Democratizing the Muslim World

Posted in Broader Middle East | 09-Oct-04 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Is Islam a religion of peace? Since September 11th, 2001,we keep asking this question. So far, the answer we have gotten is mixed. Many Islamic scholars say that Islam is a religion of cooperation; at the same time, we also witness tragedies from around the world caused by Muslim terrorists. After the recent siege in Beslan the managing director of the satellite channel al-Arabiyya, Abdelrahman al-Rashid, wrote in his editorial: It is a fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.

If Islam is a peaceful religion, then what has driven Muslim terrorists to attack and kill innocent men, women and children? The only rational answer is that Muslims are trapped in the past and cannot deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Under these circumstances, they resort to primitive acts of hate and revenge.

The reason that so few Muslim countries today are democratic might have less to do with the nature of Islam, or with the Qur'an, than with experiences in Muslim history. Muslims have no history of democracy. Also, they look with suspicion and tend to reject Western political thought. The unsolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war create even greater support for radical Muslims.

U.S foreign policy in the Middle East has followed two lines: A soft one and a hard one. The hard line aims at regime change in countries with governments that are hostile toward the United States. The invasion of Iraq was motivated by security concerns. However, there might be another explanation for it, too. Iraq was seen as the easiest target in the Middle East to destabilize and install a democratic system of government. This has proven to be wishful thinking. It is impossible to guarantee that the future government in Iraq will be a democratic one. In Iraq, most likely a government will emerge that is a combination of the nationalist structure of the modern state with the traditional structure of Sharia, the Islamic law. It may not be the truly democratic government the West had hoped for, but it would be a first step toward democratization. It is certainly better to have a governmental system in Iraq that is more similar to Turkey's than to Iran's. Recently, the U.S together with the UN, France and Germany pressured Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and they have urged Iran to stop its nuclear program.

The soft line is directed at the Muslim governments that have friendly relations with the United States, including Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf countries. The West should empower moderate Muslims - who live in this troubled region as well as in other parts of the world - to take responsibility for telling their own communities that embracing the principles of democracy, human rights and freedom is not a betrayal of their religion. On the contrary: The most obvious example is that of Turkey, an Islamic country with a secular government which seeks membership in the EU and cooperates with the U.S in the war on terror. Moderate Muslims can build a bridge between modernity and tradition, thus making the transition easier from dictatorial regimes to democratic ones.

Only when Muslims have acknowledged the benefits of secularism, democracy, free markets, private property and personal freedoms will the Muslim world advance. Both the West and the East share common values, and with these values we can continue to build a global society based on diversity, respect and equality in front of the law for everyone, independent of religion, gender or race.

The following steps should be followed:

  • Broad, consistent respect for political and civil rights
  • Opening the political arena for all parties that agree to play by the democratic rules of the game
  • Develop the non-governmental sector
  • Acknowledge women's rights, including the right of women to vote and support for women's rights organizations
  • Strengthen the independent media

The goal is to have a Muslim world which values the principles of human rights, political pluralism and freedom. The only pragmatic reform is that of a democracy in steps. The target is an economic reform, reform of the model of governance and support for the civil society.