A surface calm prevails in Egypt. No mosques give a bully pulpit to radical clerics who preach an incendiary form of Islam. Indeed, no large, widespread Islamic extremist groups remain active here. Because of a government crackdown in the late 1990s, their leaders were killed, imprisoned, or forced into the shadows. And the remnants of those groups have since agreed to a cease-fire. But the silence is misleading. Below the tranquil surface, countless disaffected young Egyptians still find the siren song of radical Islam as sweet and commanding as a prayer call.
Driven underground, many of Egypt's frustrated would-be radicals now record and trade tapes of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or download terrorist how-to kits from the Web. Some still try to act. In recent years, police have arrested small groups of what one observer calls "freelance jihadis," who were in possession of bin Laden tapes and al Qaeda literature.
Meanwhile, 5,600 miles away, in Indonesia, private Muslim schools—madrasahs—imbue their students with antiwestern propaganda. The number of bomb-thrower schools is small, says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, but that's small comfort. That's because the schools are not the only place where young Muslims are exposed to hard-line rhetoric, she says. "Certain mosques are just as important," she says. "And these days, the hundreds of websites delivering that message may be the most important [outlet] of all."
Egypt and Indonesia are not unique. Throughout the 1.2 billion-strong world of Islam there rages a war for the hearts and minds of its adherents. "It is fair to describe it as a struggle for the soul of Islam," says Katerina Dalacoura, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. "It's a struggle about which interpretation of Islam will prevail." On one side: hate-driven militants like bin Laden, who claim Islam is engaged in a war against the godless, American-led West that justifies terrorism as a weapon. Their ultimate goal: the Islamification of the world and death to infidels who don't submit to the will of Allah. Opposing them: moderates who want good relations with the West and a democratization of the Muslim world.
In terms of raw numbers, the moderates would seem assured of victory. Extremist forces still tend to be relatively small, and most Muslims oppose bloodshed. Nonetheless, the militants now control and define the debate. "The radicals are loud, violent, and claim to offer clear-cut solutions. This gets attention," says international historian Kirsten Schulze. In his book Al-Qaeda, author Jason Burke worries, "The extremists are no longer perceived as the 'lunatic fringe'.... Their language is now the dominant discourse in modern Islamic political activism."
Certainly there's fertile soil for the seeds of hate sown by Muslim extremists. Poverty, joblessness, and illiteracy are endemic throughout Islam, as are burgeoning populations of young people, many of whom see no hope for their future in this world. Moreover, most Muslims live beneath the jackboot of hated authoritarian regimes—despotic, often corrupt governments they consider propped up by the United States. Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran may have since left most Iranians weary of life dictated by stern clerics, but millions of Muslims living in secular, authoritarian states "still have illusions that if they could only apply the sharia [Islamic law], all problems would be solved."
America is also seen as siding with Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq—which many Muslims consider a humiliating occupation of Muslim land by a Christian force—are viewed darkly. "The reaction of many Muslims is, 'It's not a war on terror; it's a war on all of us,' " Schulze explains. Adds Dalacoura: "In the Mideast, the U.S. gets a lot of undeserved blame for problems in the region because it's politically convenient." Deserved or not, that blame fuels an anti-Americanism that has run rampant among Muslims. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 21 percent of Pakistanis—whose country is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism—have a favorable view of the United States. Only 15 percent of Indonesians and a miserly 5 percent of Jordanians express positive feelings toward America.
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.
A potential flashpoint: headscarves for women, traditional Muslim garb. They've long been banned from public life, including government offices and universities. Secularists say they are a political, not religious, symbol. There are worries that if the restrictions are lifted, it would place pressure on all women to adopt the headscarf. Islamists say it's a matter of personal freedom. Erdogan has so far sidestepped the issue.
Robins believes the military wants to leave politics to civilians. Turkey's desire to join the EU is a powerful incentive, he says, to keep the democratic process on track. But, he adds, it's still not certain that the EU has the means to anchor Turkey's secularism in place of the military.
