Baha'i News -- The lineaments of Islamic democracy
The lineaments of Islamic democracy
On September 11, fifteen hijackers crashed three passenger airplanes into symbols of American power. The greatest act of
terror in U.S. history was soon attributed to archterrorist Osama bin Laden, who remained sheltered in Afghanistan by the
radical Islamist regime of the Taliban. In the shantytowns of the West Bank and the impoverished urban centers of Pakistan,
angry crowds celebrated the mayhem unleashed on the United States. Suicide bombers, fiery clerics exhorting the virtues of
martyrdom, and theological schools inculcating an ideology of wrath are all now the prevailing media images of Islam. Harvard
professor Samuel Huntington's prophecy of a coming "clash of civilizations" seems suddenly prescient, as pundits and
politicians loudly wonder whether Islam is compatible with modernity.1 Can an Islamic Middle East produce governments and
populaces prepared to accept international norms of conduct? Can these states accommodate the necessary political reforms and
foster representative institutions? Is the Middle East destined to retain its unenviable media status as a depository of
despotic regimes and terrorist cells while democratic revolutions and accountable governance become increasingly the mainstay
of world politics?
Western commentators have long identified Middle Eastern culture- specifically the pervasive influence of Islamic religious
doctrine- as the main obstacle to democratization. No less an authority than Bernard Lewis, the American doyen of Middle East
studies, has claimed that "Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy as the fundamentalists themselves would be first to
say: they regard liberal democracy with contempt as a corrupt and corrupting form of government."2 For Lewis, and indeed an
entire generation of Western scholars, Islam's fusion of divine revelation and state power produces a political culture that
can neither accommodate pluralism nor tolerate dissent.
Iran's Muslim revolutionaries reinforced this view after they seized power in 1979. With his glowering visage and antediluvian
edicts, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini embodied the rejection of the democratic hopes of all those Iranians who coalesced under
his leadership to topple the monarchy, and the Islamic Republic he established menaced both its citizenry and its neighbors.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, pundits and policymakers touted fundamentalism-- the Islamic "Green Peril"-as the
principal threat to the stability and prosperity of the Middle East, and the much anticipated "new world order" was ruptured by
religious and cultural fault lines.
However, throughout the Middle East, a new generation of Islamic thinkers and parties are transcending such trite slogans and
are seeking to harmonize imaginatively Islam's injunctions with democracy's imperatives. For leaders such as Iran's Mohammad
Khatami and thinkers such as Tunisia's Rached Ghannouchi, a pragmatic interpretation of the sacred texts and reliance on
Islam's democratic ideals is the most stable path for establishing durable representative institutions. While bin Laden and the
Taliban may dominate media images, an Islamic perestroika has unexpectedly sprung from the crumbling edifices of the various
autocratic systems that persist across the Islamic world, manifesting itself through increasingly effective political movements
that eschew the radicalism of their revolutionary co-religionists. Today, moderate Islamism-- with its emphasis on democratic
accountability and civil society-is on the upswing throughout the region.
Rhetoric often means little, but at times it can herald a critical juncture in the development of social and political
movements. Consider, for example, the effort expended by members of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in preparation for
the 1991 parliamentary elections. Selecting its campaign slogan after rejecting various Koranic verses and theological
exhortations, the Fis settled on "God and the people," two of the most potent symbols of moderate Islamism. Indeed, throughout
the Middle East a new brand of political Islam, determined to balance popular calls for political empowerment with the equally
compelling demands for cultural authenticity, is coming to the fore. This ascendance of a moderate version of Islamism was not,
however, a foregone conclusion. Rather it represents a maturation of Islamic thought and activism that extended over
The idea of innovation and change is not new to Islam. Such towering intellectual figures of the nineteenth century as Jamal
al- Afghani, who published the pan-Islamic journal, Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Firmest Link), and Muhammad Abdu, who served as the
chief mufti of Egypt, grappled with reconciling Islam to the scientific trends emanating from industrial Europe. A century
later, political activists, clergy, and intellectuals once again turned to Islam in search of an organizing principle for the
state in the post- independence period.
