If President Bush wanted to conjure up someone from central casting to act as a foil to his inauguration call for worldwide freedom, he couldn't ask for a villain more fitting than the terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, who, on the eve of Iraqi elections, denounced democracy as an "evil principle."
In a widely disseminated Internet audiotape, Zarqawi didn't merely say that he opposed the mechanics or timing of the U.S.-run elections being held today in Iraq to choose a 275-member assembly and transitional government. And he didn't say he thought Iraqis should wait and vote after U.S. occupation forces depart. No, Zarqawi said that he opposes any elections under any circumstances. In doing so, he sets up a clash with more at stake than the outcome of the elections in Iraq.
In the audiotape, which surfaced last Sunday, Zarqawi, the most feared and wanted militant in Iraq, declared a "fierce war" against all those "apostates" who take part in the elections. He called candidates running in the elections "demi-idols" and the people who plan to vote for them "infidels." And he railed against democracy because he said it supplants the rule of God with that of a popular majority. This wicked system, he said disapprovingly, is based on "freedom of religion and belief" and "freedom of speech" and on "separation of religion and politics." Democracy, he added, is "heresy itself."
The questions Zarqawi raises go way beyond the elections in Iraq to the whole issue of modernization of the Arab world. Is democracy un-Islamic? Is there a fundamental clash between the principles of representative government and the principles of Islam?
Increasingly, Muslims themselves are saying no. A small but influential group of Islamic intellectuals is saying that Muslims should see democracy as compatible with Islam. Islamic political parties and movements across North Africa and the Middle East are deciding with greater frequency to take part in elections whenever possible.
In the Palestinian Authority balloting, the radical Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, has entered candidates in races for local offices. In Egypt, Islamic political activists are urging President Hosni Mubarak to retire and permit free elections. And in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the revered Shiite cleric, issued an edict saying participation in the balloting today was a "religious duty."
That explains, in part, the recent increase in violence in Iraq. Zarqawi and other foes of democracy cannot rely on public sentiment to keep people away from the polls. Instead they must turn to fear, instilled by suicide bombings and brutal attacks. Hardly a day has gone by without insurgents threatening to "wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters' blood."
The intimidation campaign is relentless.
"Oh people, be careful. Be careful not to be near the centers of blasphemy and vice, the polling centers. … Don't blame us but blame yourselves" if you are harmed, a Web statement issued in the group's name last week said.
Zarqawi's diatribe against democracy echoed the views of Osama bin Laden who, in an audiotape broadcast in December, endorsed Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq and called for a boycott of the Iraqi elections.
"In the balance of Islam, this constitution is heresy, and therefore everyone who participates in this election will be considered infidels," bin Laden said.