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The rulers of Baghdad seem frightened
of Islamic democracy



Jonathan Power

December 19, 2003

LONDON - The White House and Downing Street have been caught off balance- not so much by the sudden success of capturing Saddam Hussein but by something more subtle. Rather than having to gradually introduce democracy to an unwelcoming body politic in Iraq they are being paced to introduce it sooner rather than later by none other than the powerful Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani. So much for notions that Islam and especially the Shi'ite clergy (who hold sway in Iran's theocracy) are unfertile ground for the ideas of the European and American Enlightenment. But the occupying powers are saying an election can't administratively be held so quickly.

At bottom this is probably an argument about can the voters be trusted rather than the mechanics of voter registration. Deep within the White House and Downing Street lurks a fear that the so-called "fundamentalists" might do rather well in an early poll and that there might well be a rather militant anti-Western coalition that wins a ballot.

At the core of their fear is the conviction that Muslim nations, and particularly Arab ones, have given short shrift to democracy. It is said that the Koran lays down no precepts about democracy. But then neither did the teaching of Moses or Jesus say much on the subject. Indeed for many centuries the Christian Church was intimately allied with dictatorial regimes who believed they ruled by divine right and the separating of state and church in the vigorous form is very much a post 18th century phenomenon. As recently as a generation ago it was widely held that the culture of Catholic southern Europe and Latin America was not conducive to democracy.

The Koran has only about eighty verses out of 6,000 that lay down hard and fast rules on public law and there is not much guidance on how to run a government of a major state. Maybe if Muhammad could have imagined the modern nation state, its political economy and its propensity to be corrupted my money interests he might have said something about it, perhaps even advocating a separation of powers, just as, if he had known the details of contemporary research on tobacco smoking, he would probably have disallowed that along with alcohol.

Tomorrow (Thursday) Freedom House will publish its evaluation of the pursuit of democracy in 2003. According to a spokesman the report will underline that the phenomenal post Cold War upswing in the spread of democracy and the observance of human rights is still going strong, even in the Islamic world. As Freedom House has reported before, if one adds up the population of the five democratically elected Muslim governments of Turkey, Mali, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Albania, then add in Nigeria where over half the population is Muslim and the Muslims who live in Europe, the Americas and India, a majority of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live in democracies. Muslims are not isolated from the modern day Zeitgeist on extending human rights.

Islam has been evolving the last 100 years at a phenomenal rate. In the early twentieth century Islamic thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal in India and Taha Husayn wrote of how they saw the need for an Islamic reformation like the Christian one. Their modernistic ideas about adapting from the West what was good in the West and rejecting what was bad has become part of the mainstream of Islamic discourse today.

Historians of Islam are wryly amused to see that the heart of this debate over Islamic democracy is now centered in Baghdad which in the ninth and tenth centuries was the greatest city in Islam and capital of the Abbasid Dynasty that raised Islam to its greatest era of intellectual and artistic glory. It was the home of the first paper producing factory outside China, without which the European Reformation and Enlightenment could never have happened.

This is no comfort to those who fear the fundamentalist tide in 2003. But the high water mark of Islamic fundamentalism was under the revolutionary leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. Since his death the tide has ebbed fast. The democratic elected parliament and president may still be circumscribed by the power of the religious leaders but it more than evident that the latter have fast decreasing popular support at home and almost no resonance abroad. As for Al Qaeda, in nearly the entire Islamic world it remains, despite all its bloody bravado, a fringe movement.

We must never make the mistake of confusing Islamic revivalism, which has been under way since 1970, with fundamentalism. The revivalists want to take their religion seriously. They believe, as Christians and Jews used to, that their religion speaks to all of mankind's activities not just the private and personal ones. These new would-be revivalists cum democrats in Iraq may want an Islamic state. But they seem also to want it to be democratically elected. Now that Saddam is caught they should be encouraged to quickly get on with it.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




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