The myth of Islamist democracy.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 16 2004 4:43 PM

The Myth of Islamist Democracy

America needn't apologize for its missionary zeal.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the best-known figures in the Muslim world, an Egyptian-born religious scholar now based in Qatar who is one of the pioneers of new-media Islam. He has a TV show on Al Jazeera and regularly delivers fatwas on various subjects at a Web site called Islam Online. This past week, Qaradawi joined other ulema, or religious scholars, at the annual meeting of the European Council of Fatwa and Research in London, where the world's pluckiest press corps gave the Muslim media mogul the full Beckham, splashing his name all over the front pages and charting his every move. "It is not strange for me to visit London," Qaradawi said, "[S]o why … this row when I visit London today?"

Undoubtedly, some of Tony Blair's opponents were making noise about Qaradawi to score political points at the prime minister's expense, but most people just don't like what the sheik stands for. Feminists were angry because of Qaradawi's rulings approving wife-beating (albeit gentle wife-beating and no hitting the face—ever!) and female genital mutilation; gay activists for his descriptions of homosexuality as an "unnatural and evil practice"; and Jewish groups for his support of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Since all Israelis are subject to military duty, Qaradawi argues, all are acceptable military targets. His position on this issue is why Washington has refused Qaradawi a visa since 1999.

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The British may have their own good reason for keeping Qaradawi out next time, despite the fact that London Mayor Ken Livingstone has already invited him to return. Amid all the noise, the British press failed to note that Qaradawi believes U.S. soldiers are legitimate targets of jihad in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. "Resisting the invaders is an individual duty [incumbent] on all Muslims," Qaradawi has said. Some energetic hack should find out if that opinion also applies to coalition invaders like the British forces stationed in those two countries. Should they also be resisted and killed? If so, it's not clear why the British government would want to welcome someone who believes that its troops should be targeted for death.

Great Britain has had its fair share of Islamist news of late: Abu Hamza al-Masry, an Egyptian-born imam from London's famous Finsbury Park mosque, was arrested in May and may be extradited to the United States on terror-related charges. On the Abu Hamza scale, Qaradawi is less extreme, and indeed his defenders argue that Qaradawi should get credit for denouncing the Sept. 11 attacks—as if this was a really difficult stand to take. During his London visit, Qaradawi went out of his way to soothe some of his critics. He said he wasn't promoting an active campaign against homosexuals, and he distinguished between Jews, some of whom are good, and Israelis, all of whom are military targets. "If he is an extremist," asked one British Muslim leader, "who is there left to be moderate?"

In fact, he's neither a moderate nor a total jihadist. He reportedly rejected an offer to lead the Muslim Brotherhood, but he's still close to the organization and also to Hamas, which furnishes many of the suicide bombers he champions. When it comes to Osama Bin Laden, however, Qaradawi is somewhat contemptuous of the al-Qaida chief. In his recent book Bad Moon Rising, the French scholar Gilles Kepel asks Qaradawi what he thinks of Bin Laden. In Kepel's words, Qaradawi says that Bin Laden "has never published anything that would allow one to judge his learning on actual evidence; he could not possibly call himself a doctor in law, and therefore can pass no juridical opinion, or fatwa: he is a 'preacher'—the lowest rank in the current hierarchical classification."

Qaradawi's problem with Bin Laden isn't that he is a butcher but that he is ignorant of Islam. Qaradawi's scrupulous interpretations explain away the murder of Israeli civilians, but Bin Laden hasn't the wherewithal to justify the execution of 3,000 people on Sept. 11. Bin Laden isn't monstrous, he is mistaken. "Qaradawi is a cold-blooded ulema," Kepel writes, "grounded in the body of his dogmatic knowledge." That is to say, Qaradawi is just an old-fashioned fundamentalist.

Some of Qaradawi's fans, like historian Raymond William Baker, note that the sheikh favors democracy, even writing a fatwa declaring that democracy is compatible with Islam. However, Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian intellectual who lives in the United States, argues that Qaradawi's Islamist democracy is a ridiculous contradiction in terms. Democracy, Nabulsi writes, "is not a religious council, nor the obligation to promote virtue and eliminate vice. … Democracy is not religious tolerance, justice, or any other religious value. Democracy is a civil principle, not a religious value."

If only Nabulsi had been in the U.S. delegation at the recent G8 summit in Georgia, he might have further advanced the call for real Arab democracy, anathema to both Islamist democrats like Qaradawi and Arab leaders. After all, a political discipline that, as Nabulsi reminds us, "is the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people" leaves little room for Arab dictators who believe that they are the source of all authority or those Islamist democrats who believe that the source of political sovereignty is God.

Last month at the G8 summit, under pressure from its Arab and European allies, the White House gutted its proposed Greater Middle East Initiative intended to promote various reform programs throughout the region. If the Europeans thought the United States had no right to "impose" its idea of good government on others, they certainly had no qualms about lecturing Washington on how democracy really works. The Arab world does not need "missionaries" of democracy, said Jacques Chirac. "For democracy to take root solidly and durably in the Arab world," the French president explained, "it must be an Arab democracy before all else."

Obviously, most Arab states either can't or won't transform themselves into democratic bodies, or they would have done so long ago. And as even Chirac surely knows, proof that they are incapable of self-reform is provided by the steady stream of Arabs who have fled those failed states for Europe and the United States.

Chirac is not defending Arabs, only his position as a dear friend and frontman of those Arab rulers who have no wish to reform their governments. Maybe democracy can't be imposed, but democratic and liberal reforms certainly can.

As Slate contributor Michael Young wrote in Lebanon's Daily Star, the Greater Middle East Initiative "saw Arab reform as a Western national security requirement." As Sept. 11 showed, failed societies affect the lives of ordinary Americans. The idea behind the GMEI was that if Arab states functioned better and gave citizens a voice in their own political processes and a chance to advance their economic interests, fewer Arab young men will want to fly planes into U.S. buildings. The idea is no less rational now, and there's no reason to apologize for our missionary zeal, especially when, as Qaradawi complains, Washington-sponsored educational reforms "want to omit all teachings about jihad." That is precisely the point.

Reform-minded Arabs are counting on the United States to drive this agenda. We've heard from so many sources how the Arab world likes Americans, just not U.S. policies, that perhaps we should be wondering what it is Arabs really like about us. Our pop music and action movies? Our willingness to spend lots of money on vacation? The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry?

The policies of the American government are largely derived from the ideas of the American people. And, frankly, there's nothing very special about Americans except for our ideas. If they should happen to clash with the political adventurism of Jacques Chirac or the bloody opinions of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, all the better.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

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