Can Islamic parties peddle democracy?

Can Islamic parties peddle democracy? By Moni Basu

 (CNN) — In Tunisia, an Islamic party wins the election.

In Libya, statements about adopting Sharia, or Islamic law, raises concerns about the future.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood strategizes about how best to score political gains.

In the West, real fears arise that the Arab Spring will spawn new states more akin to the principles of al Qaeda and Hamas than fledgling democracies.

Political Islam is sure to be a factor as major change sweeps through formerly despotic nations. But exactly how is a question that is up for intense debate.

The idea of political Islam raises eyebrows among secularists, women, minority religions who fear their ways of life will come under serious threat if Islamic parties enforce their will. But some caution against looking at Islam’s role too simplistically — it is, after all, deeply rooted in the region.

“Political Islam is basically Western alarmism,” said Ebrahim Moosa, professor of religion at Duke University.

“It’s lazy analysis to dredge up images of a Khomeini-like prospect for any country,” he said referring to the Iranian revolutionary leader.

So when Libya’s National Transitional Council Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil announces that any law contradicting Islamic principles of Sharia are ineffective, it doesn’t mean that Libyans will have hands cut off for stealing or women will be forced to cover up head to toe, Moosa said.

What Jalil’s comments will mean in practice has yet to be determined, said British writer Patrick Seale in Middle East Online. “It needs to be stressed that each country’s experience will be different.”

Libya’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali, said Sharia is not necessarily against democracy and equality. And Jalil quickly reassured the international community that Libyans are moderate Muslims.

Moosa said it’s almost impossible to be a leader of a Muslim nation without paying obeisance to Sharia. Saddam Hussein did it in Iraq; Hosni Mubarak did it in Egypt.

“It’s like the president of the United States saying, ‘God bless America,’ ” Moosa said. “It’s your credibility marker that you are a believer, a way to show religious credentials.”

In Tunisia, Rashid Ghannouchi, the founder of the winning Ennahda party, is known to be a philosophical thinker drawn to the Turkish model of governance and faith — an officially secular country ruled by an Islamist party.

Turkey’s constitution limits the public exhibition of religion.

Moosa sees Turkey as a nation that has internalized Islamic ethics. And Tunisia, he said, could do the same, where Islam could play a public role but with filters.

Moosa, who said he knows Ghannouchi fairly well, said the Ennahda leader was alarmed when Khomeini issued a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses” — a novel written by Rushdie that has been decried as blasphemy by some Islamic fundamentalists.

Ennahda is not looking to impose Sharia as it has traditionally been imposed wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin. The party’s leadership contends Sharia is a set of principles open to interpretation, wrote Rubin.

Rubin recently met with Ghannounchi and Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda’s secretary general, and wrote that both men see Sharia as a “body of immutable demands.”

“We know there are some Muslims who do not believe in democracy or freedoms in society,” Jebali told her. “We consider this a wrong interpretation. For us, the authority in Islam is given to the people, and even the legislative power should come from the people.”

The key is for Western nations to exercise patience, said Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University.

“Certain parties may have a tendency toward Islam. They may succeed or they may not,” he said. “But we have to give them a chance.”

Ahmed said democracy is a Western ideal that is foreign to many Muslim nations. It took the United States centuries to perfect its own brand of democracy. Why then, should Washington expect Tunisia, Libya or Egypt to achieve perfection overnight, Ahmed asked.

Part of the problem, he said, is that after three decades of hostage taking, terror threats and attacks by Islamic groups, Western nations now associate Islam with unsavory actions and the word Islamic has taken on a negative connotation.

“It is important to understand that most Muslims in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya want justice,” Ahmed said. “They want compassion. They want incorruptibility, honesty from their rulers. All of them quote Islamic precedence for these features. In the ideal, Islam promises that these rulers must have these virtues.”

Moosa said he would not be surprised if some time down the line, discordant voices rise up in Tunisia to advocate for what they view as genuine Sharia.

“One hopes saner voices will slap them down,” he said.

But it’s that debate that will make the Arab world’s post-dictatorship nations a real test for whether Sharia can ever be reconciled with democracy.

Islamic law, said Moosa, can be interpreted as a need for providing for the poor, stable governance and implementing a rule of law that is in the best interests of the people.

“What does Sharia mean?” he said. “There has not been an honest conversation on what it can be.”

The answers will help define how the people of the Arab Spring try to rebuild their nations.

 © 2011 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Resources for Teachers on the Middle East, Islamic communities, and the Arab Awakening

Are you planning to teach on Arab communities, Islam, or the Middle East?  Explore these resources for teachers, provided by academic institutions and organizations.

Tunisian Elections Taking Place Today

Today marks Tunisia’s first election following the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali.  Visit these sites for information on who has gone to the polls, and what Tunisians are saying about voting in their first democratic election:

U.S. pulls its envoy from Syria because of threats

In this file picture, new U.S. ambassador Robert Ford talks with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after presenting his credentials to Assad, in Damascus. Reuters.


Slate reports:

The Obama administration pulled its ambassador out of Syria over the weekend over increasing security fears, saying that the recent string of incidents of intimidation and threats of violence made it unsafe for Robert Ford to remain in the country.

“We hope that the Syrian regime will end its incitement campaign against Ambassador Ford,” a spokesman for the State Department said, according to the Associated Press. “At this point, we can’t say when he will return to Syria.”

Ford attracted the ire of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he contacted protesters involved in the ongoing, seven-month-old grassroots movement in Syria seeking the overthrow of the 41-year-old Assad regime. There were no casualties in the attacks by pro-Assad forces on Ford’s office and home in Syria, but sources in the country told Reuters that state media coverage of Ford has been growing increasingly incisive, increasing U.S. concerns for Ford’s safety.

Ford also traveled over the summer to anti-Assad strongholds in various regions of Syria, ignoring a ban on Western diplomats traveling outside the capital city of Damascus.

From 2005 to 2009, the U.S. had no ambassador to Syria. President Obama sent Ford in January 2009 to work with President Bashar al-Assad to scale back Syria’s alliance with Iran and backing of militant groups. However, the diplomatic relationship soon soured again after Assad ignored international calls for reform in response to the Syrian branch of the Arab Spring uprisings calling for an end to Assad’s police state.

Instead, Assad used military force to crackdown on pro-Democracy protesters. International advocacy groups have since reported a death toll of up to 1,800 people and thousands of cases of torture in state-run detention centers.

Former Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi Dead

On October 20, 2011, former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi was killed in the city of Sirte by rebel forces.  To view a variety of news stories related to his death, visit the links below from media outlets around the world:

UAE Bloggers on Trial for Speaking Out Online

Al-Jazeera’s The Stream explores five pro-reform bloggers facing a prolonged trial for criticising the government of the United Arab Emirates.

Tens of thousands rally to support Assad in Damascus

Tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrated in central Damascus on Wednesday in show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling a six-month uprising against his rule in which the United Nations says 2,900 people have been killed.

“America, out, out, Syria will stay free,” chanted the crowd, many of them carrying pictures of Assad and Syrian flags. They also shouted slogans warning the European Union not to intervene in their country.

“God, Syria and Bashar,” they sang.

State television described the government-backed rally as a “million-strong march … supporting national independence and rejecting foreign intervention.”

At the start of the demonstration a man holding the flags of Russia and China — which both vetoed a European-drafted resolution against Syria at the United Nations last week — flew over the crowd, suspended from a helicopter by rope.

To read more of this story and view video footage, visit Reuters be clicking here.