Can Iran Be A Precursor To Major Changes in the Muslim Wordl?

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Cairo, a U.S. President owned up to a well known fact that in 1953 the United States played a role in overthrowing Mohammad Mosaddeq, the then democratically elected leader of Iran. Over half a century later, following the botched 2009 Presidential elections in Iran, it is no longer America denying Iranians the right to be represented by popular choice. It is no longer America playing puppeteer. Ironically, the ones pulling the strings are those who have most vociferously decried America's ungodly interference in their region.

It is hard to prognosticate how events will unfold in Iran. Will there be any spillover effects in the rest of the Muslim world? Although change has not yet fully blossomed, the atmosphere is pregnant with expectations. The battle for the future of Iran is emblematic of the broader struggle across many Muslim majority societies. At the core lies two questions: will democracy finally gain a firm foothold and what role will religion play in their political future?

In Iran, both sides have claimed religious justification for their actions. Ayatollah Khameni invoked his religious authority to issue a Nixonian edict that, if the Ayatollah says that the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is legitimate, then it must be so and it is Islamic. The opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi also invoked Islam's call for justice echoing the Quranic sentiment, "Stand firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even if it is against yourself." (4:135).

However, literal reading of religious texts alone cannot provide all the necessary answers in this struggle for legitimacy and fairness. The issue of state-governance is not discussed in great details in Islam's revealed text -- The Quran. In verses 42:38 and 3:159, the Quran provides only basic principles, in that governance should be based on "mutual consultation," or "shura." How this "shura" is to be conducted is left wide open for interpretation. Scholars of Islam contend that "shura" contains three essential elements -- equal rights for all citizens, majority rule for public policy and the promotion of justice and human dignity. The degree to which a government is "Islamic" and "democratic" will depend on how well they rank on these three elements of "shura."

The unfolding saga in Iran has not drawn much criticism from other countries in the region, for understandable reasons. In the struggle of ordinary Iranians, the other authoritarian regimes in the region, foresee an existential challenge to their own authority. If Iran "falls" to democracy, then can others be far behind? Too much support for Mousavi, and his success, is likely to give rise to similar popular movements across the region, which not only threatens the ruling elites but also makes America uncomfortable with the prospect of dealing with unknown actors who may emerge out of this quest for democratization. Too little support will result in the unsustainable continuation of the status quo. This is the dilemma facing President Obama.

Today's Iran highlights the combustible mix of religion and politics. Muslims do not doubt the veracity of the Quran being the word of God. However, the interpretation of the divine words is entirely human and thus, its translation into practical law is open to multitudes of understandings. Using the power of the state to resolve such differences only creates discord, undermining both the state of faith and faith in the state. Historically, many Muslim jurists opted to stay out of government in order to retain their independence and credibility, thus making an argument favoring the separation of mosque and state.

Although the majority of Muslims in countries like Egypt, Pakistan or Jordan today favor the introduction of Shariah, they do so because the current secular laws have failed to deliver justice to the people. Their hope is that Shariah will require, in the words of Noah Fledman (author of The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State), "all human beings -- and all human governments -- are subject to justice under the law." Muslims are yearning for justice that they have been denied for so long, often due to outside interference but increasingly due to internal failures of Muslim majority states.

The onus for change is not only on those most affected, but also on Muslims living under democracies. In particular, Muslims in America and Europe can play a more assertive role in prodding Muslim majority nations to build civil societies whose governments are truly representative, whose judiciaries are respectful of the rights of all people and whose legislature fosters positive development of the material and the spirit. A success story in Iran can very well augur a sea change across the Muslim world. The question is how to be supporting of the struggle ordinary Iranians are undertaking without appearing to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation? It is a delicate balancing act requiring patient diplomacy by governments and peaceful civic engagement by ordinary citizens.