Few questions are more important in shaping our calculations about the future of the world. Yet, if understanding the future is the goal, the question is wrong.
Islam is a religion. It is a sacred history, a holy scripture open to varying interpretations, and a set of practices. Islam cannot embrace, welcome, or tolerate. Only Muslims can. And the fact from the now famous "Muslim street" is that hundreds of millions of Muslims already do embrace democracy, while many millions of others daily risk everything to obtain it.
The notion that, by definition Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible, is belied by Bangladesh and the 129 million Bangladeshis who participate in one the world's largest parliamentary democracies. And by Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, that is making progress from a long-entrenched authoritarian regime to a more pluralistic, representative democracy. And by India, where nearly 200 million Muslims live and participate in the world's largest democracy.
It is also belied by the many Muslims listed every year in reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who are jailed, tortured, and in some cases killed as they work to bring about democratic reforms to the largely secular, authoritarian regimes that still dominate much of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
There are, of course, Muslims whose interpretation of religious tradition leads them to reject democracy. The theological argument being that in democracies, the will of the people is supreme, whereas under a true Islamic regime, the will of God, as revealed in the Qur'an and by the example of Prophet Muhammad, should be paramount.
There are, also, avowedly Islamic regimes that are staunchly authoritarian; the Afghan theocracy of the Taliban was essentially a Stalinist state. Yet, even for those Muslims who maintain that the Qur'an must have primacy in government, Muslims have found ways to give it a democratic interpretation. The world's other famous radical Islamic regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has democratic institutions and functioning elections.
Still, it may sound odd to refer to Iran as a democracy. After all, the government-more "moderate" though it may be-still aims to frustrate many U.S. foreign policy goals in the region. Yet, the seeming oxymoron of calling Iran a democracy gets to the crux of the issue and the real question that must be asked, if we truly want to understand the shape the future. The greatest obstacle to democracy in the Muslim world is not "Islam." It is poverty, the lack of education, and corrupt and repressive regimes, many of which-and this is the important point-are supported by the democracies of the West.
Nearly 50 years of Cold War history have accustomed the West to viewing the world as split into two basic camps: either democratic and totalitarian. In that world, democracies were almost by definition friendly and pro-American, while authoritarian Communist regimes were generally anti-American. Similarly, within the world's democracies, those working to overthrow them usually had strong anti-American sentiments, while within various authoritarian regimes, the pro-democracy elements were also pro-American.
Then in 1978 came the shot heard around the world that prefigured a new paradigm: The Iranian Revolution. That a populist uprising against a despotic regime could also be virulently anti-American was an utter shock, (though it shouldn't have been a surprise given the longtime support the U.S. gave to the hated Shah). Suddenly, the West was confronted by the voice of the people of a region who viewed the U.S. as economically, politically, and culturally predatory.