Can Islam, democracy coexist?

The Courier-Post, Apr. 10, 2003

Experts and transplanted Muslims in the South Jersey area say there are no simple answers on how to govern Iraq with Saddam Hussein out of the picture.

“It’s a mess over there,” said Murad Alikhan, a 69-year-old Delran resident who attends a local Shia mosque. “Which Muslim country has democracy? Which one?”

Others hold hope that democracy can be put into place, that somehow, Iraq’s religious and ethnic factions can be united without tyranny. But it’s never been done before.

Alikhan is from India, but because he is a Shia Muslim, he has plenty of opinion about what is going on in Iraq.

In that war-torn country, roughly 65 percent of the people are Shia (or Shi’ite), 3 percent are some other religion and the rest are Sunni Muslim.

Both Shia and Sunni follow the same religious practices; both follow the Quran and the prophet Mohammed. Their disagreements center on how the community should be led.

During Saddam’s rule, Sunni Muslims were favored, while Shia Muslims were oppressed. Many Shia leaders and religious teachers were killed during his regime.

Islam is supposed to unite people, said Stuart Charme, a religion professor at Rutgers-Camden.

“That’s what Mohammed was trying to do,” Charme said. The prophet wanted to give people an identity that would overcome their tribal divisions.

The same concept exists in Christianity, whose followers are supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet throughout history, there has been much squabbling and fighting among factions, for example between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

In Iraq, there are not only divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but also between different sects and ethnicities. After the Gulf War, for example, a rebellion by non-Arab Kurds in the north was put down by Saddam’s forces.

Since 1979, the country has been under the secular rule of Saddam. He suppressed his own people to maintain his power, said Mahmoud Ayoub, a religion professor at Temple University.

“In some ways, all the rulers who have governed Iraq have had to use force and very draconian measures because of the nature of Iraqi society,” said Ayoub, who is from Lebanon.

Some Muslims believe that once Saddam is gone and the “divide-and-conquer” wedge he has created among different factions is eliminated, the groups will get along.

“Muslims would live in harmony without Saddam,” said Naseem Badat, a devout Muslim from Voorhees. “It is not a major problem. The religion is the same.”

Still, history has shown that when an authoritarian government is removed from a religiously diverse population, interreligious and interethnic conflict grows, Charme said. Persecuted minorities seek to assert themselves and take revenge.

“I think the president should have thought of this before,” Charme said. “One particular group claims power and others are supressed. That’s just the way it works.”

Democracy and Islam?

The American model of democracy and the separation of church and state isn’t an easy fit in a Muslim country, experts and local Muslims say. The ideal government, according to the Quran, is a theocracy, where society is governed by the values of Islam.

Badat said Iraq’s culture and way of life are completely different than the United States’. Her husband, Ismail, is president of the Islamic Center of Southern New Jersey, a Palmyra mosque.

“They (the United States) say they are going to impose democracy,” said Badat, a native of India. “But Islam itself is an ideology. It is very complex and doesn’t differentiate between spiritual and mundane life.”

“Democracy is the antithesis of Islam,” said Badat, a native of India. “Islam is neither democracy, communism or any of that. It emphasizes both communal and individual rights, not at the cost of each other. How will western democracy align with that?”

Nouman Shubbar, 39, is a Shia Muslim who emigrated here from Iraq in 1982, during the Iran-Iraq war. The Philadelphia resident attends a mosque in Delran. He still has family in Iraq.

Shubbar believes it is possible to mix democracy with religion. He used Israel as an example.

“I really hope the U.S. government will assist in putting a democratic-type of government there and make sure it’s actually done that way, and not replace it with another dictator,” he said.

Rahim Khimani, a Pakistan native who now lives in Marlton, thinks the United States should limit its role in Iraq’s new government.

“This country should help the Iraqis build some institutions of their liking and let them run the country on whatever model they choose for themselves. If the Iraqis want to be democratic, we can help them,” Khimani said.

What’s next?

Because Saddam has been so effective in silencing the opposition, there is no clear leader to take his place, experts say.

The fear is that Iraq will spiral apart once its dictator is gone, said Corinne Blake, who teaches Middle Eastern history at Rowan University.

Ayoub believes the country should be handed over to the United Nations for two or three years, until an individual or group emerges as a leader.

“I think that when Saddam goes, Iraq needs a long time to recover and to try and find somebody who is acceptable to all the different ethnic and religious groups, which is not easy,” Ayoub said.

Blake thinks Iraq needs strong regional governments united by a weaker central government.

Shams Inati, an expert on Islam and Iraq, believes the United States should get out of the country as quickly as possible.

“We cannot really go in and force on them a political system and governors of our own choice if we truly want democracy for them,” said Inati, who teaches at Villanova University. “Any external interference with the way they would like to be governed is a violation of their democracy. They have to make their own decisions as to what kind of system and rulers they want.”

“If the U.S. tries to install a government of 23 American ministers, plus an American governor, as it has been rumored to plan to do,” she added, “this will not only be antidemocratic, but it will also not work. Opposition to this kind of plan in the Arab-Islamic world and in Europe is tremendous.”

U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., believes democracy in Iraq is not only possible, but necessary in order to prevent another dictator from taking over and creating more weapons of mass destruction.

Democracy flows from a basic human need to have a say in one’s destiny, Andrews said. While Iraq’s religious and cultural traditions would require some creative solutions, he believes democracy transcends ethnicity and religious divides.

“You want to control as much of your future and your environment as you can,” he said. “I understand it would be difficult to achieve. It would be unique in that part of the world.”

President Bush announced Tuesday that the United Nations will play a “vital role” in the reconstruction of Iraq. He also said Iraqis would be involved in the creation of a transitional government.

Few details were offered, however, on the exact nature of the U.N.’s role or on the makeup of the new government.

One thing is clear: It will take years to find new leaders and construct a legitimate government in Iraq.

Alikhan, the Shia Muslim from India, said it will be a job for the next generation.

“Right now,” he said, “I don’t see any good hope or light in the tunnel.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday April 11, 2003.
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