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."
Is Democracy Un-Islamic?
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.
Bin Laden lashed out at fellow Muslims who support the electoral process, admonishing listeners to "beware of henchmen [such as Sistani and other clerics] who speak in the name of Islamic parties and of groups who urge people to participate in this blatant apostasy."
For bin Laden, Zarqawi and other militants in Iraq, the goal is not just to drive Americans out of the war-torn country, but also to impose their own reactionary theocratic model on Iraq. In their eyes, democracy is the antithesis of puritan Islam.
Although foreign militants such as Zarqawi number fewer than 1,000, according to Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, they appear to have made informal but effective alliances with homegrown radical Sunni rebels with whom they share an intrinsic loathing of democracy.
In December, three militant Iraqi groups, including the guerrilla group Ansar al-Sunna, issued a statement warning that people taking part in the "dirty farce" risked attack.
"Democracy is a Greek word meaning the rule of the people, which means that the people do what they see fit," the statement said. "This concept is considered apostasy and defies the belief in one God -- Muslims' doctrine."
Ansar al-Sunna had earlier posted a manifesto on its Web site saying that democracy amounted to making idols of human beings.
Insurgents Gaining Momentum
The bad news is that these insurgents are gaining momentum, and anti-democratic forces could make further inroads into the Sunni Arab community, especially if Iraqi Sunnis feel excluded and disenfranchised after the vote.
A senior moderate Sunni official who is running for office was asked what would happen if the Shiites won a landslide victory.
"We will all join the armed resistance," he retorted.
The longer turmoil continues, the more likely it is that Iraq could replace Afghanistan as the main recruiting ground for militant jihadi causes and become a magnet for international terrorism.
The good news is that the anti-democratic rhetoric by Zarqawi and bin Laden crystallizes the political choices facing Muslims worldwide. The jihadis' antidemocratic stance is unpalatable to the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Mainstream clerics and Islamists have condemned the kidnapping and beheading of civilians and other abuses.
After the U.S.-led assault on the insurgent stronghold in Fallujah in November, Zarqawi lashed out at senior Muslim scholars and clerics for their silence and tepid backing.
"You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy," he reportedly said on an audiotape.
Although leading Sunni Iraqi clerics and scholars have supported resistance against the U.S. occupiers and an election boycott, they insist that they do not oppose democracy and say that they intend to get involved in politics after the vote.
In defiance of the jihadis' threats, the Muslim Scholars Association (which has links to insurgents, says it represents 3,000 mosques and is the most influential Sunni group to back an election boycott) called on Sunni Arabs to help write a constitution and join the political process. If the jihadis' antidemocratic message does not resonate with conservative Muslim scholars, it won't fly with most Iraqis.
Outside Iraq, the attitudes of mainstream Islamists -- such as the powerful Muslim Brotherhood -- toward political participation and representation have come a long way in the last three decades. For reasons of strategy as well as belief, some Muslim intellectuals are rethinking the relationship between Islam and democracy and are Islamizing, not rejecting, democracy and modernity.
Terminology matters. You cannot sell Western liberal democracy to Muslims worldwide because Muslims associate it with Western colonialism and power. But some Muslims are trying to give democracy an Islamic dress while embracing essentials such as elections, human rights and the rule of law.
Sheik Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Renaissance Islamic party, has written that democracy can shield the Islamic community from autocrats, rather than serve as a sword for fighting secularists. Though a vehement critic of Israel (he once said that Israeli civilians were legitimate targets), he has become a voice of moderation in Islamic politics. He argues that rule of law, elections and citizens' ultimate control over the executive are consistent with the Islamic concepts of shura (consultation), ba'ya (oath of allegiance) and ijma (consensus). And if elected Islamic regimes fail to live up to their promises, Ghannouchi insists that citizens have the right to oust their leaders. While he says that Islamic and secular democracies cannot be the same, he rejects the notion that "Islamic democracy" must mean perpetual rule by the Islamists.
Western Allies In the Way?
The Islamic democratic movement is a work in progress. Unfortunately, pro-Western Arab and Muslim dictators, not Islamic activists, keep the gates of power locked and block any real democratic opening. In most of the Middle East, they are the jihadis' unintentional allies in the fight against the empowerment of ordinary men and women.
Zarqawi, bin Laden and other jihadis miscalculate monstrously if they think their anti-democratic diatribes will resonate with ordinary Muslims or gain them followers. Indigenous calls for democratic reforms are being heard in almost every corner of the Muslim world, including Iran, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Pakistan. Muslim human rights groups and civil society leaders are challenging the autocratic status quo and risking arrest and persecution. The democratic genie is already out of the bottle.
Young Muslims, in particular, long to be in charge of their lives, and they are a huge constituency. They are fed up with autocrats and false prophets alike. Young Muslims do not want their human rights violated or to live in perpetual fear because of their dissenting views. They want their dignity back and long to be proud of their countries, which are falling further behind the rest of humanity.
By declaring an all-out war against the "evil principle" of democracy, Zarqawi and his followers are thus swimming against the current of Muslim public opinion and the spirit of the times. Few Muslims will buy into their nihilistic and apocalyptic nightmare.
But the Bush administration, by insisting on holding the elections in Iraq today despite widespread violence and misgivings, may not advance the cause of freedom and democracy. Elections are not synonymous with democracy and, unless care is taken, they could play into the hands of antidemocratic forces.
After the election, the Bush administration and the new Iraqi government must do their utmost to reassure Sunni Arabs and bring them into the political process, particularly by involving them in the writing of a permanent constitution. Treating every Sunni as a potential terrorist deepens fear and a sense of repression that makes the community susceptible to extremists.
In his inaugural address, Bush declared it "the policy of the United States" to promote democracy and end tyranny in the Middle East and vowed to "persistently" challenge "every ruler and every nation" about how they treat their own people."
Muslims, not just Americans, will be watching very closely to see how -- or if -- the president translates his rhetoric into reality.
Fawaz Gerges, an ABC News analyst, is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and author of the forthcoming "The Jihadists: Unholy Warriors" (Harcourt).