The peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed on Sunday has, it seems, brought to an end four decades of a bloody and destructive war in the southern Philippines that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives. Assuming the peace agreement holds, it will create an autonomous Islamic homeland for the Philippines’ ‘Bangsamoro’ people and bring much needed stability to an historically deeply troubled region. The peace agreement recognises the long-standing military stalemate between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the MILF. A compromise arrangement has long been recognised by the MILF and at least some in the government as the only practical means to ending the conflict.
In order for democracy to really take hold in the wake of the recent Arab Revolutions, the people of the region should be careful not to conform to Western ideas of democracy and instead develop their own model, one relevant to their own cultural norms and in tune with their own rich history of democracy.
The Arab Revolutions themselves give us insight into what this model might look like. Indeed, recent events are to be admired for the extent to which divergent voices have been heard, legitimate grievances have been aired, and women and minorities have been involved.
They are also to be admired because a balance has often been struck between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the secular and the religious, between the desire not just to oust failing tyrants but to replace them with something new, something that could respond to the varying needs of the citizens.
The tumultuous changes affecting the Middle-East have been widely described as representing ‘people power’ and claimed by many Western political leaders, including Australia’s, as representing aspirations for democracy. The uprisings from Morocco across to the Arabian Peninsula are, to be sure, a reflection of a popular desire for political change, but their chances of democratic outcomes is much less certain.
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.
Just two weeks before it recently left office, the outgoing legislature of Aceh, the DPRA, passed the Qanun Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Bylaw). International reporting on this move portrayed the legislation as allowing – or even requiring – the ‘stoning to death’ of adulterers and the torture of women. The international image of Indonesia generally and Aceh in particular suffered greatly, and unfairly.
It is widely assumed that the out-going DPRA passed this law in an unfortunate and misguided attempt to cause problems for the in-coming DPRA. But the real issue concerns the extent to which democratic principles are finding a home in Aceh, and in Indonesia.