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.
The Iranian Revolution showed us that democratic movements, particularly Islamic ones, could be anti-American. Thus, about a decade later, when the democratically elected Islamic Party in Algeria was summarily overturned by a military junta, igniting one of the world's cruelest civil wars, hardly a word of protest was uttered in Washington, D.C. and other Western capitals.
During the Gulf War, this new voice was briefly expressed in popular demonstrations in Rabat, Tunis, and Algiers that were ultimately quelled. Once more, disagreement with U.S. policy and a yearning for democracy were joined as, for example, Moroccans marching to protest the bombing of Baghdad on February 3, 1991, chanted:
Ma sa'alunash! Ma sa'alunash!
Ma sa'alunash! Ma sa'alunash!
They didn't consult us (the people)! They didn't consult us!
The decision belonged to us (the people)!
They didn't consult us! They didn't consult us!"
There is a temptation, when asking the big questions about the Muslim world, to revert to Cold War thinking and see ourselves in conflict with an ideology-once Communism, and now Islam. But what we are really facing is people. People who, when given a voice, express many more different interests, attachments, and affinities than our own. What is Baghdad to the average American but the place where the hated Saddam Hussain wields his power? But to the average Arab, it is a centuries old center of art, literature, and culture. It is a name that conjures memories of a glorious history and which holds a cherished place in the imagination. Of course the Muslim-or in this case, the Muslim Arab (and Christian Arab) "street"- is going to oppose its bombing and demand a different solution to the problem than one that causes grave destruction to such a beloved place.
The question is not whether "Islamic ideology" will allow Muslims to embrace democracy and freedom. The writing is already on the wall: Muslims are intimately familiar with the ideals of freedom and democracy, and by and large embrace them. Just as in South America, Eastern Europe, and Russia, democracy will continue its spread around the world, including the Muslim world. Perhaps especially the Muslim world. The irony is that despite almost universal rejection of U.S. foreign policy by the "Muslim street," that same sidewalk constituency has great admiration and praise for American democracy and freedom.
So it is not how we confront an ideology, but how we respond to people's newly expressed concerns that will shape the history of the years to come. Are we going to help bring about democracy in the Muslim world, or, as in the case of Iran, be remembered (and resented) for our opposition to it through the support of a hated regime? At what point do we stop promoting our interests with regional autocrats and take up the principle of promoting freedom and democracy? How to weigh morality and expediency?
In the end, these are primarily questions about U.S. ideology, not Islam. From the moment the Declaration of Independence defined the soul of America by establishing the principle of democracy for all, U.S. history has been defined by the struggle to embrace this ideal: the Abolitionists, the Civil War, and the Women's Suffrage Movement; prejudice against various immigrant groups, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the Civil Rights Movement.Did freedom for all include the poor, slaves, women, various immigrant groups, and African Americans? And internationally, did it include Europe, the Pacific, and Russia? After resistance and conflict, America has always finally answered "yes." New constituencies emerged and voices were heard that could not be ignored or easily co-opted. They had to be taken into account.
Now the question is: does this principle include the Muslim world, particularly the Muslim Arab world? In a region where expedience is the surest way to secure our interests, are we ready to take into account the voices of people whose interests may different from ours? In the end, the question for the future is not about whether Islam can embrace democracy. It is about whether we can.