In the 1950s, venerable Islamic organizations, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Algeria's Al Qyiam (Values), called for
cultural rehabilitation and pluralism as a complement to national autonomy. However, the emerging generation of Middle Eastern
leaders who had just cast off European imperial rule had very different ideas. They castigated traditional institutions as the
very source of the social immobility and political decay that had facilitated the incursions of foreign powers. These new
partisans of modernity dismissed their Islamic heritage, arguing that the creation of a vibrant and modern society necessitated
a secular foundation. Centralization of power and the creation of strong bureaucracies, not to mention the denial of basic
democratic freedoms, were all justified as necessary measures to propel the states of the Middle East forward into the modern
The colonial state gave way to a constellation of military juntas and one-party states whose leaders perceived competing
centers of power not only as disloyal but as a threat to their progressive mission. Under the weight of state suppression,
nascent Islamic parties largely abandoned political activism and concentrated on operating charitable institutions and
inculcating Muslim values through education and other cultural activities.
Ironically, the secular regimes' obsession with modernization would soon emerge as their chief liability. Industrialization
during the 1960s precipitated a massive exodus from the countryside to the city, where new urban migrants confronted a state
with an impressive capacity to control their lives, without any corresponding opening for citizens to influence its dictates.
As economic development failed to keep pace with demographics, the great seats of Islamic civilization-Cairo, Damascus, and
Algiers-were engulfed by bread riots. And the region's proliferating universities were producing graduates with ideas and
expectations that could not be met. The once bright promises of modernity soon faded, as financial dividends proved inadequate
to an already politically disenfranchised populace.
In return for guaranteeing economic development and social modernization, the state had expected both individual citizens and
the major actors in society-notably the religious establishment-to acquiesce in its rule. This social contract was coming
apart. Having staked their existence on a secular vision of society, the discredited ideologies of Middle Eastern states began
to give way to a new doctrine that was explicitly grounded in the region's religious and cultural heritage.
Thus, in the wake of growing disillusionment, the 1970s saw the rise of extremist wings within the Islamic movements of several
countries. This newly radicalized Islamism offered a militant postulation that called for appropriation of state power and the
creation of a rigid theocratic order. The foremost intellectual architects of this brand of Islamism were the Egyptian thinker
Sayyid Qutb and Iran's dissident cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Both Qutb and Khomeini chastised Muslim society as living
in the state of apostasy, stressing that such a society could only be redeemed through its submission to God's will along the
model of the Prophet Muhammad's original community of believers.
The greatest triumph of militant Islam came in Iran, when Khomeini displaced two millennia of dynastic rule and erected an
Islamic Republic. But the Grand Ayatollah's autocratic order was itself soon bedeviled by corruption and economic stagnation.
Indeed, Iran's current reform movement led by President Khatami is an implicit repudiation of Khomeini's vision of radical
Islam, as it concedes that for the Islamic Republic to survive it has to meet the cultural and economic demands of a restive
youth and a disillusioned middle class.
The failure of radical Islamists in power was matched by their intellectual poverty as opposition forces. While Iran's militant
clerics struggled with the demands of governance, their radical counterparts elsewhere formed parties such as Egypt's Gamma al-
Islamiyya and at-Jihad, Jordan's Hizb alTahrir, and Palestine's Islamic Jihad and Hamas, insisting that violence was an
appropriate response to states that were inculcating Western values at the expense of Islamic ones. Despite their vehement
rejection of the West, their methods andtactics proved eerily similar to those of the communist parties of the Eastern bloc in
which a privileged elite plotted in secrecy in the name of an exalted principle. They dismissed the concept of democratic
representation and pluralism on the grounds that sovereignty remained the sole province of God and was to be exercised on his
behalf by a "Koranic generation." These were essentially totalitarian parties whose messianic mission mandated a violent
overthrow of the political order.
The radical campaign of terror met the same fate as the militant enterprise of Iran's revolutionary clerics. Immured in the
illogic of violence, its leaders failed to appreciate that their constituents sought political modernization and not a
reconstruction of the idyllic seventh century. Radical Islam with its imagined utopias and simplistic solutions became just
another tragic experiment in the long and tortuous history of the Middle East.
