Can an Islamic Government Foste Vemocratic Rights? at the Center of the Dabate Lies a Fundamental Point: Western-Style Democracies Fashion Codes of Law after the Will of the People, but in Islam, the Law Is the Word of God. Thus, in a Religion-Based Society, God's Law Is the Ceiling, Islamic Experts Say

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MUSLIMS have long complained that they make the headlines in the Western press only when they are amputating the hands of thieves in public, machine-gunning tourists, or stabbing Isrealis.

But the image of the violent Muslim is not simply the product of sensationalist reporters {t is fed too by Muslim governments themselves, who in their zeal to combat the Islamic threat have muzzled even moderate voices that might present a less fanatical view.

Fahmy Howeidi has often felt the victim of this policy. A mild-mannered man, he was quietly fuming as he sat in his office at the semi-official Cairo daily Al-Ahram one morning last December. The week before he had been invited, along with half a dozen other prominent Egyptian Islamists, to a round-table discussion before students at Cairo University.

A few hours before the meeting was due to ct:2jzYZ advice, he hastily cancelled the event.

"If young people have no chance to hear moderates talking, you can imagine where they will go," he said bitterly. "It's very easy to join a secret organization. Every government gets the opposition it deserves, and the government is creating it here."

Mr. Howeidi's worry is that by restricting democratic freedoms the Egyptian government is debasing the very currency of democracy. Faced with this sort of official attitude, he argues, it matters less whether Islam and democracy are compatible in theory, than whether Islamists in practice will attach any value to democracy.

Given the militancy of the most visible Islamic political activism, opponents of political Islam, and even moderate Islamists, worry that citizens of Islamic states, especially minorities, will not enjoy the sort of civil rights and constitutional guarantees that are understood to be entailed in the Western sense of the word "democracy."

If the Egyptian government is in danger of discrediting democracy in its fight agains|Hslamist violence, that violence itself is choking prospects for more freedom. "The more force that is used to call for Islam, the more cautious the system gets - closing down, using emergency laws, and seeking military solutions," says Salama Ahmed Salama, the editor of Al-Ahram. "Violence harms the chances of deepening the democratic process."

Which is what it is probably intended to do, leaving moderate Islamists, who present their religion democratically as an alternative political system, as the biggest losers to the radicals for whom Islam is a moral imperative that must be imposed by any means.

In Egypt, many observers suspect some overlap between membership of the semi-legal Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates political reform, and the underground cells of Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), which is responsible for the killing of Coptic Christians, policemen, and tourists in its effort to overthrow the Egyptian government.

Algerian officials also are reluctant to distinguish between violent and non-violent Islamists.

BUT this is not the case throughout the Arab world. When Iyyad Khatan's name appeared on a hit-list issued by the clandestine Prophet Muhammad's Army in Jordan, for example, the head of the Royal Cultural Center said, "The response I got from the Brotherhood was as surprised and as violently opposed to such acts as from any other sector."

Offering those Islamists who seek evolutionary reform a reason not to unite with those proclaiming revolutionary change is the major challenge before Arab officials today, Mr. Salama says. "{Moderate} Islamists can be easily infiltrated by people who interpret Islam according to their whim," he says. "The extremists are a by-product of the government's refusal to take the democratic Islamic movement into the system."

But how democratic is that Islamic movement? Adel Hussein, editor of the Islamist Cairo newspaper Al Shaab, insists that "pluralism is now quite accepted in theory and de facto in Islamic political thinking. …