Easing into Islamic Democracy ; Convinced by Their Experience in the US, American Muslims Are Helping Form Democratic Coalitions in the Muslim World and Are Building Their Case on Islamic Principles

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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 government.

* 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 terrorism.

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. …