Moderate Islamism is not an abstraction confined to seminars and seminaries, but a movement conditioned by the evolving
realities of the Middle East. Hoping to forestall social or political unrest, rulers across the region launched their own
versions of liberalization. The secular rulers of Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, and even Libya increasingly began to utilize
the language of market economics and talk about "openness" and transparency. However, these haphazard liberalization policies
not only led to further unemployment, greater inflation, and even greater disparities of wealth, but also subverted the state's
raison d'etre. After all, if the state was prepared to acknowledge the inadequacy of its command economy, why not rescind its
political monopoly as well?
The popular clamor for a democratic polity consistent with traditional values was answered by a new generation of Islamic
activists who, since the 1980s, have called for broadening political rights in the context of cultural continuity. They have
consciously eschewed the model of revolutionary takeover for an evolutionary approach-one of gradual surrender of the secular
state to an Islamicized society. By assuming control over civic associations, engaging in social welfare projects, and pressing
for democratic reforms in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Jordan, they have established themselves as the most plausible
successors to the current crop of reigning autocrats. They are visibly demonstrating that Islamic solutions offer more viable
and successful options for addressing social concerns-from economic considerations to political recognition-than the secular
The importance of the new movement is its attempt to use Islamic texts and traditions to legitimize pluralistic concepts. Under
these progressive interpretations, Islam's emphasis on equality and justice empowers the individual to disobey a tyrannical
ruler; and the Koranic designation of human beings as God's agents, responsible for the management of His domain, obligates
individual liberty. Abdel al- Maadi, one of the leaders of Egypt's Center Party, denotes this point by arguing, "The] Koran has
principles not laws. The laws are people and people make laws. Through that they will determine what is acceptable to the
people and not what should be imposed upon them."3 Only if human beings are granted freedom of conscience and expression can
they effectively discharge their divine obligations as God's delegates. The interplay of faith and reason and reliance on
Islam's democratic ideals are used pragmatically to authenticate representative institutions.
In a similar vein, traditional Islamic doctrines are being interpreted to reflect a democratic perspective. The notion of shura
(consultation) is seen as mandating popular participation in public affairs and establishes the foundation for an accountable
government. Sadek Jawad Suliman, a leading Omani activist, argues that "as concept and as principle, shura in Islam does not
differ from democracy. Both shura and democracy arise from the central consideration that collective deliberation is more
likely to lead to a fair and sound result for social good than individual preference."4 The concept of ijma (consensus) has
been reinterpreted to serve as the basis for majority rule. A society whose dictates rest on a larger consensus is bound to
produce a more just and equitable polity. Through these progressive reevaluations of Islamic doctrines and symbols, Islamists
have suggested that popular participation is the only legitimate basis of governance and representative institutions as the
best means of mediating between the ruler and the ruled. For many Muslims, particularly the younger generation of clerics and
believers, democratic principles are not only compatible with Islam but represent its ultimate objective: the conception of an
ideal Islamic society can only be achieved through democratic institutions and accountable rulers.
These theological musings are not merely an abstract exercise conducted in religious centers but form the basis for a movement
that is actively giving expression to popular demands. Throughout the Middle East, progressive Islamists are seeking to reshape
democratic principles in an Islamic context, with an emphasis on pluralism and civil society. For instance, despite a
conservative clerical backlash in Iran, the reformers have used their repeated electoral triumphs not only to buttress the
democratic experience but to decentralize power. Since 1998, the number of elected officials in the Islamic Republic has
increased from 400 to 200,000, with many key decisions taking place at the local and provincial levels. Beyond the political
arena, the reformers have sought to strengthen civil society by giving greater license to cultural outlets, theatrical
productions, and publications of books and newspapers. Iran's progressive clerics are using a pragmatic interpretation of the
religious texts to fend off the hard-line clerics and construct durable representative institutions.
In the rest of the Middle East, where electoral results are still predetermined, the moderate Islamists are constructing an
alternative social welfare network that exposes the inadequacy of the ruling regimes. Moderate Islamist parties such as Egypt's
Muslim Brotherhood and Center Party, Jordan's Islamic Action Front, Turkey's Contentment Party, Algeria's Hamas and its Islamic
Salvation Front have emerged as the most potent forces of opposition pressing for political liberalization and offering to
participate constructively in national coalitions. Mosques, universities, professional associations, labor unions, and writers'
guilds constitute critical components of these networks of Islamic mobilization. The "new" Islamist thinkers and parties
understand that in order for them to remain relevant they cannot take refuge in stale dogmas and the contrived glories of the
past but must accommodate the emerging sentiments of the populace.
