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Can an Islamic Government Foster Democratic Rights?

At the center of the dabate lies a fundamental point: Western-style democracies fashion codes of law after the will of the people, but in Islam, the law is the word of God. Thus, in a religion-based society, God's law is the ceiling, Islamic experts say.

MUSLIMS have long complained that they make the headlines in the Western press only when they are amputating the hands of thieves in public, machine-gunning tourists, or stabbing Isrealis.

But the image of the violent Muslim is not simply the product of sensationalist reporters. It is fed too by Muslim governments themselves, who in their zeal to combat the Islamic threat have muzzled even moderate voices that might present a less fanatical view.

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Fahmy Howeidi has often felt the victim of this policy. A mild-mannered man, he was quietly fuming as he sat in his office at the semi-official Cairo daily Al-Ahram one morning last December. The week before he had been invited, along with half a dozen other prominent Egyptian Islamists, to a round-table discussion before students at Cairo University.

A few hours before the meeting was due to start, the university's chairman got a phone call from the mukhabarat, the secret police. On their advice, he hastily cancelled the event.

"If young people have no chance to hear moderates talking, you can imagine where they will go," he said bitterly. "It's very easy to join a secret organization. Every government gets the opposition it deserves, and the government is creating it here."

Mr. Howeidi's worry is that by restricting democratic freedoms the Egyptian government is debasing the very currency of democracy. Faced with this sort of official attitude, he argues, it matters less whether Islam and democracy are compatible in theory, than whether Islamists in practice will attach any value to democracy.

Given the militancy of the most visible Islamic political activism, opponents of political Islam, and even moderate Islamists, worry that citizens of Islamic states, especially minorities, will not enjoy the sort of civil rights and constitutional guarantees that are understood to be entailed in the Western sense of the word "democracy."

If the Egyptian government is in danger of discrediting democracy in its fight against Islamist violence, that violence itself is choking prospects for more freedom. "The more force that is used to call for Islam, the more cautious the system gets - closing down, using emergency laws, and seeking military solutions," says Salama Ahmed Salama, the editor of Al-Ahram. "Violence harms the chances of deepening the democratic process."

Which is what it is probably intended to do, leaving moderate Islamists, who present their religion democratically as an alternative political system, as the biggest losers to the radicals for whom Islam is a moral imperative that must be imposed by any means.

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In Egypt, many observers suspect some overlap between membership of the semi-legal Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates political reform, and the underground cells of Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), which is responsible for the killing of Coptic Christians, policemen, and tourists in its effort to overthrow the Egyptian government.

Algerian officials also are reluctant to distinguish between violent and non-violent Islamists.

BUT this is not the case throughout the Arab world. When Iyyad Khatan's name appeared on a hit-list issued by the clandestine Prophet Muhammad's Army in Jordan, for example, the head of the Royal Cultural Center said, "The response I got from the Brotherhood was as surprised and as violently opposed to such acts as from any other sector."

Offering those Islamists who seek evolutionary reform a reason not to unite with those proclaiming revolutionary change is the major challenge before Arab officials today, Mr. Salama says. "[Moderate] Islamists can be easily infiltrated by people who interpret Islam according to their whim," he says. "The extremists are a by-product of the government's refusal to take the democratic Islamic movement into the system."

But how democratic is that Islamic movement? Adel Hussein, editor of the Islamist Cairo newspaper Al Shaab, insists that "pluralism is now quite accepted in theory and de facto in Islamic political thinking." He cites the competing trends within the Islamic movement in Egypt as evidence.

Few secular or Christian Arabs, however, see in this Islamic pluralism the seeds of Western liberalism or tolerance.

Such concerns, says Kamal Abdul Majd, a Cairo lawyer currently writing a pamphlet entitled "A Contemporary Islamic Outlook: A Declaration of Principles," are fed by what he calls perversions of Islamic thinking by those Islamists who have seized the limelight.

They "stick to a very literal reading of the Prophet," he complains. "They have a negative, hostile attitude to others, ... lack any awareness of the place democracy and human rights have in Islam, ... or of the inevitability of pluralism, ... or of the need for evolution and development.

"These characteristics are the prelude to confrontational Islam, whereas their opposites are preconditions for modern, universal, friendly, and humanistic Islam," Dr. Abul Majd argues.

How confrontational or friendly one's vision of Islam is, however, is beside the point for Ibrahim Nugud, a former Sudanese Communist leader. "The question is whether [the Islamists] want a religious state or a civil state," he says. "A religious state can never be secularized. It gives the ruler some sort of sacred aspect because his word is the word of God. But a civil state can draw on religious tenets and precepts."

Even those moderate Islamists who accept a civil state still do not envision a Western-style democracy. "Democracy in Islam has a ceiling, which is sharia [Islamic holy law]," explains Sayed Dessouki, an aerospace engineer at Cairo University.

