Symposium

Article excerpt

Q: Does President Bush have a realistic plan for bringing democracy to the Middle East?

YES: Human dignity, the rule of law and limits on the power of the state are clearly mandated by Islam's holy book.

When President George W. Bush declared, "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region," there was a resonance with the political-reform manifesto of Islamic moderates around the world. President Bush's vision of "a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater political participation, economic openness and free trade" also is consistent with Islam's clarion call for justice, equality and human dignity. A perusal of the Qur'anic evidence would leave no doubt that all these values are integral to the basic philosophy of Islam. According to the Qur'an, one of the explicit purposes of God's messengers is to offer mankind liberty, justice and equality.

True, the relationship between the state and the people in Islamic history has been one of tyranny and violence. This, however, is not because of Islam but, rather, in spite of it. Islam was, after all, in its origins a social uprising against the oppressive and discriminatory practices of Arabian society. Islam took a stand on equality of race, gender and social status at a time when equality was not the accepted norm. If anything, the tyrannical history of Muslim rulers is a re-establishment of Arabian tradition and a victory of sorts for Arab tribalism over Islamic values.

In fact there is little need to lay the theoretical groundwork for Islam's compatibility with democracy and universal values. The road map is clear and, to his credit, President Bush and his foreign-policy team are aware of it. Richard Haass, the director of the State Department's policy-planning staff, demonstrated this awareness when he remarked to the Council on Foreign Relations on Dec. 4, 2002, "Dynamic reform experiments under way in many parts of the Muslim world demonstrate that democracy and Islam are compatible."

The difficulty will be in applying the road map on the ground. But despite the loud voices of the detractors, history tells us that this is possible. Christianity, which was the pretext for the oppression and tyranny of the church and the state in medieval Europe, is the beacon of ethics and equality today. Recently there have been some encouraging signs in the Muslim world, and especially in the Arab world, where the "freedom gap" is more acute:

* Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia recently introduced an initiative for political and economic reforms that he envisions will become binding to all Arab nations. There is even talk among Saudi elites of an elected Parliament within six years.

* In September 2002, Moroccan citizens experienced the most transparent elections in the nation's history. An Islamist party won a sizable number of seats in Parliament, and the government accepted the results.

* In October 2002, Bahrain had a general election where citizens--both men and women--were allowed to cast their votes for Parliament and run for office.

These top-down efforts are commendable and encouraging. However, it will be very difficult for them to succeed without a serious, bottom-up movement to sustain and nourish the reforms. On this there also have been encouraging signs. The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) held workshops on "Islam and Democracy" in Morocco, Egypt and Yemen in October 2002. The CSID team was pleasantly surprised to find general consensus in the three countries, among moderate Islamists and secularists alike, on the need to work together to build an indigenous democracy that strives to fulfill universal rights and liberties, but also is respectful of Islam and Arab culture. CSID was able to build a network of democrats in the three countries and will continue the effort to expand the network to other countries in the region. …