Contrasting Democratic Orders
In the coming decades, moderate Islamists are likely to be among the contenders for political power in the Middle East. The
most important question for the theoreticians of Islamic reform concerns their conduct once at the helm of state. Can "Islamic
democracy" meet the institutional standards of democracy: unfettered elections, free press, and competitive political parties?
Can it tolerate diversity of thought and intellectual pluralism, and protect the status of women and minorities? From what the
moderates say and how they behave when committed to the exercise of power, it is possible to make some educated guesses about
what this prospective Islamic democracy will look like.
In contrast to the democratic order that evolved in the West, Islamic democracy would recognize the binding and normative
nature of divine law and revelation as a guide to public policy. In the Middle East, the "managers of the sacred" will engage
the politicians in defining the parameters of temporal order. However, despite such holistic pretensions, Islamic democracy
will feature regular elections, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. Iran's Islamic republic is one of the few places
in the Middle East where there are competitive elections for both national and local offices. Iran's reformist clerics-like
their regional counterparts-are struggling to expand representative rights. Unlike their radical predecessors, today's moderate
Islamists appreciate that a rigid definition of religion could undermine their influence and marginalize their popular appeal.
The global trend toward democracy has had a pronounced impact on their thinking, and they recognize that they cannot remain
indifferent to the mass demands for the modernization of political institutions. As such, in an Islamic democracy, the public
will have an important role in shaping the direction and the agenda of the state.
A viable democratic order must also extend into such areas as civil society, press freedoms, and gender rights. Moderate
Islamists are well qualified to respond to this challenge, as a functioning civil society is the cornerstone of their
contemplated democratic polity. Again, the case of Iran is noteworthy, as President Khatami and his reformist cohorts have
sought to strengthen civil society as a means of buttressing the democratic process. In Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, and
Turkey, where Islamists are excluded from participation in government, they dominate professional syndicates, trade unions,
lawyers' and doctors' associations, and merchants' and writers' guilds. Their participation in civic organizations has taught
them how to engage in electoral politics, devise inclusive platforms, and build consensus among competing visions.
However, Islamic democracy would have certain limits. Given the centrality of religion to a prospective Islamic democracy,
religious strictures would inevitably temper the vibrancy of civil society. The publication of books and press accounts
contradicting the validity of Islamic tenets or denying Muhammad's prophecy would not be permitted. Islamic modernists might
not call for Salman Rushdie's assassination, but they would not allow the dissemination of his ideas. The nature of Islamic
traditions reinforced by the sensibilities of an essentially conservative populace might circumscribe popular discourse.
Islamic moderates make no secret that, under Islamic democracy, the people would want religion to be present in the public
domain as well. Therefore, unlike in the West, the public arena would be governed and regulated by laws inspired by religious
tenets, or laws that were at least not in contravention of or in conflict with Islam. This does not mean that an Islamic
democracy would be a static theocracy. After all, the boundary between private and public domains would still need to be
determined by custom, social norms, and tradition. The existence of a vibrant civil society would guarantee debate. Laws and
regulations would be likely to change as a result. Islamist moderates insist that, under such a system, political leaders would
have no right to impose their own particular reading of Islam on the community, or to subvert religious unity into religious
simplemindedness. In the end, while some Western liberals might find Islamic democracy to be too limiting, it would still be a
radical improvement over the current state of affairs in the Middle East.
The issue of gender rights is an excellent example of the strengths and limits of Islamic democracy. In the last few decades,
the proliferation of women's organizations in the Middle East has left a deep imprint on the region and its female population.
