VISION & VALUES CONCISE: Q&A with Radwan Masmoudi

Note to readers: With this issue, The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College is launching an e-publication called the “V&V Q&A,” a monthly interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will  prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In the spotlight this month is Radwan Masmoudi of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

Radwan A. Masmoudi is the founder of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. After earning a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Masmoudi gave up promising careers in academia and research to focus on what he believes is the great calling of his life and times: to educate Muslims worldwide about democracy. Masmoudi launched his cause in 1998, well before September 11, 2001. Masmoudi and his work are living proof of Dr. Joseph Kickasola’s thesis that there is a clash of civilizations not merely between the Muslim world and the West but within Islam itself, between Muslims democrats and theocrats. He recently sat for an interview with Grove City College professors Paul Kengor and Michael Coulter. His words are especially fitting this week, as the leader of Iran, a radical Muslim theocrat, addresses the United Nations, and as reaction continues over remarks on Islam by Pope Benedict XVI and recent comments by President George W. Bush on “Islamic fascism.”

Q: Dr. Masmoudi, do Arabs and Muslims want democracy? Arabs and Muslims want democracy…. Over 90% of Muslims and Arabs polled in ten Muslim-majority countries consider democracy to be the best form of government. There were other polls that over 80% of the people in the Arab world do not want sha’ria law to govern in their countries.  They say they want Islamic values to govern but they don’t want strict implementation of sha’ria. So there is a struggle for the soul of Islam … and it did not start yesterday or after 9/11 but has been going on for at least a century [among] those calling for modernizing the Muslim world. People in Egypt in particular have been calling for a reinterpretation of Islam for over one hundred years.

Massmoudi:

Q: In your publication, Muslim Democrat, you talk about elements of Islam that can be interpreted as “liberal.” Can you tell us about some of those? Religious freedom is very important—the idea of no compulsion in religion. To have [compulsion in religion] defeats the purpose of religion, it defeats God’s will…. Islam really emphasizes that people have to decide to believe. There were many examples in Muslim history where people in mosques were debating the existence of God, especially in the first three centuries…. I believe that a religion has to be a matter of free choice. That is the way God intended it.

Massmoudi:

Q: So, you’re saying there is religious liberty in Islam, as well as what is called “consultation.” Can you elaborate? There are two basic political principles that are heavily emphasized in the Koran: justice and shura…. Shura means consultation. The problem is that there are no clear institutions or methods that are identified on how this consultation should take place…. I say that Muslims have failed in interpreting this message and in applying the idea of shura.

Masmoudi:

Q: It is said that democracy can be characterized as government by discussion, and shura would be a form of discussion? Yes, but we need institutions for shurah in Muslim countries.

Masmoudi:

Q: Is there a particular country in the Arab-Muslim Middle East that you are optimistic about, one that could be held up as an example? And is there any reason for optimism about a country like Iran? Well, if you’re talking about the Muslim world in general, I would definitely say Turkey is an example for optimism. Turkey is a very good example today of a Muslim democratic state and society. In fact, I visited Iran and I visited Turkey and the Iranian people are probably the least religious people today. And it is because the Iranian government wants to force religion down their throat. There is a backlash against religion in Iran, because the mullahs are trying to govern in the name of Islam and because they are not very democratic in the way they are doing it. People in Iran are starting to hate the government and some young people hate religion in general. Turkey is almost the exact opposite. You have a state that does not force religion on people, but the people of Turkey are some of the most religious people in the Arab and Muslim world. If you want to convince an Islamic leader of why an Islamic state that forces religion on people is not a good idea, just take them to Iran, let them stay there for a week or two, and then take them to Turkey. I believe they will change their minds.

Masmoudi:

Q: Given the choice, will people choose freedom? Yes, people will choose freedom. And that’s part of religion: to be able to choose freedom. It is in the interest of Islam, in the interest of religion, that people be free.

Masmoudi:

Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about democracy’s prospects in Iraq? I’m optimistic in the long run, but in the short run I am afraid we are going to see some turbulence.

Masmoudi:

Q: Give us a final summation of your thoughts on Islam and democracy in the century ahead. We need to reinterpret Islam, but how can we do that in dictatorships where everything is controlled by the state? Democracy is the key because it will give us the opportunity to talk about all these other problems and to solve these other problems. It will take time. We need the freedom to talk about what Islam means in the twenty-first century.

Masmoudi: