Those who are understandably anxious to prevent the inexorable slide to a bloody clash of civilisations will have cause to cheer the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, the 56-year-old Iranian lawyer.
The Nobel committee's citation that she is an 'inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country' confines her importance to Iran, a country in the throes of a massive churning process.
The symbolism is larger. Ebadi personifies the struggle of modernist Muslims throughout the world to break the stranglehold of the mullahs on their own community. It is a battle that will have a decisive influence on the global war against terrorism and the quest for a more enlightened world. It is a battle that is of direct relevance to India.
On the face of it, Ebadi's battles have centred on women's rights. Removed as a judge after the triumph of the Islamic revolution in 1979 on the ground that she is a woman and women are 'too emotional' to occupy judicial posts, she has fought a dogged battle against the indignities of sharia law.
She successfully campaigned against 'blood money,' a bizarre dogma that assessed a woman's life to be half as valuable as a man's. She has also been a leading light in the battle to abolish death by stoning, another grotesque perversion sanctioned by religious law. Today, she is a crusader for equitable divorce laws, the abolition of temporary marriages and the rights
of children born out of wedlock.
At the same time, Ebadi does not regard herself as a feminist in the Western mould. In her assessment, the problems faced by Muslim women cannot be detached from the larger social crisis in the Islamic world. Her courage lies in taking on the orthodoxy head on, undeterred by canonical texts and the power of the clergy. 'We have been fed so many things in the name of Islam and Sharia law,' she said recently.
These are not unfamiliar battles. For the past 53 years, the State has been a mute spectator to the gross violation of basic human rights of Muslim women in India. Most of the retrograde Islamic laws that Ebadi has questioned also exist in India in some guise or another. This is not because there is no political will of the majority to work for a uniform civil code or because
the Constitution deems such laws to be inviolable. They exist on the statutes because Muslim society is not in a mood to reform.
There are hardly any Muslim reformers within India who can, like Ebadi, say with conviction that the personal laws cannot be based on some divine revelation but modern values of fairness and decency. Even those who concede the principle of one law for all citizens are told they are helping the Hindu 'communalists' intent on wiping out a distinct identity for India's Muslims.
'The prize,' said Ebadi on hearing the news from Stockholm, 'means you can be a Muslim and at the same time have human rights.' Unfortunately, it was a proclamation of intent, not a description of what actually exists in much of the Islamic world.
This is why the turmoil in Iran is of great importance to the world. If the modernisers led by President Mohammad Khatami manage to prevail in their battle against the mullahs, they offer the hope that Iran may offer an alternative and more wholesome version of Islam to the rest of the world.
A victory of liberal social values in Iran will have a multiplier effect on the whole of West Asia. With its rich heritage and tradition of women's empowerment -- 63 per cent of those entering universities are women -- Iran is well placed to provide the tiny spark which can light the prairie fire. Iran can break the Wahabi stranglehold over Islam.
Iranian democracy may be flawed by Western standards but at least there is a tradition of political activity and popular participation, something totally absent from other countries in West Asia. But the moves to make Islamic democracy meaningful will not be helped if an over-zealous US administration tries to force the pace. Indeed, an over-intrusive US will make the position of reformers within Iran quite untenable. At the end of the day, democracy has to be a home-grown initiative.
Yet, international concern is understandable. Islam may be the fastest growing religion in the world but there is little doubt that it suffers an image problem. The non-Islamic world sees it as dogmatic, intolerant and confrontational. In the name of jihad, it is regarded as providing the ideological base of today's global terror. Worse, Islam and democracy are seen to be incompatible. The perception is that authoritarianism and Islamic orthodoxy go hand in hand.
Such a stark assertion may offend liberal sensibilities but it is best to recognise the fact that Islam is increasingly being perceived as a 'problem' that has to be addressed.
In an incisive article in The Spectator last month, Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph wrote: 'When politicians say Islam is a peaceful religion they are not exactly wrong -- all the great religions speak of peace as their ultimate attainment -- but one can't help wondering if they would say it quite so often if they were absolutely sure it was true.'
Ebadi and many other unsung heroes in West Asia are attempting something that has always been imagined and never really attempted -- a Reformation in Islam. They present a vibrant, modern, democratic and, most important, acceptable
face of the Muslim world. They are the alternative to the jihadis and the suicide bombers.