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
"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
* 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
* 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
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. …