Spreading democracy throughout the Islamic world is a goal of the Bush White House. And it's a worthy one, experts and reformers say, that could blunt the hard-liners' appeal. While many Muslim countries call themselves republics or democracies, only a handful, including Turkey and Indonesia, truly are. And they're all relatively new and somewhat fragile. Most Muslims say they hunger for democracy as well. Pew surveys taken in various Muslim countries found that in all but Indonesia a majority of respondents said democracy would work in their country. Fifty-eight percent of Pakistanis favored democracy, for example. "Broadly defined, democracy is what is being asked for in a lot of Muslim countries," says Pervaiz Nazir, an international affairs lecturer at Cambridge University, and, he adds, there's no reason Islam and democratic rule can't coexist.
Perhaps. There nevertheless exist tough barriers to democracy in many Muslim states, not all of them religious. Most have long histories of rule by monarchies or dynastic regimes. Says Hunter, "The authoritarian tradition is strong in the Islamic world." And few, if any, of those strongman regimes are likely to cede power willingly. Meanwhile, states with robust conservative religious factions may insist on constitutions derived from a strict interpretation of Islamic law or not accept secular political parties. Another set of values surveys, this one coordinated by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found that while the concept of democracy was favorably viewed by most Muslims, support for values "crucial to democracy," including social tolerance, gender equality, and freedom of speech, was weak.
And further, historian Bernard Lewis warns that Islamists see the attainment of power as God's will, from which there is no backtracking. "For Islamists, democracy, expressing the will of the people, is the road to power, but it is a one-way road, on which there is no return," Lewis writes in his book The Crisis of Islam. "Their electoral policy has been classically summarized as 'One man (men only), one vote, once.'"
But Islam is not monolithic. Should true democratic governments emerge within it, they will probably vary greatly, each largely shaped by its country's history, culture, and demographics. "Obviously," Nazir says, "there will not be a replication of western democracies." The dilemma for the United States will be to accept some "democracies" that are overtly religious or not in lockstep with American foreign policy, says Ahmad Dallal, chairman of Georgetown University's Arabic department. "There must be constitutional mechanisms to ensure no party can monopolize power. But the only other litmus test should be an opposition to violence. Otherwise, we should let them be."
So, what is the status of radicalism and democracy in Islam today? Here's a look at the situation in five key countries:
"Everybody points to Turkey as a good example of an Islamic democracy, which may say a lot about [the state of democracy in] the rest of the Islamic world," notes Philip Robins, an expert on Turkish politics. He's not pessimistic about Turkey's fledgling democracy; it's just that it's not fully tested. Turkey is a country of nearly 69 million—99.8 percent Muslim, mostly Sunni—that bridges the Occidental and Oriental worlds. Once the heart of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Turkey became an autocratic republic in 1923. It instituted what Sabri Sayari, executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Turkish Studies, calls "radical secularism," which forced religion into the private sphere. A gradual process of democratization and re-Islamification began nearly 50 years ago. But it has been fitful.
It was only eight years ago that a democratically elected Islamic party was booted from office by the military. And reforms to check gross human-rights abuses were implemented just recently to help boost Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.
In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected. It's led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was once jailed for reciting a religious poem at a political rally. Its leadership is moderate and outwardly secular, but its grass-roots membership is more strident and religious. That places Erdogan and the AKP on a tightrope. They're under pressure from supporters to enact more religious-based legislation, but if they go too far down that road, they risk antagonizing the military.