Today's Muslim women see themselves as part of a global movement seeking to emancipate and empower women everywhere. The
moderate Islamists who rely on women's votes and participation in the economy cannot ignore this phenomenon. Increasingly, the
voices of Islamic reform suggest that the cause of women's backwardness is not religion but custom. President Khatami has
sought to draw a distinction between the tenets of Islam and the traditions of a patriarchal society: "The question of women
rights demands a new approach at all levels of society. Discrimination which exist in our culture, our laws and our political
structures must end."5 Iran's bureaucracy and universities are populated with women, as are lists of candidates for Islamist
opposition parties in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. The reality of the modern Middle East is that women are actively asserting
their interests and shaping national institutions.
Despite such progressive tendencies, on such issues as inheritance, divorce, and child custody, Islamic democracy will still
draw its injunctions from a religious law that favors males. In the long run, the emerging bloc of women voters and
parliamentary members might be able to advance legislation that relaxes such impositions. An entire class of "Islamic
feminists" is beginning to demand redress of discriminatory practices by locating their rights within the scriptures. But
Islamic democracy's approach toward women will be drawn from a complex matrix of tradition, theology, and the demands of modern
The question of religious minorities would also confront an Islamic democratic regime with the challenge of balancing
individual rights with the proclivities of a religious society. The well- delineated Islamic principles calling for toleration
of "people of the book" would allow the practice of established religions. Iran's Islamic government accepts the practice of
Christianity and Judaism and apportions a number of parliamentary seats for representatives of these faiths. For its part,
Egypt's Center Party accepts Christian Copts, while Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front explicitly commits itself to "fundamental
liberties, individual and collective, regardless of sex, confession and language." But schismatic deviations from the accepted
Koranic sects-such as Iran's Bahai- would likely find even a modern religious democracy a profoundly inhospitable environment.
An Islamic system would extend considerable leeway to minorities in terms of freedom of worship, voting rights, and
representation in professional and commercial classes, but it would not concede the presidency or the leadership of critical
state organs to non-Muslims. However, such exclusionary practices are not an Islamist innovation but long-standing policies of
all of the region's governments-- secular or religious, monarchial or republican. An Islamic polity dedicated to upholding
communitarian values would be unlikely to amend the existing norms and boldly extend democratic rights as the privilege of
The international implications of the emergence of Islamic democracies are potentially constructive. Unlike the communist
parties of the past or militant Islamists, the new activists do not denounce the prevailing international system as inherently
illegitimate, but call for the Middle East to use its advantages to emerge as an equal pillar in an evolving global order. As
such, moderate Islam can serve as the basis of wider intercivilizational dialogues. Islamic modernism, after all, is a regional
variant of the global trend toward democratization. The coming to power of moderate Islamists throughout the Middle East might
therefore lead to a lessening of tensions between the Middle East and the West because governments enjoying a popular mandate
and the support of the people might well forgo the use of violence as a means of legitimization. Islamic democracies would be
more open societies, with a greater emphasis upon accountability. The freedom with which dictatorial regimes engage in support
of terrorism or focus on building their militaries, without regard for the societal costs, would be circumscribed within a more
While, as I have noted, Islamic democracy would subordinate temporal demands to religious injunctions, Western regimes also
circumscribe the freedom of their citizens. Scandinavian states routinely impose restrictions on property rights, while the
German constitution excludes extremist ideologies from the marketplace of ideas. And in the recent presidential election, the
peculiarities of the U.S. electoral system awarded victory to George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote by a considerable
margin. All this is not to rationalize Islamists' undemocratic lapses, but to suggest that the struggle to advance individual
rights in different political cultures may diverge from Western prescriptions. Any democratic system- secular or religious,
Christian or Islamic-in giving expression to the popular will, may place limits on minority rights. All democratic orders
contain paradoxes and contradictions as they seek to reconcile democratic principles with collective consensus.
The historic struggle in the Middle East has centered on the challenge of nurturing a political order that harmonizes the
popular quest for authenticity with the equally intense desire for democratic participation. The accusation that Islam is
incompatible with Western democratic concepts overlooks the extent to which local identities and affinities are frequently
transformed through a dialogue between civilizations. Although civilizations have always interacted with one another, the scope
of interaction has grown dramatically in the era of globalization, as the exchange of information reinforces linkages fostered
by commerce. No movement can afford to shield itself from this dynamic dialogue and immure its beliefs in the prison of dogma
and orthodoxy. The burgeoning demand for freedom and political representation in the Middle East echoes the global democratic
revolutions of the last decade. Moderate Islamists are offering a path to this worldwide march. The new disciples of God
neither uncritically embrace the West, nor categorically reject it, but appreciate the universality of its democratic legacy. A
democratic order that relies on Islamic precepts and is articulated within an Islamic framework has the greatest chance of
success in the Middle East. Instead of blindly emulating Western models and idioms, the Islamists have sought a complex
interaction of two systems of thought, thus allowing the Middle East to join the global democratic society on its own terms.
