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Why Islamic History Offers New Reasons to Support Democracy in Egypt, the Middle East

Posted: 08/30/10 12:37 PM ET

Islamic democracy is a contradiction in terms -- at least that is the implicit message coming from the Obama administration.

In Egypt, where an opposition movement led by Mohamed ElBaradei -- a Nobel laureate and the former head of the International Atomic Agency -- has presented the U.S. with the perfect opportunity to press for political reform, President Obama has so far respectfully declined. Rather than act on the "commitment" professed in his Cairo speech "to governments that reflect the will of the people," Obama has elected to say nothing and quietly redirect democracy promotion funds toward strictly economic projects.

Sadly, this policy reflects a sincere belief on the part of the Obama administration that Islamists cannot be democrats. If free and fair elections are held -- so the thinking goes -- potentially anti-western Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood might come into power, and once there, decide to do away with voting once and for all. As Obama put it in the aforementioned speech, "[T]here are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others."

This type of pathological thinking endures, in our estimation, because of two common analytical pitfalls: the tendency to treat terms like "Islamist," "Islamic democracy," and "democracy" as monoliths, and the even more troubling impulse to view Islam itself as a rigid and authoritarian faith.

In truth, Islamists -- democratic and otherwise -- are a diverse bunch. They differ on whether or not democratic principles are inherent within Islam, on whether Islam should extend beyond the private sphere, and on an encyclopedic list of other practical details.

Democracy, too, is a tough term to pin down for it has taken radically different forms in different parts of the world. Moreover, democracy is like wine in that it matures with time. Indeed, it is hard to argue that the U.S. was fully democratic until after the Civil War, or even until after the enfranchisement of women in 1919. Thus, the changeable and multifarious quality of these two creeds -- democracy and Islam -- is better explored as a historical process rather than a fixed ideal. Declaring the incompatibility of Islam and democracy at the outset, in other words, ignores the elasticity of process, and the potential for synthesis therein.

More than just potentially compatible, we believe that Islam's historical record provides plenty of reasons to think that a viable exchange between Islamic and democratic principles will take place in the future. Indeed, Islam has proved so flexible and so receptive to new ideas in its 1400 years of existence that the marriage of Islam and democracy would actually be something rather ordinary.

At its inception, the Prophet Muhammed entertained differences of opinion and catered to a diverse group of followers. He even devised the Constitution of Medina to harmonize the active cooperation and participation of three potentially antagonistic social groups. These were Muhammed's original supporters who accompanied him on his flight from Mecca, early converts from within Medina's environs, and the several Jewish tribes who dominated the city's economic life. While equality was seldom a medieval goal, this was a rare example of an attempt to define political co-existence and remain open to multiple practices. (Unfortunately, like many vanguard efforts, it ultimately failed. What endured throughout imperial Islam, however, was a legal recognition of minority rights drawn along confessional lines.)

As the empire expanded and evolved at an unprecedented rate, it lost none of its early flexibility. By the 10th and 11th centuries, Islamic centers of learning from Baghdad to Marrakesh to Seville were translating and expanding upon Greek philosophical treatises, fueling debates about the role of reason in faith, philosophy in religion. At the same time, the infusion of Hellenistic thought into Islamic society coincided with and complimented a quickening of efforts in the scientific and mathematical realms that would later enable the global shifts inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Islam, therefore, did not remain impervious to outside influence. Rather, it received and integrated new ideas into the complex socio-political fabric it came to define.

Moving forward to the present, pop culture provides a more blithe but no less arresting example of Islam's tractable nature. "American Idol" knock-offs have taken the Muslim world by storm, but not without first undergoing distinct cultural metamorphoses. If you kick back for the season premier of the hit Malaysian television show, "Imam Muda," you can watch as ten young Muslim scholars vie for the title of "Young Imam" before judges not unlike Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. In this way, a presumably sacrosanct position has become the ground for popular participation.

Constitutionalism, classical Greek philosophy, and elements of American pop culture, therefore, have all found their way into Islam's rich tradition of intellectual synthesis. So why, then, should we be skeptical about its interaction with yet another global dynamic: democracy as a form of government?

Rather than manipulating political change in places like Egypt and alienating proponents of democracy for fear of encouraging Islamism, we think the U.S. should seize the opportunity presented by ElBaradei, attempt to engage positively with his diverse group of followers, and trust in the rich history of flexibility within Islam. The current policy not only undermines our credibility in the region, but risks infecting Islamic democrats with the same pessimistic attitude that has clouded U.S. foreign policy of late.