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Democracy and Islam After September 11

The case for optimism.

10:25 AM, Dec 13, 2002 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The remarks below were delivered earlier today at the 23rd annual convention of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, as part of a panel discussion titled "Reevaluating Democracy and Islam after September 11."--Ed.

I MUST BEGIN by saying that there is nothing I would choose to revise, regarding my prior views of Democracy and Islam, in the aftermath of that terrible day, September 11, 2001. Perhaps because I do not come to this debate from an academic or government background, but rather as an author and journalist, my understanding of Islam has always been based on an encounter with reality, rather than speculations about abstractions. I learned about Islam in the Balkans--that is, in an environment suffused with the pluralistic traditions of the Ottoman empire.

From the beginning of my examination of the Balkan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and particularly with regard to the fate of Bosnia-Hercegovina, I observed a preeminent example of the potential for democratic progress, prosperity, and stability in the Islamic ummah, represented by the indigenous European Islam of the Balkans. Throughout my engagement with this topic I pointed to Bosnia-Hercegovina as a country poised to become a beacon of Islamic spirituality and progress, based on a secular, multiethnic, multireligious, and fully European sensibility.

Tragically, as we all know, Bosnia-Hercegovina's promise as a leader in Islamic progress was partially, and I believe only temporarily, thwarted by the Slavic Orthodox terror that descended on the country in 1992. Nevertheless, my encounter with Balkan Islam led me to see no impediment in the faith of Muhammad, in the Koran, or in Islamic traditions of governance, to successful democratic transitions in countries and societies throughout the ummah.

I am a former radical leftist and will confess to remaining a Marxist materialist in certain respects. I believe human existence creates human ideas, not vice versa. I do not believe that the religious values by which a country lives determine its aptitude for economic development and democracy, that is, for the attainment of a successful bourgeois society. Rather, I believe that free market activity produces the prosperity allowing democratic institutions and religion to flourish. I believe that adherence to a set of economic values, including entrepreneurship, individual accountability, and free contract between people makes possible the growth that generates a middle class and, on that foundation, stable democratic institutions and the advancement of religious virtues. In recent decades we have seen this repeatedly. Among the Asian "tigers," which I know are models of development and governance for many Turkish Muslims, we see that economic development, in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, fueled the expansion of democracy. We also see that Malaysia, an Islamic monarchy, has sustained a stable, prosperous, parliamentary government for decades with, notably, no interference in the process by its military.

The Prophet Muhammad was a caravan merchant. The Koran repeatedly calls on the believers to be scrupulous in honoring their commitments. Islam is a religion of contract. These values are the bedrock upon which democratic fortresses may be built. There is nothing in Islam as a faith or a tradition or a culture that should stand as an obstacle to democracy.

Nevertheless, the shock of September 11 has led many Westerners to posit that horror as an outcome of an alleged clash between Islam and Western sensibilities, or between faith and secularism, and, finally, as an act of "Islamist" aggression.

Democracy had much to do, in my view, with September 11, as did "Islamism." But my paradigm for understanding these issues differs considerably from those advanced by others.

I do not see September 11 as an act of protest by Muslims or Arabs oppressed by the advance of Western democracy or the success of Israel. I see it as an act of provocation by Saudi-based extremists, intended to divert the younger, better-educated, middle-class strata of Saudi society, and similar social elements elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab worlds, from their growing demands for restoration of Islamic pluralism and the right to live normal lives, in a normal country, in a world at peace. Generations have grown up and become educated in Saudi Arabia, and they are no longer willing to live in the old way. This is a self-evident fact. Furthermore, the Saudi monarchy and its allies, the Wahhabi religious hierarchy, can no longer rule in the old way. This is also a manifest truth.