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Study: Islam not obstacle to democracy

By NATHALIE LAGERFELD, United Press International

WASHINGTON, July 12 (UPI) -- Islam is not the greatest obstacle to democracy in Muslim countries, according to a report from the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Powerful militaries, poverty and a weak private sector, not religion or culture, are the real problems, the study found.

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Islam "is neither a tremendous help nor a hindrance" in promoting democracy, said Shireen T. Hunter, director of the CSIS Islam Program, who prepared the report.

The report, "Modernization and Democratization in the Muslim World: Obstacles and Remedies," is based on research by three different study groups of scholars. Each investigated a category of possible causes for the lack of democracy in the Muslim world: cultural, internal and external factors.

Many ideas in Islam support democracy rather than discourage it, said Hunter. She cited the concept of baya, or consultation, which "means giving support and acceptance to a leader. And also withdrawing that if the leader did not perform for the benefit of society."

The report calls for "reviving the spirit of earlier democratizers and reformers in the Muslim world" and promoting the rationalist and progressive traditions of Islam as a way to promote democracy.

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"If there is going to be peaceful change, there needs to be change through the cultural tradition of the society," said Hunter.

In line with this view, CSIS says gender inequity in the Muslim world should be addressed through "a progressive reading of Islamic sources."

Daniel Brumberg, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Democracy and Rule of Law project, thinks this kind of liberalization is not sufficient to promote democracy.

"I think that the question of promoting a more liberal Islam is not the problem," he said. The plans of gradual political and social liberalization recommended by the report are "unlikely to support democracy" on their own, Brumberg said. Muslim nations like Egypt have lived for decades under "liberalized autocracies" that implement some reform without making a transition away from an authoritarian state.

The report says that it is largely the overwhelming power of the military in many Muslim countries that holds back democratization. It calls for "reducing the political and economic role of the military" by cutting defense spending and other changes.

"The recipe we're hearing about presupposes a set of political reforms," Brumberg said. "That just begs the question of why these things aren't happening."

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The history of the region is largely responsible for the expansion of military power, according to the report. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial powers drew borders arbitrarily, without regard for religious or ethnic groups, ensuring that border disputes would increase the importance and size of militaries.

During the Cold War, Western governments encouraged the rise of Islamist militants by using Islam as a rallying cry against atheistic communism, helping to create another source of conflict, according to the report. Western and Soviet support for authoritarian governments allied with either side also "led to a strengthening of the state at the expense of society," Hunter said.

Today, the value of Muslim countries' resources, especially oil, "puts a further premium on stability" over possibly disruptive democratic reform, according to the report. The fear that democratic elections might give rise to Islamist governments is another reason for Western nations to support the status quo. The CSIS report says that although a lack of democratic reforms is "potentially more threatening to these interests," Western support for authoritarian governments continues in many cases.

The governments of many Muslim countries remain removed from and independent from the societies they rule through oil revenues. These governments, according CSIS, follow a policy of "no representation without taxation," and because they levy few taxes on their citizens, "they do not feel obliged to make any political concessions," said Hunter.

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The domination of the military, along with other factors, also holds back Muslim states economically. Seventeen Muslim countries are categorized as "least-developed nations" by the United Nations. "Large-scale poverty, illiteracy, poor health conditions, and large income disparities" hold back democracy and modernization in most Muslim nations, according to CSIS.

Although in developing nations the government "must initially take the first step in creating private infrastructure," governments in Muslim states have not withdrawn (from economic intervention) and allowed private industry to grow.

"Most Muslim countries, unfortunately, at one time or another adopted their statist economic policies and did not adopt policies for a stronger middle class and privatization" as East Asian countries eventually did, said Hunter.

Lessening the role of the state in the economy will directly benefit efforts to democratize. "Society becomes stronger when economic reliance on state becomes less," she added. "Development of the private sector and development of political parties will strengthen civil society."

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