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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Three elections and the Muslim world

By Ahmed Rashid
In Lahore

Men registering for Afghan elections
Afghans are enthusiastic about their election

In his latest column for BBC News Online, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid examines how the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, the United States and Iraq will affect the Muslim world.

Three elections in the next four months, three popular decisions based on the will of the people, three new governments that will all have an enormous impact on the Muslim world and the continuing war against Islamic extremism.

On 9 October, for the first time ever, men and women over the age of 18 in Afghanistan will have the chance to choose a new president.

The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is expected to win, but he faces 17 other candidates ensuring that this will be a tough and rigorous exercise in democracy.

On 2 November, the American people go to the polls to choose between incumbent President George Bush and Democratic contender John Kerry.

It could turn out to be one of the most polarised and closest fought elections in living memory.

The [Afghan] election will send a strong signal to Islamic extremism everywhere that democracy is meaningful to Muslims

In January the Iraqi people are scheduled to go to the polls to elect a new legitimate government, which could pave the way for full sovereignty for Iraq and a gradual withdrawal of US and coalition forces.

However the upsurge in violence in Iraq still makes those elections doubtful.

Watershed

In a neighbourhood where military dictators, autocrats and ruling mullahs are the norm, the elections in Afghanistan will be a watershed and both a signal of hope for its neighbours as well as a potential threat.

Most of Central Asia's ruling autocrats, who have never held a free election since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, are viewing with extreme suspicion the fact that the weak neighbour Afghanistan - only just emerging from 25 years of conflict - may soon have a genuinely elected president.

John Kerry delivers an electoral speech at New York University
Whether Kerry will push for reform in the Muslim world has to be seen

However for the people of Central Asia the Afghan elections offer enormous hope.

The Afghan election will also be a source of embarrassment for Pakistan's military. It has set up a manipulated parliament and has an unelected president - General Pervez Musharraf. Genuine democracy is still far off in Pakistan.

The Afghan election, even if 60% successful, will be a major blow to al-Qaeda and the Taleban who have pledged to disrupt it.

It will signal that the birth place of al-Qaeda, who just three years ago were virtually in charge of running Afghanistan, can no longer count on popular support.

The mass enthusiasm among the Afghan people for these elections point to the fact that they expect change and economic development to pick up after the elections.

Moreover, Mr Karzai has pledged that if he wins, he will not form a coalition government with the country's warlords.

He has already moved to sideline two of the most powerful warlords, Defence Minister General Mohammed Fahim and the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan.

General Fahim was dropped by Mr Karzai as his running mate, and Mr Khan was taken out of his 'fiefdom' in Herat.

The Afghan election will send a strong signal to Islamic extremism everywhere that democracy is meaningful to Muslims and that the opportunity to choose your own government is not merely a Western but a universal concept.

Little pressure

The American elections will have a profound effect on a deeply divided Muslim world.

Basra
Violence has cast doubt over the Iraq elections

Most autocrat rulers in the Arab and wider Muslim world would like to see President Bush be given a second term.

Despite his rhetoric of pushing reform and democracy, he has applied little pressure to reform on those leaders who have allied themselves with the US-led war on terrorism.

The attitude of Muslim people is quite different.

American and other media polls show an overwhelming Muslim public dislike, if not hatred, for the Bush administration and most would like to see it defeated.

Whether Mr Kerry will offer a more strategic policy towards nation-building and reform in the Muslim world rather than just a war of attrition still has to be seen.

Nevertheless no American election in history has been awaited more eagerly in the Muslim world than this one.

And no American election or the candidates' positions on foreign policy, Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on extremism have been more avidly discussed by satellite TV stations, the print media and in tea shops around the Muslim world.

There is widespread agreement that Mr Bush's policy of pre-emption is anti-Muslim, that he has failed to carry out promises of nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq and that with his focus on the military dimension alone, he is losing the war on Islamic extremism.

Unpredictable Iraq

The elections in Iraq are still unpredictable given the mayhem and chaos in that country, but elections there would emit a very positive signal to the Arab world and a clear threat to both Arab autocrats and al-Qaeda.

Blown out windows of Australian embassy in Jakarta
Extremist violence in Indonesia - elections undermine militant groups

It would also allow an early withdrawal of US forces and greater authority for nation building to be handed over to the United Nations.

Al-Qaeda has established a major base in Iraq which is fuelling Islamic extremism in the entire Arab world.

Elections in Iraq would not end al-Qaeda's activities.

But they would give the mainstream Iraqi resistance opposed to the US occupation - nationalists, communists and Baathists - pause to rethink their agendas and perhaps accept the people's wishes.

In such a scenario al-Qaeda's forces could slowly be isolated.