This is because the ultimate authority in Islam is God's word, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and not the will of the people. "You may not see the wisdom in sharia, but you have to abide by it," explains Ghazi Salah al-Din, a Sudanese presidential adviser.

Mohammed Sid Ahmed, a secular Egyptian political analyst, adds: "When you start from the idea that there is a divine body of doctrine, man is reduced to consultative status.... Democracy starts from the theory that nothing should be accepted a priori; it puts no constraints on any given strain of thought. This cannot be in Islam."

"The Greek idea that laws are made by people, who have the right to change them when circumstances change, cannot be applied in the Islamic system where the laws are God-made," says Hussein Amin, an outspoken, anti-Islamist Egyptian diplomat. "This system, of course, leads to dictatorship and a kind of fascism."

Nowhere is this outlook expressed more clearly than in the writings of the Indian Muslim activist Mawlana Mawdudi, one of the most influential Islamic thinkers this century. He described the Islamic system as `theo-democracy ... in which the popular will was subordinated to and limited by God's law," explains John Esposito in his book "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?"

Indeed, the word "Islam" itself means "submission to God's will," and Mr. Mawdudi "had no problem characterizing an Islamic government ... as `Islamic totalitarianism,' " Mr. Esposito adds.

IN the Islamic tradition, non-Muslims are regarded as "protected people," not full citizens, and in Sudan, for example, the one Arab country to declare its goal of becoming an "Islamic state," it is inconceivable that a member of the Christian minority could become the president.

Likewise, the Koran stipulates unambiguously that a woman is entitled to less inheritance than her brothers, that her word counts for less in a court of law, and that unlike her husband, she has no right to initiate a divorce. Such are the foundations for the walls of discrimination that have been built around women in Muslim societies through the centuries.

If traditional Islamic practice is out of step with what has come to be seen as the democratic norm today, many Islamist leaders are calling for revision of their religious rules. "Everything must be subjected to ijtihad [or interpretation]," insists Sadiq al-Mahdi, the last elected leader of Sudan. "Violating that will merely resurrect anachronisms. You cannot rely any more on the different positions of schools of Muslim law."

Though many Muslim theologians would argue that ijtihad is tantamount to heresy, Islam would not be the first religion to undergo upheavals in the transition to a different world. As Esposito points out, "the transformation of European principalities, whose rule was often justified in terms of divine right, into modern Western democratic states, was accompanied by a process of reinterpretation and reform. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, while once supportive of political absolutism, was reinterpreted to accommodate the democratic ideal."

One of the Muslim world's strongest advocates of ijtihad and the man often seen as the "power behind the throne" in Sudan, Hassan al-Turabi argues fiercely for the relevance of Islam to the modern world. "I don't want just to copy the world, I want to contribute something," he says. "We want to think independently, not just to imitate the West."

It is that streak of independence in current Islamist thought, rather than any mistrust of its anti-democratic tendencies, that many Muslims feel is the real reason for the West's hostility to "fundamentalism." While American and European leaders mouth their support for democracy and human rights worldwide, in fact they support absolutist and authoritarian regimes wherever it suits their purpose, these Muslims sources argue.

"The masses see Western attitudes as a continuation of Western aggression," argues Abdelhamid Mehri, leader of Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN). "When it comes to Western values such as human rights, social justice, and democracy, the West hesitates to believe they are valid for the third world."

Antagonism toward the West is common throughout the Arab world, partly because of its support for Israel, but often because of its support for corrupt regimes. "The sources of hostility to the West among Islamist forces in Saudi Arabia are linked to the perception that the Americans are supporting absolutist monarchs, that America is suppressing [Islamists] through the existing governments," argues Abdullah Abdul Halek, a politics professor in the United Arab Emirates. "America is seen as the source of o ppression."

Neither can the recent history of colonial rule, nor the long and often-bloody rivalry between the Christian and Islamic civilizations be forgotten. They still feed misunderstanding on both sides, to the extent that the speaker of the Sudanese National Assembly, Mohammed al-Amin Khalifa, can sincerely believe it was "no accident" that some of the relief supplies air-dropped to Muslims in Bosnia fell in Serb-controlled areas.

"The inherited attitude of Islamic scholars to relations with non-Muslim states was based on war as the normal condition," Sudan's Mr. Mahdi says. "Many Islamic revivalist movements simply base their external relations on the concept of hostility and war as normal. That is outdated."

"This conflict of two missionary religions has to stop," Abdul Majd proclaims. "There are new common enemies - poverty, misery, the destruction of the environment - and as a Muslim I believe that Islam has much to offer to improve the quality of human relations. Islam doesn't monopolize the answers, but we have the right to participate."

Such ideas do not make headlines. Nor do they dominate the competition among different currents of Islamic thought. But they are being argued with increasing vigor by an increasing number of Islamist leaders.

"Some people in the West are so paranoid about Islamic assertion that they see nothing but danger in it," Mahdi worries. "The anger that Muslims feel can be exorcised. But the more paranoid the West is, the more it will be feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy."

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