Pew Forum Examines Democracy in the Muslim World

By Al-Arian, Laila | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Pew Forum Examines Democracy in the Muslim World


Al-Arian, Laila, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


On Sept. 17, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and Boston University's Institute on Religion and World Affairs held a seminar at the Mayflower hotel in Washington, DC to discuss findings of a project on pluralism and democracy in the Muslim world.

At the seminar's opening session, Boston University Professor Robert Hefner assured the audience that the jointly sponsored project, which examined the possibility of democratization in Muslim countries, was not a "knee-jerk reaction to Sept. 11."

Hefner went on to announce the study's three major findings: first, the Muslim world is not monolithic, but rather quite diverse . secondly, that the differences that define the future of the Muslim world lie in a struggle between militancy and plurality. Finally, Hefner said, the study found that the influence of the heart and soul of the Muslim world lies in the West, which must work with, not against, the proponents of democracy.

Bahman Baktiari, a professor at the University of Maine, next discussed democratization and repression in post-Khomeini Iran. Contrary to popular belief, he said, "a mosaic of forces brought down the shah" during the Iranian revolution of 1979. Many secular Iranians who detested the U.S.-installed shah's iron-fist rule also participated in the struggle to oust him.

While Muslim clerics initially attempted to shut down these forces, he went on, they realize that's no longer possible. "Ruling clerics understand that repression does not pay off in the long run," Baktiari said.

The U.S. must let Iran deal with its internal changes without interference, he argued. Labeling the country part of an "axis of evil" certainly does not help, he pointed out. Nor do statements from Washington advocating uprisings, Baktiari said, referring to the Bush administration's recent push for more vocal student demonstrations. Noting that "many people in Iran view the students as radicals," he concluded, "The forces of change are more complicated."

Following Baktiari's presentation, Boston University's Jenny White discussed Islamism in Turkish politics. After last November's elections were won by justice and Development, a Turkish Islamic party, many secularists were very nervous, White said-but "the results surprised everyone." The new government since has passed several democratic reforms, in hopes that the country will be allowed into the European Union.

Justice and Development came into power because it was more responsive to grassroots opinion than other parties, White explained. The party also is considerably more moderate than many initially believed, she added. According to White, there are a number of reasons why "radical Islam is dead in Turkey." Even though the Turkish military has shut down a number of Islamist parties in the past, she noted, these parties also have been given opportunities to reform and reenter the political system. …

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