Ironic, isn't it? The recent historic elections in Iraq have swept the United Iraqi Alliance, a slate of Shiite religious parties, into power, winning a slim majority in the new Iraqi Parliament. And all indications point to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a physician and moderate Islamist with ties to Iran, as the next prime minister of Iraq.

Al-Jaafari, in a recent interview, said, "We will not have any laws that oppose Islam. That doesn't mean we want an Islamic government. The majority of Iraqis are Muslims, and so it is natural that Islam should be the official religion."

This is ironic because, I suspect this string of developments was not what the Bush administration had planned.

After all, L. Paul Bremer, head of the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, once hinted he would veto any attempt by Iraqi leaders to write into the interim constitution Islamic Sharia as the principal basis of the law.

For his part, al-Jaafari is trying to calm the fears of many: "the most important thing is to respect the freedom of religion of all Iraqis of all ethnic backgrounds and traditions."

Yet, this begs the question: Can Islam and democracy co-exist peacefully? Many in America answer in the negative. I, however, beg to differ. The Qur'an extols the virtue of the believers because they "(conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation" (42:38). In addition, the Qur'an commands the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to "consult (your companions) in affairs (of moment)" (3:159). The Iraqi National Assembly is one of the ways this concept of conducting affairs "by mutual consultation" is embodied.

Moreover, Sunni Islam, which the majority of the world's Muslims follow, does not even accept the concept of a theocracy, or rule by religious leaders. Sunni Islam holds that the people must choose their own leaders.

Most Muslims understand this to be the case because the Prophet, who was head of state as well as religious leader, refused to name his successor as he lay on his deathbed. He left that decision to the people. In addition, and contrary to the perception of many, Islamic law guarantees women the right to vote. In fact, Islam gave women the right to vote centuries before the U.S. Constitution was amended to do the same in 1920.

Thus, Islam enshrines the prime principle of democracy as it is practiced in the Western world: rule by the consent of the governed. Islamic political theory, however, does differ from democracy in philosophy. The philosophical underpinning of democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Islam maintains that sovereignty lies with God alone. Thus, any laws passed by the people must be within the framework of God's law. This is what al-Jaafari meant when he said, "We will not have any laws that oppose Islam."

Yet, it is quite true that the concept of "God alone is sovereign" is liable to lead to religious tyranny, whereby a ruler oppresses his people while claiming to "represent God." The world has already witnessed such tyranny in Islamic form: the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. Yet, that regime was as Islamic as President Bush is a blue-state, liberal Democrat. The ruler in an Islamic political system is wholly accountable to the people for his conduct and can never hide behind the guise of God's sovereignty to escape accountability.

Democracy and Islam can co-exist harmoniously, and there is nothing in Islam that precludes a people governing themselves in a Western-styled democratic system. In fact, both Indonesia and Malaysia, majority Muslim countries, have vibrant and thriving Western-style democracies. The fact that many of the countries with Muslim majorities are governed by brutal dictatorships occurs despite Islam, not because of it. In fact, if Muslims and their leaders followed the principles and spirit of true Islam, oppression would end, terror would melt away, and democracy would flourish across the Muslim world. And the world would be a better place for all.

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