What Should the United States Do?
For too long, successive U.S. administrations have viewed all Islamist movements, even moderate ones, through the prism of the
"Green Peril" and approached this phenomenon as if it were a security concern to be contained, and ultimately defeated. A clear
differentiation between the strands of Islamism would produce a more nuanced policy that, while resisting radical Islamists,
engages Washington in dialogue and discussion with the more moderate elements.
In doing so, the United States could better honor its democratic rhetoric and press for a genuine democratization of Middle
Eastern politics. For too long, whenever Arab regimes were charged with human rights abuses, they easily won American support
by citing the Islamist threat. The nadir of such a policy came in 1991 when the United States and Europe acquiesced in the
undermining of Algeria's electoral process that threatened to bring the Islamic Salvation Front to power. This led to a
protracted civil war that has thus far claimed over 150,000 lives and brutalized an entire generation. Regional stability is
undermined by continued support for repressive regimes that rely on force to combat change. The United States should link its
aid and economic relations with Arab regimes to their respect for human rights and a genuine commitment to democratic reform.
Washington's options for helping to foster more open and representative societies in the Middle East are limited but not
inconsequential. There are important lessons to be learned from the third wave o\f democratization that took place over the
last decade. Of critical importance is building a relationship between the United States and key actors in emerging civil
societies, including so- called "informal" organizations, universities, and religious groups. Civil society has historically
been relatively anemic in communally oriented Islamic society, and yet we have seen the emergence of a vibrant associational
life even in states like the Islamic Republic of Iran. Throughout the region, there are many professional and community
organizations calling for judicial and political reforms, promotion of women's rights and family welfare, and environmental
protection. Sustained Western support for such associations would not only increase the efficacy of civil society in the region
but also preclude its cooption by extremists. Along these lines, the United States should encourage alternative sources of
information; many newspapers and magazines already flourish and defy the censorship of the ruling authorities. The phenomenon
of Qatar's al jazeera television network is a notable example of how a single station can revolutionize the region's media
culture. Many Middle Easterners now turn to the Gulf station, with its frank reporting and provocative discussions, for news
All this requires bringing U.S. pressure on states that have traditionally received a free pass on their domestic behavior
because of their geostrategic value. The reality is that Arab regimes rely on U.S. assistance as an important element in
securing their power base. Such influence affords Washington important leverage in pressing for more equitable societies.
More fundamentally, Washington needs to reconsider the much maligned concept of nation building. First eschewed as a vestige of
imperialism and more recently rejected as an overextension of military capabilities, "nation building" remains an opprobrious
term even after September 11. This aversion overlooks the successful cases of nation building that occurred following the
Second World War, in the reconstruction of Germany and Japan, and the massive amounts of economic aid directed to Western
Europe under the Marshall Plan.
In the end, a global war against poverty will be the most effective means of combating terrorism and extremist ideologies.
Through a commitment to massive economic assistance and effective use of American expertise in areas such as public health and
education, the United States can not only disable the terror infrastructure of radical Islam but also drain the swamp in which
such ideologies flourish.
1. See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster,
2. Bernard Lewis, "Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview," Journal of Democracy, vol. 7 (April 1996), p. 54.
3. Quoted in Anthony Shadid, Legacy of the Prophet (Boulder, Col.:
Westview Press, 2001), pp. 268-69.
4. Sadek Jawad Suliman, "Democracy and Shura," available at www.alhewar.com/Sadekdemandshura.htm.
5. Agence France Press, June 27, 2001.
Ray Takeyh is a Soref Research Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior fellow at the Institute on
Religion and Public Policy, Washington, D.C.
©Copyright 2002, World Policy Journal
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