There is a widespread view in the West that, in its clash with radical Islamism, that Islam and democracy are fundamentally irreconcilable. The view holds that, even in the few cases where an avowedly Islamic country can hold elections, these will reflect tribal loyalties and vote-rigging rather than open and competitive politics.
There are considerable grounds for such pessimism, given the corruption of the electoral process in Afghanistan and Iran and the religious factionalism of Iraq. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh, at best, do little more than stumble between corruption and military coups.
Advocates of Islamic pluralism point to Malaysia and Turkey. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state in which its ‘democracy’ has been based on the structural dominance of three ethnic parties, only one of which has an Islamic identity. In Turkey, the military has insisted on its secularism, if occasionally at the expense of its democracy.
Nothing even remotely resembling open electoral politics in other Islamic countries exists. As a result, the prevailing view in the West is that Islam and democracy are incompatible; that one cannot hold Islamic beliefs and also be a democrat.
The death on 30 December of Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, is a reminder that while such a view may have some support, it is far from absolute. Wahid was a senior Islamic cleric and head of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (‘Awaking of Religious Scholars’) prior to becoming president.
Wahid lasted less than two years as president before being ousted in a constitutional coup. But his ouster was a result of his political and administrative mismanagement playing into the hands of self-serving opponents, rather than from any religious contradiction.
As the world’s largest Islamic country, Indonesia’s history of authoritarianism reflected the ideological origins of its army rather than its religious orientation. Its continued, if declining, troubles with radical Islamism originated in a wing of its anti-colonial movement, and has in part been captured by a romanticised international Islamist rhetoric.
This more recent rise of international militant Islam, in Indonesia and elsewhere, has its origins in other anti-colonial movements, notably with the Mulsim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s. In such undemocratic environments, anti-colonial activists looked for guidance to the emancipatory passages of the Holy Qu’ran.
As with all ‘religions of the book’, however, Islam has scripturalists, who understand their teachings not as allegorical and interpretive but as literal and specific. Like Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, there is a stream within Islam that claims because (religious) codes of behaviour are already set down, the only question concerns the closeness of their application and the punishment of dissent.
Holy writ is thus divined by a religious elite entrusted with singular faith rather than the multiple lived realities of the laity. A pluralist elected legislature is hence redundant, be it among Christian fundamentalists, ultra-orthodox Jews, theocratic Theravada Buddhists or Wahhabi Muslims.
In that Islamic states are not democratic, this reflects not their Islamic credentials but their political and economic under-development. In short, it is simpler for an incompetent political elite, often without equitable and consistent rule of law, to run a country without being held democratically accountable. This applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In some cases, a retreat to Islam may provide a judicial code where the state code is otherwise weak or non-existent. Like the Holy Bible, the Holy Qu’ran is made up of many parts and has many inconsistencies, which allows the justification of a wide range of sometimes mutually incompatible behaviour, including repression.
There is much, too, in Islam that is claimed to be holy but which is in fact cultural, including the repression of women. There is no contradiction between Islam and a benign, egalitarian and accountable government.
Last October, the legislature of the devoutly Muslim Indonesian province of Aceh passed the Qanun Jinayat, or ‘stoning law’, in which adulterers and other religious offenders could be stoned to death. This move sent shock waves through outsiders who had been involved with Aceh, particularly since the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004.
Many believed this new law showed the tendency for Islamic theology to override democratic process. In this, however, most observers made the error of equating democracy with liberalism.
A democratically elected legislature may, if it chooses, legitimately pass into law the most malignant or repressive statutes and still not alter its democratic credentials. The qualification is, however, that a legislature that is publicly accountability will tend to moderate its behaviour. So why the passage of a new fundamentalist Islamic law?
Aceh’s ‘stoning law’ was passed by a legislature that had already been voted out of office, under Aceh’s new democratic electoral system, but before the new legislature was due to be sworn in. It is convention in a democracy that an out-going legislature has an administrative function only and, once an election has been called, no new initiatives may be undertaken.
This ‘law’, then, was intended as a parting shot by an undemocratic legislature that had been comprehensively voted out of office. However, Aceh’s democratically elected governor, Irwandi Yusuf, refused to sign this statute into law and the new, democratic legislature has since ignored it.
Yusuf, who went on the recent hajj to Mecca, publically accepts that he is politically accountable. In his first term of office he has helped sideline Aceh’s Islamic ‘police’ which were imposed under previous military rule, increased education and welfare spending and banned logging in Aceh’s tropical forests. He sees no contradiction between his religious beliefs and good, accountable democratic government.
There is a view among many Muslim scholars that a good Islamic state is one which ensures that Muslims are able to freely practice their faith. That does not require that the state be a theocracy or that the laws of the state not be complied with.
A plural liberal democracy provides a good home for the free practice of Islam. Most Muslims accept and endorse this.
In that a small minority of Muslims have turned their faith into an aggressive sectarian ideology, they ignore Islam’s humanitarian generosity. In turn, non-Muslims need to better understand Islam’s human compassion, and to build political bridges based on such commonality and plurality.