The congress has been sponsored by a wide range of Western, international and Muslim organisations and governments – stretching from the United Nations to the Turkish Democracy Foundation.

 

According to keynote speaker Turkey’s Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, there was no need to question whether there was any contradiction between Islam and democracy.  

 

"For us," he said, "the issue is strengthening rights and freedoms. Democracy and freedoms must be enshrined in and protected by the rule of law."

 

One of the objectives of the two-day conference is to draw attention to the fact that the fundamentals of democratic governance already exist in most Muslim countries.  

 

Democratic advances

 

Among the topics under discussion are how to learn from recent advances in democratic governance, implementing democratic legal systems, empowering women and the young, and overcoming cultural hurdles in implementing democratic governance.

 

There was also the need to give others the opportunity to look at the true essence of Islam, Cicek said, adding that change had to come from within and could not be forced upon societies by others.  

 

"Democracy is not a ready made garment," he said, "It must be tailored to fit each society."

Islam and democracy can go
together, say speakers

A few delegates rejected the idea that what was at stake was a cultural or religious issue.

 

Dr Yasin Said Numan, a member of the central committee of the Yemeni Socialist Party, said politics and governments were the root causes of the lack of democracy in many Muslim countries.

 

"Some of these regimes do not have the will to change, and so hide behind Islam," he said. "We must look at what are the needs of humanity and what is in the interests of humanity."

 

Much of the blame for the failure for some Muslim countries to adopt a democratic system of governance had to be laid at the doors of the Western powers for encouraging and supporting autocratic regimes, Numan added.  

 

Cultural awareness

 

Former President of Niger and the President of the country’s National Assembly Mahamane Ousmane said while democracy and Islam could be bedfellows, there had to be a cultural awareness to help democracy flourish.  

 

"One of the problems in implementing democracy is not just facilitating respect for the majority, but also respect for the minority," he said.  

 

However, there is also the need to address other problems faced by many Muslim societies – with the foremost of these being poverty, Ousmane said.

 

"Poverty is fertile ground for terrorism and extremism," he said. "The competent authorities must be aware of this fact."

 

"Democracy is not a ready made garment. It must be tailored to fit each society"

Cemil Cicek,
justice minister, Turkey

Acknowledging the difficulties that exist in many Muslim societies, Morocco’s Minister for Agriculture and Development Muhand Laenser said that as long as there was the will to implement democracy, progress could be made.

 

In common with other speakers, the Minister dismissed suggestions Islam was a factor in limiting the implementation of democratic reforms.

 

"Islam is not responsible for any deviations that can take place," he said. "Such actions remain in the sphere of the individual."

 

Closing the first day’s plenary session, Turkey’s Minister of State Mehmet Aydin said even in his country there was the need to address the lack of women’s involvement in the political process.  

 

Aydin said women needed to be encouraged to play a greater role in politics at all levels, challenging past perceptions, a theme likely to be taken up further as the conference enters its second day on Wednesday.