Is Islam culturally and religiously in compatible with democracy? Elections in Afghanistan and Iraq surely ought to put an end to that debate -- as least as far as the desire of ordinary Muslims are concerned to vote and be heard. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved and inspired by the sight of Iraqis flocking to the polls on Sunday, defying suicide bombers and threats to their lives as well as those of their children. Even the hardened skeptics in the American media found themselves carried away by the courage of the Iraqi people.
Big losers in Sunday's election for an interim Iraqi government were the terrorists, particularly murderous thugs like Osama bin Laden and his "mini-me," Abu Musab Zarqawi. Beyond that, the losers are the critics and the nay-sayers in our part of the world who did not believe elections could take place, or thought they should have been postponed into the indefinite future. And those who advocate immediate American disengagement. The big winners were the Iraqi people and the Bush administration, which has staked huge political capital on a successful election.
Once people lose their fear, anything can happen. Eyewitnesses in Iraq have compared the mood in many cities to the mood in Eastern Europe when communism collapsed. In the end, over 60 percent of Iraqis voted, which is about equal to the last American election. In the recent Palestinian election, which was hailed as a triumph the world over, 55 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.
Fear of violence dominated the first hours of polling in Iraq, but then people started pouring out. When a young suicide bomber blew himself and seven other people to pieces outside a polling station at girls' school in Baghdad, voters were not deterred. Walking around the remains of the bombing, they just kept coming.
One reluctant voter in Baghdad, auto mechanic Wamidh al-Zubaidy, told The Washington Times, that he decided to vote in spite of threats from masked men to burn down his house. "Then I remembered my brother who Saddam executed," he said. "I felt a power inside myself, and there was a voice telling me, 'this should not happen to my son or to any Iraqi.' . . .I voted with my wife, and we put it in God's hands."
Now, this is not even the beginning of the end for the United States engagement in Iraq, but perhaps it is the end of the beginning, to borrow Winston Churchill's phrase. Voting in the Sunni triangle in the center of the country was sparse. To the Sunnis, the dominant tribe under Saddam Hussein, Sunday must have been more like a day of mourning, as Shiite and Kurdish communities celebrated freedom from oppression.
The great question is now whether Iraq's emerging politicians can become democrats and work together probably in a coalition to create Iraq's first post-Ba'athist constitution. Secular Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the United Iraqi Alliance, which represents Shiite parties, will have to work together. They will also have to find ways of including the Sunnis. This is going to be difficult and complicated business.
And beyond that, there is always the threat of the fanatics and the remnants of Saddam's forces that will be waging war from the sidelines. They remain deadly, though recent reports have downplayed their level of organization.
The question whether Islam and democracy is compatible already has an affirmative answer in countries like Turkey and Indonesia. Whether it is compatible with Islam as practiced in the Arab world has been a matter of intense debate over the past three years, since September 11. Since then, we have been exposed to the ugly, fanatic face of radical Islam, through the indiscriminate killing of Westerners, assorted "infidels" and fellow Muslims.
Before Sunday's election bizarre anti-democratic proclamations were issued by terrorist cleric Abu Musab Zarqawi, who sole claim to fame has been to mastermind appalling acts of terrorism and cruelty against Iraqi civilians and children, allied forces in Iraq and westerners kidnapped by his followers. His threats were somewhat reminiscent of Osama bin Laden's attempts at influencing the American election through long-distance threats.
Zarqawi railed against candidates and voters alike, denouncing democracy as an "evil principle" because it is base on "freedom of religion," "freedom of speech," and "separation of religion and politics."
Clearly Zarqawi and Muslim clerics of a like mind understand that democracy loosens the grip of religious leaders on their followers and empowers individuals to practice their politics and their religion as they see fit. No wonder they are afraid of its power.
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: email@example.com .
First appeared in The Washington Times