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Op-Ed: Islam Needs Models of Homegrown Democracy

Islam Needs Models of Homegrown Democracy
published in International Herald Tribune, 3 March 2000

Lessons from Iran

The victory of reformists in last weekend's elections in Iran has focused attention on an important but underreported trend: the slow but steady spread of democracy in the Islamic world. Alongside Iran we are now seeing democratic evolution of differing kinds in a number of predominantly Moslem countries. Cases in point include Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic polity.

That is the good news. A number of important challenges lie ahead, however, for the consolidation of democracy within the Islamic world. Of these the most important are:

  • Modernity. The need to create a balance between the application of core democratic principles and practices and respect for the basic tenets of Islam. This applies in a range of areas, from anchoring the rule of law and political institution building to constitutional development and the definition of citizenship. In addition, as today's Iran shows, there is growing understanding in Moslem states that modernization is best pursued along the path of evolution rather than revolution. This in itself is a further important step in the direction of democracy.

  • Freedom of expression. In the majority of Moslem countries, poet's voices can still be silenced when they write poems deemed to have contradicted the Koran, newspaper articles censored for supposedly defaming the nation. The recent case of the Lebanese composer and singer Marcel Khaleseh is indicative of the problem in this context. The challenge is to engender acceptance of the principle that artists, intellectuals and political opponents of the authorities have the right to express themselves freely, legally and without fear.

  • The role of women. In many Moslem countries there is a pressing need to reform legal frameworks that deny women full and equal rights - in the workplace as much as the political and civic spheres. In Kuwait, the narrow failure of legislation giving women the vote to pass through parliament nevertheless stands as an encouraging example of what needs to happen.

Underlying all these challenges is perhaps the most fundamental one for states with majority Moslem populations. That is to develop political and social systems in which religion plays a spiritual and ethical rather than legislative role in determining the course of development. For believers in particular, this means accepting that the social and political aspects of the Koran's teaching can and should be interpreted according to contemporary social needs and imperatives.

It wouldn't be the first time in history that Islamic countries have adopted this approach to the role of religion in politics. During the Middle Ages the Islamic world experienced a scientific and cultural flowering that left a permanent imprint on the development of, for example, modern medicine and mathematics. History suggests that Moslem countries that respect and value their religious heritage, while interpreting holy texts in a way that responds to contemporary social realities, are the ones most likely to prove strong, dynamic forces in today's competitive global village.

Further cyclical trends are also evident in the modern experience of the Moslem world. The extremism that has characterized some forms of political Islam during the past few decades can be seen as a response to the failure of other available political models and institutional mechanisms. In Egypt, Islamist groups have always had their strongest base among the most marginalized sections of society. And in Algeria, the widespread support enjoyed by the Front Islamique de Salut (FIS) in the early 1990s was more an expression of disillusionment with the ideology and practices of the ruling political class than of a popular desire for the creation of an Islamic theocracy in Algeria.

Two decades on from Iran's Islamic Revolution, however, many ordinary Moslems - with Iranians at the forefront - have come full circle. Increasingly, they are seeing that a fundamentalist approach to politics simply does not work in practice, and using the ballot box to express their support for the option of modernization. What form that modernization is to take, in particular its political dimension, is now the big question.

For those who advocate the path of democracy there are a number of key points of departure. First, it must be understood that there is no such thing as one model of democracy, valid for all countries and contexts. A healthy democracy is a homegrown product, not an imported one. Second, there are basic, commonly accepted principles - respect for human rights, free and fair elections, a free press, the right to form political parties - and values - transparency, accountability, participation - essential to any democratic system of governance. What the Moslem world needs is a model - better still models - of democracy that are both authentically Moslem and respect core democratic values and principles.

For too long the West has been living with a propaganda stereotype that portrays Islam as an evil phantom lurking in the corner. It is this that explains the appeal of Samuel Huntingdon's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis, with its determined search for a new overarching 'Enemy' to fill the void left by the demise of the Soviet Union and communism. In reality, anyone wanting to confront the contemporary enemies of democracy would be better off addressing the real and pressing challenges of poverty and corruption than loosely-conceived phantasms of Islam on the rampage.

No doubt we need to counter extremists, wherever and whenever they threaten democratic values - Jörg Haider in Austria no less than Afghanistan's Taleban rulers, it should be added. Just as Iranians have voted for modernization and against extremism in their parliamentary elections, however, so now it is time for the international community to sober up and give homegrown Moslem democracy a chance. Practical measures designed to support and encourage its evolution, instead of ideological dismissal, would make a good start.

This will need patience and engagement: building democracy is after all a long-term process. It will also need understanding, and the rooting out of clichés and stereotypes.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh is Secretary-General of International IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

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