Can Islam and democracy coexist? Four analysts took on that question at a recent symposium in Washington, D.C., and concluded that they can -- but only with a dramatic lessening of internal conflicts and external pressures.
Washington, 20 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Four international affairs analysts say Westerners should not perceive Islam as being incompatible with democracy, even though many predominantly Muslim countries are monarchies or, in some cases, even dictatorships.
In fact, one of the analysts speaking on 18 June at a symposium at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington said some Muslim countries are becoming increasingly democratic.
This was the position of Muqtedar Khan, the vice president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists. Khan said one of the reasons that democracy is not very widespread in the Muslim world is the common Western misconception that Islam is not compatible with democracy.
"I think the Muslim world and the West right now is in a state of what I'd like to describe as a clash of myths -- it's not a clash of interests and civilizations, it's a clash of myths," Khan said.
Kahn said that because the U.S. -- the world's leading democracy -- is at odds with some Muslim nations, many Muslims have little affection for America or its form of government. Even so, he said, fully 750 million Muslims now live in countries that are democratic to one degree or another.
According to Kahn, Islam contains elements that are very compatible with democracy, such as individual accountability and respect for the rights of the individual. He noted that the Compact of Medina, under which Mohammed governed the Arabian city in the seventh century A.D., provided equal rights to both Muslims and non-Muslims and based government action on the consent and consultation of the people.
Another speaker was Mahmood Monshipouri, the chairman of the political science department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Monshipouri said Muslims also have internal conflicts as well as their political disagreements with the West. These internal differences are best exemplified by disagreements among Islamic conservatives, reformists, and secularists.
Besides these three factions, Monshipouri said, there are two populist movements in the Muslim world, each of which is instrumental in promoting democracy. He said: "The first movement is the women's movement, and the second is the youth movement. These are two grassroots [politically local] movements with enormous impact on the future of the human rights movement in the Muslim world."
Monshipouri said Muslim societies must embrace these movements if they are to reach the stage where all members of society are treated equally.
One speaker, Neil Hicks, was less optimistic. Hicks is the director of the Human Rights Defenders' Protection Program at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. He told the symposium that Muslim nations have not embraced democracy as readily as have other societies, including many of the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
"It has been noted, especially so recently, that the wave of democratization and political liberalization that has been gathering pace across much of the planet since the mid 1970s has made few inroads into the Muslim world," Hicks said.
However, Hicks said this does not mean that Muslims do not care about human rights. Instead, he said, U.S. policies are largely to blame for Muslims' unflattering view of Western democracy. According to Hicks, Muslims perceive America as being guilty of a double standard: preaching democracy and human rights while befriending dictators for the sake of political expediency.
Another speaker was Laith Kubba, the senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment of Democracy, an advocacy group in Washington. Kubba said Westerners should stop thinking of persuading the Muslim world, as a whole, to embrace democracy. Rather, he said, they should consider each Muslim country individually.
Kubba also said it is important to understand the evolution of governance in many Muslim societies. In some instances, he said, governments fostered military control, which tended to repress the citizenry and deprive them of a strong civilian government. He said these problems occasionally have led to radical resistance of the country's leadership.
All four speakers agreed that in the future, reformers and local reform groups must continue to press for change in their governments. And they said the United States must continue to promote democracy in these countries without trying to impose its will on them.