There are no easy choices for the voters and none of these elections will be smooth sailing.

Even the US elections could be so close as to warrant the same kind of political crisis that erupted four years ago when Mr Bush won by default.

Nevertheless what is important for the Muslim world is the image of two countries earlier at war and now going through a democratic process.

Despite all the problems they may face, this period of intense electoral activity and its results could prove to be a highly positive example for the entire Muslim world.

To read Ahmad Rashid's future columns, bookmark bbcnews.com/southasia

Here are a selection of comments you sent in response to this column:

Afghanistan is located in the heart of Asia and is bordering several Muslim countries. if stability and security doesn't exist in Afghanistan so that would really effect the entire asian particularly neighbouring countries. the upcoming presidentail election will allow the afghan people to vote according to their own wishes and let the people to elect legitimate president and government, however, the people might face threats of the insurgents who declared to disrupt the election. Meanwhile, the people at large support the presidential election to take place peacefully but some of the neighbouring countries may not support that.
Ahmed Ali , Afghanistan

There are two main problems here; the pitfalls of democracy and the pitfalls of US support for democracy. US support for democracy has one pitfall: You have to democratically do what the US wants. The pitfalls of democracy should be well known to all of us, yet are ignored in all the media, and they are twofold: Not everything that is popular is right; and not everything that is right is popular.
Kelvin Walker, UK

The three elections eluded to in the article will make no difference to the Islamic or anyother world for that matter. The elections in all the countries will not be free and fair, if George Bush can cheat and win one election in the US nothing stops him from doing the same again, as for Afghanistan and Iraq, Karzi and Allawi will win, the other contestants dont stand a chance without US backing.
Ismail Khan, Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic

The Afghan election is a sham. Alongside this story we have a story where 300 tribe leaders asked their tribe to vote for Karzai or face the burning down of their homes. Is this democracy? Whoever wins the elections, the local chieftains with guns will make the rules. There cannot be true democracy in a place like Afganistan until everyone's arms are taken away and that will not be allowed to happen.
Gopal Srinath, USA

Though the article written by Mr Ahmed Rashid rationally seems to be logical in the eyes of most pro-western democracy enthusiasts, every sensible person who understands the concept, principles & believes of Muslims & the Islamic religion knows that imposed & imported form of ruler or rule other the Islamic Sharia will never ever prevail in the Muslim world by force, bait etc. If I were asked to advise the world leaders about how to find solution to the quandary, I would only emphasise to them "Islam is beyond the rule & manipulation of man, it is the chosen path for believers by Allah, it is peaceful if applied accordingly to every aspect of human life for believers & non-believers".
ahmed.farah, Sheffield, UK.

What a wonderful breath of fresh air to hear informed commentary from someone with direct knowledge, rather than the usual personal opinions and propaganda from middle class, liberal, white folk stood on the street outside 10 Downing street (why?) thousands of miles from the action.
John, England

i think it is highly biased and uncalled for comments about the democratically elected parliament and the senate in Pakistan. Even the President is in place according to the constitution of Pakistan. No one can call a particular democracy suitable and applicable to all the countries. Every country has its peculiar environment and requirement. I therefore take strong exception to these views expressed by the writer who obviously belongs to the opposition parties and have these views about the present government.
Samuel Smith Bukharee, USA

Everyone in islamic world including literates and educated are scared to raise their voice against clergy. As per clergy Democracy is NOT compatible with Islam and Muslim world should reject it outright. Unless educated silent majority comes out openly and takes clergy head on then only there is some chance of improvement in islamic world.
vijay v. vesvikar, india

Democracy may be good. However when it is thrust down the throat by the USA it has little or no meanings. Democracy should be a evolutionary process and people should protect it. And it is always guaranteed that it will be good. Hitler came to power through democracy. And why America is not happy with Iranian democracy. One question every Muslim has in his/her subconscious: If democracy is so good then why not start it with Saudi Arabia? When it is done in Saudi Arabia then it will be taken as something religious.
Nanga Pir, Pakistan

I disagree with Ahmed Rashid's assertion that elections in neighboring Afghanistan would be a source of embarrassment for Pakistan. We have to remember that these elections are being held under the watchful eyes of the Americans, so the situation is different from Pakistan where Army always supervises the elections (and hence has a big influence on the outcome of elections). if elections in Afghanistan were held today without American help, i have no doubt results would be rigged. The Warlords would dictate who wins. second, whoever wins the US presidential election, i doubt it would make much of a difference. American administrations, Democrat or Republican, follow the policies that are suitable to America.
Shahid, Pakistan

Pakistan and the Muslim world don't need so-called western democracy. What we require is a government structured on Islamic laws, which are based on Muslims culture, traditions and customs.

