Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2003 / 20 Tishrei, 5764

Jim Hoagland

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A King's Appeal | Western democracies won the Cold War by shaking open closed societies and exposing their failures and crimes to citizens who then refused to go on living that way. The great political challenge of today is to induce similar change in Arab nations and other Islamic countries that do not respect the rights and dignity of their own citizens.

Think of it as collateral repair: The coming wave of epochal change must also be driven by internal forces, with restrained but committed support from abroad. The ultimate goal is reform within Islam conceived and carried out by Muslim leaders, scholars and civic groups, substantively welcomed by the West.

And that reform must begin with the role and rights of women in the Islamic world. A question posed last week in as important a speech as I have read recently makes that unblinkingly clear:

"How can society achieve progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice, violence and marginalization, notwithstanding the dignity and justice granted them by our glorious religion?"

The irrefutable logic about the high cost of institutionalized gender discrimination was voiced by Morocco's King Mohammed VI last Friday at the opening of Parliament in Rabat. He then outlined far-reaching changes in family and divorce laws for the kingdom that would effectively lessen the intrusive reach of religious authorities into gender issues.

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I am aware that speeches are given in the Arab world, as well as in Washington, to postpone or avoid the actions they describe. And in fairness to the globe's 1.2 billion Muslims, it has to be noted that all religions have been used at some point as a tool of control by unscrupulous political and religious leaders, and misogynists of all stripes -- as Islam is used today far too often.

But Mohammed VI outlined highly specific remedies and committed both his religious and political authority to getting them enacted. And he repeatedly invoked the language of the Koran to denounce the unfairness of polygamy, marriage contracts, guardianships and divorce laws as they are practiced in his country and by implication elsewhere in the Muslim world.

As befits a 40-year-old monarch whose followers call him "the Commander of the Faithful" and who claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, the king argued that solutions can and should be found in Islam. But his words also implicitly acknowledged that Islam has been deformed into an instrument of repression in much of the Arab world and elsewhere.

Consider this: Two-thirds of all illiterate Arab adults are women, who are kept out of schools by custom, lack of resources and, in many places, by determined opposition from religious authorities. The Moroccan king took aim at a sickness that deprives many Islamic societies of the talents and productive labor of half their populations.

Morocco perches on the North African Atlantic shoulder of the Arab world. The immediate, direct consequences of Mohammed VI's words in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere may be slight. (They went largely unreported in the United States as well.) But the king's embrace of this cause represents both catalyst and reflection of broader change that is rapidly bearing down on the region.

It is part generational change as aging autocrats give way to younger leaders. Change is also being stirred by the deposing of a uniquely evil regime in Iraq, a thunderclap that is reverberating throughout the region, and by the pressures of the shadow war being fought between global terrorists and the U.S.-led coalition.

Mohammed VI's speech makes clear that he was not intimidated by the bombings in his country last May carried out by Islamic fundamentalists tied to al Qaeda. Nor does he seem cowed by the reactionary religious establishments that have contributed so much to the backwardness and turmoil now evident in Islamic nations.

An effective reform movement is straining to be born. In the same week the Moroccan king spoke, the Nobel Committee awarded the 2003 peace prize to Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who leads the fight in her country for women's rights and democracy -- two causes that cannot be separated in the Islamic world. This is a good example of collateral repair: restrained but focused Western encouragement of reform.

Mohammed VI provides a standard to which Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis and others can and should be held. They are not being asked to live up to Western standards by improving the opportunities and lives of "their" women. This is a descendant of the prophet, not Gloria Steinem, who is telling them that they must change or fall ever deeper into self-destructive decline.

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