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Pakistan: Elections Prove Islam, Democracy Are Compatible, Expert Says

Electoral officials empty a ballot box in Karachi in Pakistan's general election on February 18 (AFP) Fatah had long been considered the political voice of the Palestinians. That's why it was so surprising that voters chose Hamas to lead their government in the elections of March 2006.

The results came as a blow to the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which openly favored Fatah and had extolled the idea of elections as part of its mission to spread democracy around the world.

Bush faced the same prospect in Pakistan's election on February 18. There were fears that a democratic poll could play into the hands of extremists and Taliban supporters.

But the results were less distressing and proved the skeptics wrong. True, the party of President Pervez Musharraf lagged far back in the voting. But two moderate opposition parties -- the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N -- were the big winners. Islamists lost their grip on the regional legislature in the North-West Frontier Province, as well as parliamentary seats nationally.

Voters Are Voters

If the results brought some relief to Western observers, they came as no great surprise to Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He says he also wasn't particularly surprised by Hamas' victory two years ago.

Why? Because, Jouejati says, voters are voters, regardless of where they live or the faiths they follow.

Take the Palestinian elections. Jouejati tells RFE/RL that while the rest of the world expected them to vote based on some kind of geopolitical criterion, the Palestinians voted their needs.

"People, when they look at their lives, they are not only looking at the effects of the United States on them, but also the effects of domestic politics, with a view to who is ruling them and if whoever is ruling them is worthy of their vote." -- Murhaf Jouejati

Jouejati, a Syrian native, says the choice of Hamas might very well have been, at least in part, a slap at the United States, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization. But he says they were motivated mostly by their disgust with Fatah's corruption and Hamas' promise of building schools, roads, and hospitals -- what people need in their daily lives.

Jouejati says this applies in other Muslim countries, if voters are given a voice.

"In the Muslim world in general, there is a lot of anger against the United States. So give them a chance to be democratic, and they will vote against the United States," Jouejati says. "But this does not mean that across the board this is going to happen. People, when they look at their lives, they are not only looking at the effects of the United States on them, but also the effects of domestic politics, with a view to who is ruling them and if whoever is ruling them is worthy of their vote."

Islam Compatible With Democracy

And what of the idea that Islam and democracy don't mix? What of the many dictatorships in the Middle East? What of the call from many Islamists to establish a caliphate run not by the people, but a prince?

Jouejati acknowledges the many Middle Eastern dictatorships, but says the United States not only accepts many of them, but actively supports them. American leaders may not approve of their politics, he says, but their authoritarian control over their people helps ensure stability in the region.

And Jouejati says a caliph may be a prince, but he wouldn't be a dictator. In fact, he says, one-man rule hasn't traditionally been the norm in Muslim societies.

"People on the outside find that throughout the Islamic world, with one or two or three exceptions, there are despotic rulers who are ruling through coercion," he says. "But Islam is compatible with democracy. Islam has the concept of 'shura,' which is 'consultation.' And the ruler in Islam does not take decisions on his own, but through consultation with others."

Jouejati points to Iran as an example of a democracy that's vital, if limited. He acknowledges that the nation's clergy strictly limit who can run for office. And yet, he says, Iranian voters always have a clear choice in their presidential elections, if not a particularly broad choice.

Jouejati also argues that Iran is evolving, and its form of government is evolving, too. Eventually he expects a much more liberal democracy there, and to see true democracies sprouting in other Muslim countries because people living there are learning about the possibilities of self-governance through the explosion of the Internet.

"With the appearance of global communications, people are increasingly understanding the mechanisms of democracy, and they increasingly want it," Jouejati says. "The winds of change are blowing, and we might have in the Middle East, and beyond, an American-style democracy, but they are fashioning slowly their own variance of democracy, one that is more suitable to their political environment."

The democratization of the Muslim world won't come this year, and may even not in this next decade, Jouejati says, but it will come.