MIDDLE EAST: Muslims need democracy
Mohamed Elmasry

On a recent trip to Egypt and Iran, two countries considered to be world leaders of Sunni and Shia Islam respectively, I did not meet a single person who didn`t recognize the need for political reform across the Muslim world.

I met a lot of people – Iran`s President Mohammad Khatami and its spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Sudan`s former president, Sawar Al Zahab, and former prime minster, Sadeq Al Mahdi, along with professional analysts, academics, intellectuals, and, of course, informed taxi drivers.

But while many said they supported the idea of reform, they also doubted the sincerity of the West in calling for increased democracy in the region, accusing Western countries – especially the US and, more recently, France - of blatant hypocrisy.

"Give us a break," said Fahmy Huwaidi of Egypt`s Al Ahram newspaper, incensed at the sudden demand for virtually instantaneous democratic reform. "The West took more than 100 years to reach a decent level of democracy. Why then do they expect us to attain democracy overnight?"

Informed Muslims, keen to see real reform in their countries, are infuriated by Western nations that encourage secondary steps toward reform while totally ignoring the fundamentals upon which any robust democratic system depends. They point, for example, to the long overdue appointment of a woman judge to Egypt"s supreme court earlier this year – greeted with rapture in Western capitals with not a word mentioned of the serious erosion of judicial independence over the past 20 years.

At a recent international conference – The Muslim World: Challenges And Opportunities, held in Tehran only a day before the recent devastating earthquake - I met some 50 leaders and intellectuals, including the leader of Pakistan`s main opposition Jama`at-e-Islami party, Gazi Hussain Ahmad.

Many accused the West of exploiting the undemocratic tendencies of governments in the Muslim world. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, for example, reportedly answered American President George W. Bush`s "are-you-with-us-or-against-us" telephone call after September 11, 2001 with an immediate "yes" – no mention of consulting aides or government officials, let alone the Pakistani people themselves. Bush was delighted.

Another issue fueling accusations of Western hypocrisy is the not-invented-here syndrome. While British democracy is different from America"s, both are widely accepted as valid models. But when it comes to the Muslim world, non-Western democratic models are not considered acceptable.

Most Iranians believe that their governmental system, although dissimilar to both the British and American models, is nevertheless democratic; yet the West dismisses it out of hand.

Another example is Malaysia – a democracy not widely praised in the West, but one that has encouraged unprecedented economic development along with considerable political reform, preserved multiculturalism, and upheld minority rights.

In stark contrast, consider the post-9/11 regression of human rights that has taken place in virtually every major Western country – as well as those Muslim countries that had made some, albeit limited, progress on human rights. Such duplicity is truly hypocritical.

Not surprisingly, the US leads the international pack of post-9/11 human rights violators, routinely detaining citizens of foreign countries – some for more than two years - without filing charges or allowing them access to legal counsel.

But France recently moved up the ladder by proposing legislation that would ban the wearing of religious attire in public – particularly the hijab, or head scarf, worn by many Muslim women.

The move to ban the hijab has shocked the entire Muslim world, and with good reason. Is this kind of racism the behavior we should expect from Western nations that have always prided themselves on being champions of liberal democracy? Many Western-educated liberals in the Muslim world could not find the words to respond to France"s indefensible action.

They wonder who, and what, will be next. Will other Western nations follow suit? Could there be a ban on building mosques? Will Muslims be forced to change their names, as happened to early twentieth-century European Jews? Will they be barred from security-sensitive jobs? Many Muslim liberals fear such changes are now just a matter of time.

In Holland, the charismatic and ultraconservative political hopeful, Pim Fortuyn, called for the closing of his country`s borders to all Muslims, whose religion he described as "backward." In only a few months of public media exposure, his popularity skyrocketed. Fortuyn soon became leader of a growing political movement. His murder on May 6, 2003, came just one week before elections that might well have established him as prime minister of the Netherlands.

The young man who killed Fortuyn was an animal rights activist who declared Fortuyn"s ideas a menace to society. He is now serving 18 years in prison.

"Democratic" Western governments are also considering the use of "non-lethal torture" for interrogating resistant suspects, says Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz. Insisting he does not advocate torture himself, Dershowitz suggested only days ago to law students at the Université de Montréal that senior judges could be empowered to issue "torture warrants" permitting its limited use in cases of imminent national danger.

He also predicted that countries such as Canada, the US, and France might be among the first to use non-lethal torture for interrogation purposes. All this must sound confusing to Muslim countries, many of whose records on torture have earned them the ire of Western governments and human rights groups alike.

When it comes to fundamental democratic reform, therefore, perhaps the Muslim world would do better to emulate Western democratic ideals of a century ago, rather than the hypocritical and schizophrenic brand being practiced today.

Mohamed Elmasry is a professor at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. Courtesy of Media Monitors.