WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Editor's note: This second installment of the UPI series on the compatibility of Islam and democracy explores the possibility that Iran, freeing itself from fundamentalism, might spawn renewal in the Muslim world.
Political philosopher Francis Fukuyama sees a kinship between radical Islamism -- though not the Muslim faith as a whole -- and Europe's extreme right and left of the 20th century. In an essay written for Welt am Sonntag, a German Sunday paper, Fukuyama pointed out that in 1928, Hassan al-Banna, founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, borrowed the principle of unconditional obedience to the leader from Mussolini's Italian fascism.
After World War II, Sayyid Qutb became the Muslim brotherhood's chief ideologue. According to Fukuyama, Qutb combined influences from both the extreme right and left when he formulated the goal of a classless society, which must overcome liberal democracy's self-righteous individual and "the exploitation of man by man."
"What Qutb preached was, in the opinion of experts, Leninism in an Islamic cloak," Fukuyama wrote. "A majority of Islamists have followed this creed to this day."
Fukuyama then raised "the seemingly perverted question ... if (Islamism) could not unwittingly become a modernizing force, which in future will permit Muslim societies to posit alternative concepts to the Western world."
"Since Islamism is directed both against the Western world and its values as well as against traditional Islam, it makes sense to wonder if it could not become the source of creative construction." Fukuyama then listed four features blocking the modernization of Muslim societies:
1. A rigid legal system.
2. The supervision of the banking system by religious authorities.
3. Schools training children primarily to interpret religious texts rather than think critically.
4. The fact that Islam provides no place for women in politics and economics.
Fukuyama is not alone in identifying Iran as the one country where modernization might become the unintended consequence of 34 years of fundamentalist rule. Like Fukuyama, scholars from around the world are placing their hope in the "demographic factor," meaning that 70 percent of all Iranians are under the age of 30. And most of those, analysts agree, reject theocratic rule.
Fukuyama deems it "most likely," therefore, that Iran will lead the Muslim world out of its present cul-de-sac. In an article in the German journal, Internationale Politik, Udo Steinbach, director of Hamburg's celebrated Deutsches Orient Institut, mused if there might not occur in Iran a Gorbachev-style Perestroika transforming the Islamic Republic of Iran's structure in a liberal democratic sense, while leaving its (religious) foundations in place.
"Or will the separation of politics and religion be the precondition for creating the kind of democracy some of the reformers and (Iran's) student demonstrators envision?" Steinbach wondered.
Douglas Johnston, president of the Washington-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and an ardent supporter of faith-based peacemaking especially among Christians, Jews and Muslims, recently returned from Iran with ambiguous impressions. He wrote:
"While there are elements of democracy at the grassroots, i.e., the President and parliament... are elected by the people, it is the Supreme Religious Leader and the leading ayatollahs who have the final say. ... Although the President and more than 70 percent of parliament are reformist, their efforts have largely been stymied by the unelected, higher placed conservative clerics. There is clearly a need for democratic institutions beyond the ballot box."
Johnston also noted that while Iran is the only Muslim state to recognize the rights of religious minorities in its constitution, Christians still have an inferior status. For example, "the 'blood money' that one would be required to pay the family of a Muslim who was killed in an automobile accident for which one was responsible is significantly greater than the amount that would have to be paid to the family of a Christian victim in the same circumstances."
In a groundbreaking study on Prospects for Pluralism and Democracy in the Muslim World, which was co-sponsored by Boston University's Institute on Religion and World Affairs and the Pew Forum in Washington, Bahman Baktiari noted considerable dilemmas for reform and democracy in Iran.
Baktiari is the director of the International Affairs Program of the University of Maine. His observations will be discussed in detail in the next installment of this UPI series. His report gives a detailed account of Iran's resentful and rebellious youth who "in the privacy of their homes pursue intimate relationships with the opposite sex, enjoy parties where alcoholic drinks flow. ... However, youths consistently fear being caught even behind doors."
Baktiari described Iran's pattern as one of "one step forward toward reform, and two steps back as conservatives have persisted in thwarting any moves toward pluralism. "Structurally, the Islamic Republic is for now more Islamic than republican," Baktiari went on, but then arrived at a conclusion Fukuyama would probably share: "Iranians have come to view reform -- indeed, even democratization -- as inevitable, and they no longer ask 'why reform?' or 'what kind of reform?' but 'how?' and 'when?'"
Next installment: Meandering toward democracy