Can Islam and democracy cohere, either in principle or in practice? This crucial question—debated in scores of Arabic books, articles, and fatwas since the temporary success of Islamists in the Algerian elections of 1990—is no longer merely of abstract or regional interest. With the United States poised to invade Iraq, with an announced commitment to establishing democratic government there, it has become central to American foreign policy. With fair elections in Iraq, some Islamists are bound to win office. And a representative Iraqi constitutional convention must necessarily incorporate the voices of Islamic democrats, committed to the idea that a democratic Iraq should be in some sense an Islamic state. Indeed, in postwar Afghanistan the emerging consensus seems to be that Afghanistan ought to be free, democratic and Islamic. So if “Islamic democracy” is a contradiction in terms, we are in for some very rough times.

It is against this backdrop that one must evaluate the arguments of Khaled Abou El Fadl, a scholar-turned-theologian who has the distinction of being trained both traditionally and academically in Islamic law. Abou El Fadl’s hopeful view on the compatibility of democratic values and practices with Islam shares a family resemblance with the writings of such Islamic democrats as Rachid Ghannouchi, a Tunisian Islamist intellectual living in exile in Paris; Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian who shuttles between Tehran, Cambridge, and Princeton; the Egyptian journalist Fahmi Huwaidi; and the Qatar-based internet and al-Jazeera phenomenon Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Though these thinkers disagree on a wide range of issues, they all share a view of Islam that emphasizes justice, human dignity and equality, the rule of law, the role of the people in selecting leaders, the obligation of consultative government, and the value of pluralism. All share a commitment to Islam as the starting place and ultimate ground for evaluating democracy, and all insist that Islam is not self-interpreting: ascertaining the will of God and coordinating quotidian social organization both require human effort.

Although Islamic democrats differ in their precise understandings of democracy, they agree that democracy requires much more than elections, that it must also incorporate the basic rights necessary to make it both liberal and egalitarian: free speech, free association, freedom of conscience, and equality across race, religion, and sex. Moreover, Islamic democrats find roots for values of liberty and equality in Islam—in Qur’anic verses, prophetic Hadith that recount the actions of the Prophet, and Islamic legal tradition. None of these Islamic democrats is prepared for the Islamic state to flout entirely the authority of those Qur’anic verses that seem to have a relatively clear meaning in governing the Muslim community. Thus, for example, Abou El Fadl seems prepared to consider an allegorical reading of the verse requiring the amputation of the thief’s hand, and others have suggested that such punishments properly apply only in a Utopian world of perfect distributive equality. But all Islamic democrats face the challenge of grappling with those elements of their tradition that seem potentially to conflict with liberal-democratic commitment.

Efforts like Abou El Fadl’s to synthesize Islam with democracy recall the medieval Islamic philosophers who sought to integrate Aristotle and Plato with an authentically Islamic world view. Al-Farabi, Averroes, and Avicenna produced a rich philosophical literature, but their intellectual influence was greater in the Western and to a lesser extent Persian-speaking worlds than among the Arabs. The comparison leads to the great question about Islamic democracy: will it work? The question has a theoretical and a practical dimension, each of which deserves a serious answer.

The theoretical undertaking of synthesizing Islam and democracy is promising, but it requires a flexible view of each. It requires acknowledging that democracy, far from being committed to the view that ultimate sovereignty lies with the majority, may in fact depend on non-majoritarian claims about human liberty and equality. Synthesis also demands an honest recognition that Islam has always developed in complex interaction with ideas that come from outside, and that the core of divinely revealed Islamic law is relatively small, leaving tremendous range for reflective political and legal decision-making by the demos. Islamic democracy will not emerge spontaneously or as a historical inevitability. But it can emerge as a product of self-conscious efforts by Muslims and others to produce a synthesis that is true to both of its elements.

The practical question of whether Islamic democracy can be made to flourish in the contemporary Muslim world is much dicier. American and Western foreign policy has traditionally supported autocratic regimes in much of the Muslim world, and finding the energy to overcome the inertia of this policy is not easy. The greatest barriers to Islamic democracy right now are the autocrats themselves. Dictators and monarchs have repressed secular and liberal opposition, leaving just enough room for extremist Islamism to be able to tell the West that the only choice is between the autocrats or the radicals. That repression in turn has given the extremists, many of whom are not aspiring democrats, tremendous popular credibility as opponents of unjust regimes.

Still, there is hope for Islamic democracy. Everywhere that Islamic democrats have been permitted to run for office, they have done extremely well. In just the past six months, Turkey’s moderate Islamic democrats in the Justice and Development Party have formed a government; and the Moroccan party of the same name finished third in Moroccan elections despite being permitted to contest just half the available seats. In Pakistan, Islamic parties who at least profess some commitment to the democratic process did very well in the flawed recent elections. Islamic democrats will seek office in a democratic Iraq, and if Afghanistan can become a state at all, that state will surely be an Islamic democracy. These experiments carry serious risks: real world politicians may not share the attractive values and profound sincerity of a Khaled Abou El Fadl. But the experiment of Islamic democracy deserves to be run, and the theorists have a role to play in making that happen.

It will be an extraordinary irony if the invasion of Iraq produces an opening for the development of Islamic democracy; but perhaps only war can dislodge the autocrats who stand in the way. In any case, Muslims and non-Muslims alike should welcome the intellectual efforts, and yes, dreams, of Islamic democrats. Born of the enduring appeal of transcendent Islam and the successes of global democracy, their aspirations represent the way of the future. They may not satisfy all Muslims or all democrats. But Islamic democrats are the best hope for the future of the Muslim world—and they deserve our admiration and our support.