A democratic government which is being established in Afghanistan, at the heart of Asia, can shake the nations of all the region who are still suffering dictatorship or extremism.
Zohra, Afghanistan

Once again, Mr. Ahmed Rasheed has shown his utter ignorance about Pakistan's politics. Everyone knows that President Musharraf enjoys great support with in Pakistan. All polls conducted by private organisations show that vast majority of Pakistanis support him. Mr. Rasheed, wake up and start talking to Pakistanis on the streets. Only than you would know how popular Musharraf is among Pakistanis.
Murad Ansari, Pakistan

Given that both Iraq and Afghanistan are under military control and the lists of candidates will be "vetted" these elections will solve very little. Everyone knows the US will ensure Karzai wins in Afghanistan and Allawi in Iraq. Both of these countries have had various "elections" before . It changed nothing.
Simon O'Brien, UK

Democracy is not product of the west. Its roots are from Islam. Muslims are not against elections. Many were forced to accept tyrannies. Even after elections, there will NOT be a real democracy n Afghanistan, nor in Iraq. We all know that Karzai, Allawai and Musharraf are American puppets. If one is backed by US, then there is not a fair election. These leaders will not lead any democracy, they will follow orders. After all, if votes are not counted here and the election is won by court order, what kind of democracy is that ? Mike, California, USA,
Mike Harris, USA

Excellent article that helped me to better understand what is going on from a Southeast and Middle East view. However, the author has not taken into account the strength of support for President Bush and the lack of support for Kerry because of his Vietnam baggage and Senate voting record.
Ed Welch, USA

I enjoyed this article and felt it anticipated much of the possible reaction from the Muslim world to the different upcoming elections. However, the article seemed to omit or disregard a relatively important matter. The idea of a "nation state" is actually completely alien to Islam. So even if Muslims appreciate these democratic reforms etc, this means that they are altering their understanding of Islam to fit the westernization of their ideology.
Ismail Elmokadem, Canada

Ahmed Rashid writes a great article on the possibilities of what free elections could mean to people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine if Iraqis and Afghanis of both sexes could sit down without fear and make real decisions for their country and for the future of their families. It would show that extremism has no place in any free society. al-Qaeda and its allies are terribly afraid of this and what it means to their way of thinking. The west has never been the enemy of Muslims, economic opportunistic absolutely.
John, USA

I could not agree more. 3 Lawfully administered elections could be the answer to countering one of the many ways to deal with religious extremism and violence. This would ultimately be the best thing that would force hardline fundamentalists to loose a lot of their own steam and perhaps pave the way for their non-existence.
Fazle Chowdhury, Washington D.C., USA

As far as nation building goes. If the Europeans had seriously helped with their significant wealth if only in Afghanistan, it would have made a huge difference in the war on terror. Too bad they have chosen to cower at home and endure train bombs like the French and Spanish.
Miguel, Houston, TX

The coming months are very crucial for the international community. The stakes are high for G W BUSH. In his own country ,he has to fight in order to be elected in spite of the growing threat of terror in the world. If elected it will be the culmination of a president who has been working tirelessly to eradicate the terrorism all over the world after September the 11th attacks. The outcome of this election is the most awaited one in the American history. Europe is following cautiously the results of this election .Europe doesn't want Bush to win this election because it will be shameful slap in Europe's face, it will mean also that America is right and Europe is wrong.
bouyagui sidibe, Mauritania -Nouakchott

I don't know if Mr. Rashid has any access to the Pakistani people or not because if he did, he would know that majority of the Pakistani people love President Musharraf. He claims there is no democracy. I'm sorry sir but last time I checked, democracy was when people have the authority in making the decisions for their country and Pakistani people have that. He talks about Afghan and Iraqi elections and calls it threat to Arabs and Pakistan (Implying that Afghan and Iraq would be a democracy).
Moh, CA

If Talebans are allowed to run, they will sweep the elections in Afghanistan.
Mike, USA

I think that this column doesn't state the truth regarding Bush and the preference given to him by the Middle East's autocrats. I think that Bush is a nightmare to dictators in the Middle East and that they're all hoping to see a weaker Kerry emerge as the future American president. This in particular applies to Iran, which is clearly the next in the line of states needing a regime change. I think that Bush's policy is a big danger for the dictatorship of the Middle East, including those that can be broadly put among America's allies. If he achieves his goal and manages to change the regime in Iran, than democracy in the Middle East will gain the upper hand, putting a great strain on countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt.
Andrea Baucero, Milano, Italy

Muslim Americans at the front lines of this global electoral drama are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to vote. Hoping to influence the role of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, voter registration and political engagement are at an all time high. Whoever said Islam and democracy are incompatible are sadly mistaken.
Ahsen Khan, Washington, DC USA

