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[casi] Washington wants democratic Islamic republics ?

November 13, 2003

A New Democracy, Enshrined in Faith


In his admirable if overdue speech last week, President Bush acknowledged 60
years of American error and announced a new policy of encouraging democracy
rather than dictatorship in the Muslim world. What Mr. Bush neglected to
mention was that many Muslims, if freed to make their own democratic
choices, will choose Islam over secularism. A case in point is the newly
released draft of the Afghan constitution, which enshrines Islamic values
even as it guarantees basic liberties.
The document raises a crucial question that goes well beyond Afghanistan to
the Muslim world as a whole: Can a nation be founded on both Islam and
democracy without compromising on human rights and equality?

If the answer is no, then democratization in places like Iraq and
Afghanistan will be a pyrrhic victory - we will have gotten rid of the
Taliban and Saddam Hussein without their former victims actually achieving
real freedom. If, however, a synthesis of Islam and democracy can satisfy
devout Muslims, while at the same time protecting individual liberties and
the rights of women and non-Muslims, then Islamic democracy may be the best
hope for improvement in the Muslim world.
Make no mistake: the Afghan constitution is pervasively Islamic. Its first
three articles declare Afghanistan an Islamic Republic, make Islam the
official religion, and announce that "no law can be contrary to the sacred
religion of Islam and the values of this constitution." The new Supreme
Court, which is given the power to interpret the constitution, is to be
composed of a mix of judges trained either in secular law or in Islamic

The new flag features a prayer niche and pulpit, and is emblazoned with two
Islamic credos: "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet" and
"Allah Akbar" ("God is Great"). The government is charged with developing a
unified school curriculum "based on the provisions of the sacred religion of
Islam, national culture, and in accordance with academic principles." The
provision requiring the state to ensure the physical and psychological
well-being of the family calls, in the same breath, for "elimination of
traditions contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam."
And yet, the draft constitution is also thoroughly democratic, promising
government "based on the people's will and democracy" and guaranteeing
citizens fundamental rights. One essential provision mandates that the state
shall abide by the United Nations Charter, international treaties, all
international conventions that Afghanistan has signed and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. Because Afghanistan acceded in March to the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -
a treaty the United States Senate has never ratified - the draft
constitution guarantees women far-ranging rights against discrimination. It
also ensures that women will make up at least 16.5 percent of the membership
of the upper legislative house (only 14 of 100 United States senators are

In addition, the provision that makes Islam the nation's official religion
also recognizes the right of non-Muslims "to perform their religious
ceremonies within the limits of the provisions of law." This carefully
chosen language might arguably leave room to restrict proselytizing - as,
for example, do similar laws in India and Israel - but it nonetheless
guarantees individual expression as an inviolable right. (It's worth noting
that the right to change one's religion is enshrined in the human rights

Yes, if the draft is ratified by the grand assembly, or loya jirga, tensions
in the constitutional structure will have to be resolved later by the
Supreme Court. According to the draft, for instance, political parties must
not be organized around a program contrary to Islam or the constitution.
That would exclude an antidemocratic Taliban party; but would it also
exclude a party of secularists who wanted to remove Islam from the
constitution? What about laws requiring women to dress modestly:
unconstitutional as a violation of women's rights, or constitutional as in
accord with the teachings of Islam?
The draft constitution gives guidance on all these questions, but the
answers might well come down to the makeup of the Supreme Court: one
dominated by illiberal religious scholars might interpret the text one way,
while one with a majority of judges trained in the secular tradition might
see it very differently.

In its ambitions, attractions and dangers, the Afghan draft constitution can
be seen as a metaphor for the wider prospects of Islamic democracy. Like the
Afghan constitution, Islamic democracy has no chance if the West does not
help create the economic prosperity and social stability for its success.
After driving out the Taliban, the American-led coalition has done too
little to bring Afghanistan under the control of a centralized government,
nor has the United Nations presence in Kabul lessened the de facto control
of the country by regional warlords.

Unless America and the United Nations do more to buttress the sovereignty of
an elected Afghan government, the constitution will inevitably become more
of a symbol than an actual charter of governance. Similarly, unless America
keeps steady pressure on Muslim countries to democratize - rewarding
meaningful elections and punishing human rights violations - little progress
will be made.

The paradox, of course, is that if the people of Muslim countries do get a
greater say in their own government, Islamic politics will likely prevail.
Islamic parties speak the language of justice, the paramount political value
to most Muslims. In some places - Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia - secular
forces in the society counterbalance the rising Islamic politics. But in the
Arab dictatorships, where secularist politics are associated with autocracy
and graft, increased freedom will undoubtedly lead, at least in the short
run, to new gains for political Islam.

This leads some to say that we should not promote democracy in the Middle
East lest we open the door to elections that might be, in the memorable
words of a former assistant secretary of state, Edward Djerejian, "one man,
one vote, one time." But calls to preserve the undemocratic status quo fail
to acknowledge that the alternative to trying Islamic democracy may be much

It would be equally futile for the United States to unilaterally impose
secularization in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a constitution to function, it
must represent the will of its citizens. Nothing could delegitimize a
constitution more quickly than America setting down secularist red lines in
a well-meaning show of neo-imperialism. Rather, our goal must be to persuade
a majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims that Islam and democracy are
perfectly compatible.

This will be especially true in Iraq, where the constitutional process must
demonstrate to the Iraqi people and the rest of the world that the coalition
intends to let Iraqis govern themselves. What's more, denying the
possibility of democracy within Islam may bolster the case of Islamist
radicals who, for very different reasons, claim that their religion and
political freedom cannot mix.

The draft Afghan constitution is just one possible picture of how Islam and
democracy can live side-by-side in the same political vision. There are no
guarantees in constitution writing or in nation building, and it is too soon
to predict that the idea of Islamic democracy will take hold in practice -
in Afghanistan or elsewhere. All we can do is continue to press for
democracy in the Muslim world: not because we na´vely expect a victory for
secularism, but because freedom only makes sense as a value extended equally
to all, to make of it what they will.

Noah Feldman, author of "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic
Democracy," is a law professor at New York University. He was a senior
adviser for constitutional law to the Coalition Provisional Authority in

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