Turkish elites are uncomfortable with their country's status as an example of Islamic democracy and with the pressures that designation brings. Notes Sayari: "They say, 'You don't call France or Norway Christian democracies. It's an unnecessary adjective. We are a democracy.' "
Nearly 240 million people, 88 percent of whom are Muslim, live in the archipelago of 17,000 islands that is Indonesia. The country is home to more Muslims than any other nation in the world. Though Indonesia is considered a viable democracy, the Pew survey found that only 41 percent of Indonesians believe in democracy. And virulent anti-Americanism is widespread. So there is no shortage of Indonesians who want to create an Islamic state. Most, so far, want a peaceful transition, but the appeal of radicalism is growing.
The religious Justice and Prosperity Party is part of the ruling coalition. Its long-term goal is an Islamic state, peacefully created. "But that is not the platform they run on. They run on a clean-government platform," explains Schulze, who is based at the London School of Economics.
At the other extreme is Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group with al Qaeda links that envisions an Islamic state encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. JI was responsible for the October 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200. It exploits conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Moluccas, mainly as a recruitment tool and to provide cover for training. Schulze calls JI "a definite threat" but not an overwhelming one. The government "is fairly stable." Indonesia also faces some violent separatist movements, the largest in Aceh, a Sumatran province that's home to 4.5 million devout Muslims.
Since 1998, Schulze says, there have been several rounds of generally "free and fair" elections, and police and military reforms have been enacted. "Indonesia is not a fully established democracy. But it is a success story. It is an example that democracy and Islam can coexist."
While Islamic terrorists have been subdued in Egypt, this country of 76 million people was long a hotbed of radicalism. President Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel, was assassinated by extremists in 1981. The paramilitary group the Muslim Brotherhood—which spawned such terrorist organizations as Hamas and Islamic Jihad—emerged from Egypt in 1928. It still exists but has moderated its tactics and renounced violence. Egypt's last major terrorist incident was the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor. A resulting government crackdown and cease-fire have "eased the atmosphere very much," says Bahgat Korany, director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo.
But the poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy that often breed militancy have not gone away, and the government is repressive. Moreover, Korany says, radicalism is also winning converts among members of the middle class, mainly because they feel U.S. policies in the Mideast and the war on terrorism have humiliated Muslims. "They watch TV, and they are bound to be frustrated and resentful, and able to jump to radicalism easily." That said, Korany insists most Egyptians reject "bin Ladenism," though they may "admire" the al Qaeda chief for bloodying the nose of the United States. Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of London, agrees: "Nothing like Osama bin Laden can happen in Egypt."
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.
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."
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.
To westerners, it looks like a worrisome, volatile mix. Cambridge's Nazir, however, says that as despised as Musharraf is, most Pakistanis are equally wary of fundamentalists who preach for an Islamic state. There was some hope when Musharraf took control that endemic government corruption would end. It hasn't, Nazir says. Instead, the general changed the Constitution and named himself president in 2001. And fundamentalists in parliament are seen to have supported him. Meanwhile, Islamists elected to office in some regional areas have failed to deliver basic public services, he says. "They have discredited themselves," Nazir says. "Fundamentalists in power have in some ways exposed themselves as people who cannot deliver anything. They have strong rhetoric and the power to call people into the streets. You can do that for a while, but then what?" A revolution, either Islamic or secular, is not likely, Nazir says, because there is no one popular enough to lead one. The result, he says, is millions of "disillusioned" Pakistanis for whom democracy seems a dream. Still, there are strong voices for democracy in Pakistan, among them Ayaz Amir's. He is a leading Pakistani journalist who says that for its own sake, not America's, the Islamic world must embrace democratic reform and reject Islamism. "For the West it is but a physical threat in the form of terrorism," he recently wrote. "For the world of Islam . . . to be trapped in bin Ladenism is to travel back in time to the dark ages of Muslim obscurantism. It means to be stuck in the mire which has held the Islamic world back."