Finding Allies within Islam; Muslim World Struggles with Concept of Democracy

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The tensions and tricky crosscurrents in the debate over Islam and democracy can be seen in the battle over women's suffrage in Kuwait.

The key vote in the debate was not cast by Kuwait's male voters, not by the country's parliament or even by the longtime emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, but by a small group of Muslim scholars in the government's Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

In a March 19 fatwa, or religious edict, the ministry said clerics were divided on the question of whether the body of Muslim religious laws known as Shariah gives women the right to vote and run for office.

In the absence of a consensus, "a decision by the ruler should end disputes on the matter," the fatwa concluded.

Reform advocates hailed the ruling, as the emir supports giving women the vote. An Islamic-based, undemocratic process had produced a democratic result.

"Human rights activists have tended to see Islamic activists as an impediment, as 'not one of us,'" said Neil Hicks, director of international programs for Human Rights First. "That's an attitude that has to change."

The stakes in the debate over Islam and democracy are huge, and will shape the fate of President Bush's strategy in the global war on terrorism.

The debate is taking place amid a remarkable series of political shifts across the Islamic world, from successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq to regime-shaking street protests in Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, to more cautious democratic experiments in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Bush, in his second inaugural address, his State of the Union speech and in his Middle East policy, has adopted a "forward strategy of freedom" for countries of the Islamic world.

The president rejected the idea that Western concepts of individual rights, limited government and popular sovereignty are incompatible with the Muslim faith.

"Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to representative government," Mr. Bush said in his now-famous November 2003 address outlining an aggressive new U.S. democratic push in the region.

But, the president argued, "a religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, put the political transformation of Arab and Muslim worlds as the U.S. government's top foreign-policy priority - ahead of such hot-button issues as North Korea and Iran's nuclear program.

"I think the biggest test is the Middle East and the evolution of a stable and democratized Middle East. That's really going to be the historical test," she said.

The so-called "Arab Spring" of political reform has some of Mr. Bush's harshest foreign critics reconsidering. "Was Bush Right After All?" asked a headline in the anti-Iraq war Independent newspaper of London recently.

Lined up against Mr. Bush is an unlikely combination of Islam's harshest critics and its most fervent fundamentalist believers.

Author and Islamic scholar Ibn Warraq, writing in the just-published collection "The Myth of Islamic Tolerance," calls Islam a "totalitarian ideology that aims to control the religious, social and political life of mankind in all its aspects."

Islam, he says, "does not value the individual, who has to be sacrificed for the sake of the Islamic community."

From the very other end of the spectrum, some radical Islamists agree.

Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born al Qaeda operative blamed by U.S. officials for much of the insurgent violence in Iraq, has harshly condemned representative democracy and open elections in Iraq as "un-Islamic principles" that violate the belief that all laws must come from a divine source. …