Arab world could learn from India


BANGALORE, India -- The more time you spend in India, the more you realize that this teeming, multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual country is one of the world's great wonders -- a miracle with message. And the message is that democracy matters.

This truth hits you from every corner.

Consider Bangalore, where the traffic is now congested by all the young Indian techies, many from the lower-middle classes, who have gotten jobs, apartments -- and motor scooters -- by providing the brainpower for the world's biggest corporations.

What made Bangalore what it is today is something very simple: 50 years of Indian democracy and secular education, and 15 years of economic liberalization.

Just across the border in Pakistan -- where the people have the same basic blood, brains and civilizational heritage -- 50 years of failed democracy, military coups and imposed religiosity have produced 30,000 madrassahs -- Islamic schools that have replaced a collapsed public school system and churn out Pakistani youth who know only the Quran and hostility toward non-Muslims.

No, India is not paradise. Just last February the Hindu nationalist BJP government in the state of Gujarat stirred up a pogrom by Hindus that left 600 Muslims -- and dozens of Hindus -- dead. It was a shameful incident, and in a country with 150 million Muslims it was explosive. And do you know what happened?

Nothing happened.

The rioting didn't spread anywhere. One reason is the long history of Indian Muslims and Hindus living together in villages and towns, sharing communal institutions and mixing their cultures and faiths. But the larger reason is democracy.

The free Indian press quickly exposed how the local Hindu government had encouraged the riots for electoral purposes, and the national BJP had to distance itself from Gujarat because it rules with a coalition, many of whose members rely on Muslim votes to get re-elected. Democracy forces anyone who wants to succeed nationally to appeal across ethnic lines.

"Even when Gujarat was burning, practically the whole of India was at peace," said Syed Shahabuddin, editor of Muslim India, a monthly magazine, and a former Indian diplomat. "India is a secular democracy, at least in principle, and it does maintain a certain level of aspiration and hope for Muslims."

It is precisely because of the "constitutional framework here," added Mr. Shahabuddin, that Indian Muslims don't have to resort to terrorism as a minority: "You can always ask for economic and political justice here."

It is for all these reasons that the United States is so wrong not to press for democratization in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Is it an accident that India has the largest Muslim minority in the world, with plenty of economic grievances, yet not a single Indian Muslim was found in al-Qaida? Is it an accident that the two times India and Pakistan fought full-scale wars, 1965 and 1971, were when Pakistan had military rulers? Is it an accident that when Pakistan has had free elections, the Islamists have never won more than 6 percent of the vote?

Is it an accident that the richest man in India is a Muslim software entrepreneur, while his Pakistan counterpart, I will guess, is from one of the 50 feudal families who have dominated the country since its independence?

Is it an accident that the only place in the Muslim world where women felt empowered enough to demand equal prayer rights in a mosque was in the Indian city of Hyderabad? No, all of these were products of democracy. If Islam is ever to undergo a reformation, it's only going to happen in a Muslim democracy.

People say Islam is an angry religion. I disagree. It's just that a lot of Muslims are angry, because they live under repressive regimes, with no rule of law, where women are not empowered and youth have no voice in their future. What is a religion but a mirror on your life?

Message from India to the world: Context matters -- change the political context within which Muslims live their lives and you will change a lot.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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