A major part of Muslim world already knows that elections in Afghanistan & Iraq are efforts of the Americans and British to put their own marionettes over these countries and has very little to do with the genuine democracy. As for as Al-Qaeda is concerned, the extremist shall easily be available among Muslim youths as long as the Europeans keep occupying Muslim countries and bombing innocent people. As for as American elations, whether Bush or Kerry, they shall follow their own national interests. It shall never any change among Muslim countries unless we ourselves bring changes according to our values.
Ibrahim Raja, Sweden

Elections in Afghanistan would ensure that an elected government rules Kabul. We have learned from our own experience in Pakistan that elections alone don't bring democracy. Iraqis will also get a sort of democracy as long as they don't go against American wishes. Both countries are ultimately subservient to the US. There is no such thing as "Muslim world". That is the same shallow portrayal of complex identities and conflicts that the media is happy with since it makes it easier for the readers.
Aamir Ali, Pakistan

The people of the "Muslim World" are not opposed to elections in any of it constituent 55+ countries. The big question is "is the Muslim world blindly following the West? We know well that the religious people in the West have lost their war on the first line of defence and already accepted separation of Church and State, in its complete detail. On many of the issues democracy and secularism have failed us. There is no absolute check on the power of democracy itself and all internal checks are changeable. The Muslims are the last hope of mankind and should resist the onslaught of gradual annihilation of "values" and should not lend unqualified support to democracy.
Sifwat Ali, USA

Democracy in Pakistan? Democracy will never ever come to Pakistan. Never ever. This is no joke. It is wrong to say that the Military will prevent Democracy from taking on the reigns in Pakistan. We do not possess that mentality of Democracy at all. We do not know how to govern a country under a Democratic setup. We are not fit for it. I feel so sad about this. We are proud of having nuclear weapons, long range missiles but all these are overshadowed by our lack of democratic spirit.
Mohammed Anees, Singapore

I was a young man when Pakistan was first created and looking back it appears that it was not thought through. Whereas, we in India having got rid of the mind set arising out of the layer of British colonialism, moved on, it looks very much like Pakistan has a second layer of Arab colonialism disguised as religion. They will have to find their own solution and move away from under that burden.
Peter Dsouza, USA

The really educated and intellectual Muslims of Pakistan all over the world are in the unique position to give a lead to the Islamic world that in the 21st century world, a group of humans, ( whatever their number), cannot exist as a political nation purely and exclusively on the basis of religion, colour, race, religious fanaticism,(be it Islam, Hindu, Christian, Jewish or whatever). To my mind religion is a private and personal human experience which extends our spiritual dimension and enriches it by giving us the taste of the joy of divinity, effulgent and self-abnegative. Individually, we can, all of us, experience this spiritual joy.
Ashok Chatterjee, United Kingdom

I respect Rashid's opinions and his right to express them, a right which the opposition, to a large extent, did not have under the barbaric regimes of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Unfortunately, Rashid has once again failed to present a fair assessment of Pakistani politics; instead, he has chosen to indulge in sensationalizing the news by writing a rather pessimistic dossier of exaggerated fabrications. Our national political parties don't even have a concrete agenda or platform, except of course to get rid of Musharraf who has been making substantial progress in all these areas. The real reason that politicians have been unable to govern is because they are busy minting black money and flirting around; opposition itself chooses to boycott Parliament and is never present to engage in any debate over national policies. What is the point of voting for them, if they won't even attend assembly sessions to present our voices?
Farrukh Shafiq, Pakistan

Musharraf has been proving continuously that he is competent and capable of handling all political domestic problems as well as external issues which no other politician could do. I respect him and accept him as a leader of Pakistan. No politician has left any single option to bring true democracy in the country. We hope that army can manage to bring a system towards real democracy.
M.A.Khan, USA

I agree with Ahmed Rashid on his points of a needed liberal democracy, but it cannot be effective since a middleclass hardly exists. Religion, neighbouring enemies, and corrupt politicians are usually interpreted as the root of the problem, but when clergymen are allowed to mobilize masses for irrational causes, when a nation that is nearly 7 times as large in population as Pakistan is seen as a threat, and when politicians literally get away with theft, corruption, and murder, would displacing blame do the trick? No. Being a Pakistani, I believe that a third world nation such as Pakistan would only be able to catch up to the rest of the world with a social, political, and economic reform on a basic philosophic level. This task is not something that can be done overnight, but over time. These fundamentals should come from within each Pakistani, by recognizing that being a citizen of your country requires adherence to noble and lofty thought. Only we as Pakistani's can determine our destiny as a people.
Adnan Haque, Toronto, Canada




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