The War Within Islam

Much hinges on which interpretation of the faith will prevail.

By SHARE

Egypt, which has been under the iron-fisted rule of President Hosni Mubarak since 1981, is a democracy in name only. Elections aren't considered free and fair. Mubarak's party dominates the parliament, and he runs unopposed in presidential elections. The government has also cracked down on democratic reformists.

Korany labels Egypt a conservative, religious society but also a pluralist one. And if free elections were held there, he doubts whether Islamic parties would gain control of the government, though they could be part of a ruling coalition. Nationalists and socialists could also do well, he says. Indeed, huge anti-American demonstrations in March 2003 to protest the Iraq war were largely organized not by Islamists but leftists.

IRAN

In November 1979, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Tehran, Iran's capital, chanting "Death to America" in support of militants who had seized 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy. Americans sat before their televisions, horrified. The siege, which lasted 444 days, brought Americans face to face with Islamic radicalism. Just nine months earlier, a revolution had abruptly ended the repressive regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a key U.S. ally. In its wake, dour fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini instituted an Islamic state based on strict Islamic law. Western influences, including music, were banned, newspapers closed, and political parties disbanded.

Eventually, the people's honeymoon with the ruling clerics dissolved into acrimony as the chafing realities of life in an Islamic state grew ever more apparent. Moderate President Mohammad Khatami was first elected in 1997, replacing Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had instituted some reforms, mostly economic. The gradual reform movement gathered huge momentum in February 2000, when the majority of seats in Iran's parliament, the Majlis, were won by reformists. Still, by 2003, students eager for faster reforms took to the streets to demonstrate. And many observers concluded that Iran was on its way to throwing off the shackles of authoritarianism and embracing full democracy. Then the hard-liners struck back.

In February 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified 2,500 reform candidates for parliament; disillusioned voters stayed home. So the conservatives recaptured the Majlis. "It's amazing," says Ali Ansari, a Middle East historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "The hard-liners did what the shah used to do: They treated the people with contempt. And the people turned around and said, 'Stuff you.' " Nevertheless, says CSIS's Hunter, the progress of democratization was halted. One small hope: Rafsanjani is expected to run for and win the presidency in June. He's now considered more a pragmatist than a reformer, Hunter says, but he may help keep the more egregious fundamentalist tendencies of the ruling clerics in check.

Iran remains a political pressure cooker. Ansari says the aging, hard-line elite is woefully out of step with most of Iran's 67.5 million people. Seventy percent of the population is under 25, and unemployment among the young is high, but so is literacy. Young Iranians also tend to be more liberal. "They are angry and fed up," Ansari says, with a zeal for democracy and a growing bent toward nationalism. If Iran's religious leaders do not eventually defer to reformists, ideally secular ones, Hunter concludes, "it will lead to some kind of explosion or implosion."

PAKISTAN

One can't overestimate the importance of Pakistan geopolitically. It's a Muslim nation, a nuclear power, and a key player in the U.S. war on terrorism, thanks in large part to American economic assistance. Nevertheless, it remains a caldron of Islamic radicalism. Madrasahs and mosques linked to extremists continue to school fledgling jihadists in the ABCs of terrorism. President Pervez Musharraf, a general who took power in a 1999 coup, is widely disliked and viewed as an American lackey. And the country is plagued by sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.