurisprudence, which means adapting religious teachings to the
current needs of the community."
It's well accepted throughout the Muslim world that the decay of Muslim
civilization began 500 years ago because religious scholars stopped
reinterpreting Islamic law. Part of today's debate is who can legitimately
participate. Many say the complexities of contemporary society demand it
go far beyond religious scholars. "If you want to apply sharia to
banking, you have to understand banking," Alkebsi says.
Many argue that women must be part of the process. Some are working with
women in the US and abroad to reinterpret their role according to the
"One concept I teach from the Koran is that each individual is God's
representative on earth," says Sharifa Alkateeb, head of the North
American Council for Muslim Women. "That implies moral agency and
ownership of her own thought processes; awareness of community; the
ability to criticize any level of control, from the family to government.
That concept is fundamentally democratic, and
it can revamp society."
Reinterpretation is a huge task and also requires winning over the people.
"In Islamic countries, people want more freedom, but at the same
time, the vast majority want to live according to God's laws, which they
believe bring them happiness in this world and the next," says Seyyed
Hossein Nasr, author of "Islam: Religion, History, and
They need to be convinced that democracy does not mean taking God's
sovereignty and giving it to humans. "If in a democracy you have a
parliament that passes laws which do not oppose those divine laws, there
would not be a problem," he adds. "What would happen in the US
if the Congress one day passed laws that negated the Ten
This is why it is so crucial that the democratic movement include moderate
Islamists. And Iraq is a test. "It's very important we build real
democracy in Iraq, and the key to success is being inclusive of all
groups," Masmoudi says. "Secularism isn't popular because of
Saddam Hussein. If we impose it, it will backfire."
But he doesn't think the majority will vote for theocracy either.
"What they want is a moderate, progressive interpretation of Islam, a
democratic state that respects the will of the majority and protects the
rights of the minority. It's extremely important, because if we don't
succeed ... democracy will lose credibility."
(Radwan A. Masmoudi)