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Scholars See Compatibility of Islam and Democracy

Washington -- Are Islam and democracy compatible?  No question about it, said speakers at a recent two-day conference held by a Washington-based organization dedicated to studying the link between the two.

The viewpoint is shared by other observers in other venues, who agree there is no inherent conflict that makes "Islamic democracy" an oxymoron.

By the same token, there is broad agreement that democratization is a long and difficult process, replete with trial and error along the way, and that a true democracy must be home grown and country-specific, rather than being imposed from outside.

The issue becomes particularly pertinent at a time when Iraq is moving toward establishing sovereignty June 30 and, advocates hope, a fully functioning, democratically elected government sometime next year.

Interviewed between sessions at the May 28-29 conference held by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, the center's president, Radwan Masmoudi, expressed confidence that the message is increasingly getting through to non-Muslims in the United States and elsewhere.

"Five years ago, the issue of democracy in the Muslim world was not on the agenda, either in the United States or in the Muslim world itself," Masmoudi says. Now, he says, "it is the number one item on the foreign policy agenda for the United States."

"People have realized that the lack of freedom, lack of democracy, lack of good governance in the Muslim world is one of the main reasons for the rise in extremism, rise in violence, rise in anger and frustration," he says.

In the Muslim world as well, "both the governments and the civil society are actively discussing these there is an opening that we have now in the region that did not exist before," Masmoudi says. He cites progress in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia.

Reform of authoritarian regimes in the region is "not only possible, it's a necessity," Masmoudi says. "Either we solve these fundamental problems in our governments and societies," exacerbated by heavy, destabilizing unemployment among the young, "or these countries are going to fail miserably," he says.

Masmoudi sees perceptions changing along with the reality. In the West, he says, "there is more of a feeling that Islam is not an impediment to democracy.... Islam, like any other religion, emphasizes freedom and equality and justice and human dignity, so Islam is not the problem."

His comments broadly jibe with the view that U.S. author Jennifer Noyon expressed in her book, "Islam, Politics and Pluralism: Theory and Practice in Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia and Algeria," published in 2003.

"There is nothing in Islam that makes Muslim countries inherently inhospitable to democracy, any more than there is in Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism or other major religions," Noyon says. "The fact that nations are Muslim should not prejudice our views of these states or their potential for full democracy and respect for human rights."

Nor, she notes, should it excuse "the often draconian measures that authoritarian governments take against their political oppositionists."

Ambassadors from several majority-Muslim countries see the answer to the compatibility question as being so clear that it does not even deserve to be asked.

Speaking on a panel at the CSID conference, Ambassador Aziz Mekouar of Morocco dismissed the question as "nonsense."

Mekouar says a "real movement for democracy" in his country began in the early 1990s. By 1999, he says, the new king announced his intent to pursue democratization, move on human rights problems and address women's rights. Now, five years later, "all this has been delivered" -- including a new family law that provides "an equal footing men and women."

Ambassador Nabil Fahmy of Egypt told the CSID audience, "I'm not going to get into the debate of whether the Islamic faith or Islamic law is compatible with democracy, because I find the accusation frankly a bit ridiculous."

Fahmy acknowledged that, given the country's overwhelming Muslim majority, "Any legislation that we adopt in Egypt cannot be in contradiction with Islamic law." But this does not compromise minority rights, Fahmy maintained, noting that two different civil codes are applied to Moslems and Christians, "according to their faith."

The ambassador insisted that problems of limited democracy are not faith-based. "The majority of the world, including the Middle East and the Islamic world, has a ways to go in terms of promoting democracy," he observed....We all need to do more."

Like his colleagues, Fahmy warned against expecting instant results. "Democracy will not be evolved over a short time span...Democracy ultimately is a process that has to be developed gradually," he says.

And he stressed the importance of improving the region's economy. "Underdevelopment is never an excuse for the lack of democracy, but the more we can pursue economic development at a more rapid pace, the easier it is to promote democracy," he says.

Ambassador O. Faruk Logoglu of Turkey traced the long, slow progress of Turkish democracy back to the 1920s, and cited such key concepts as the rule of law, respect for human rights and secularism. He termed secularism "a prime condition for bringing about genuine democratic traditions to one's country."

"We are proud of what we have accomplished in Turkey, we are not satisfied with it...This effort will continue," he says.

Describing his own country "a democracy in the making," Ambassador Karim Kawar of Jordan says, "We still have a long way to go."

Like several of his colleagues, he cited the importance of equal rights for women. And he singled out Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia "for having lady premiers elected, which we have yet to see in some of the Western countries."

Also like his colleagues, Kawar stressed, "democracy should be a home grown initiative, it cannot be imposed.... We need to have leadership from within."

By Ralph Dannheisser Washington File Special Correspondent
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:



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