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Debating Islam and democracy

  • If we want to continue enjoying the benefits of democracy, we must make sure it does not eventually lead to disillusionment.

By Wan Saiful Wan Jan

There are still some people who argue that Islam and democracy is not compatible. The number of such people may be decreasing but whenever they speak, their voices are usually loud. Worse, the voices of these minority are usually disproportionately amplified by the media.

This is perhaps not surprising. Good news is usually not newsworthy. But these days when someone argues against universal concepts like democracy, and especially if the person is talking about Islam or claims to represent the Muslim community, the news value shoots up pretty quickly.

In fact, back in 1993, renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in his book The Third Wave that “Islamic concepts of politics differ from and contradict the premises of democratic politics.” This view is still shared by some until today.

But if we look around the Muslim world now, many Muslim-majority countries are becoming more democratic than before. Of course some are still stuck behind, but generally progress can be seen.

The Arab Spring that started from Tunisia in 2010 has unleashed new dynamics in the Middle East and Gulf countries. Of course there have been progress and setbacks. When examined from a global perspective, we can see parallel rise of political freedoms and authoritarianism in the various parts of the Muslim world.

For analysts with interest in the topic, the journey that Muslim countries are experiencing is a fascinating one. Because of that, a conference was held in Kuala Lumpur at the end of November to examine the issue from an academic perspective.

The conference was organised by an organisation called the Istanbul Network for Liberty. This organisation was set up in Istanbul in 2011 as an informal network of scholars and researchers. But this year it was formally registered as a not for profit foundation in Malaysia. I was appointed as Chairman of this network a few years back.

The theme of the conference was "Democratic Transitions in the Muslim World" and it was supported by Malaysia’s Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS). A total of 23 papers were presented throughout the 2 day conference, exploring issues relating to Islam and democracy in the entire spectrum of the Muslim world, from Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, to the Middle East and North Africa.

The keynote address on the first day was delivered by Dr. Muhammad Khalid Masud. Dr Masud was former Director of the General Islamic Research Institute in Pakistan. He was a hugely respected scholar and this was recognized when he was made Chairman of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology.

In his speech Dr. Masud spoke about classical Islamic political theory. He argued that religion and the State are twin brothers and the two helps strengthen each other. This idea was critically examined by the delegates because not everyone agreed with his assertion. Some delegates believed that the two should be kept separate in order to avoid abuses.

The second keynote address by another renowned scholar, Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf. Kiyai Yahya is the General Secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Supreme Council, Indonesia. If you are not familiar with the organisation, I urge you to read more about it. NU is the biggest Islamic organisation in the world, boasting a membership of 50 million people. That is bigger than the population of Malaysia and Singapore put together!

In his speech, Kyai Yahya emphasized on the need to contextualize Islamic teachings, and the need for Muslims from different schools of thought and belief to understand and tolerate differences of opinion. He argued that the failure in dealing with differences in opinion is one of the major weaknesses of the Muslim world.

At the end of the conference, my colleague Ali Salman, who is CEO of the Istanbul Network for Liberty, said that the purpose of this international conference is to provide a platform for scholars from around the world to present their work on Islam and Democracy. It is important to ensure that the discussions generated in the conference will continue in other platforms, and that the ideas are published widely.

For us in Malaysia, up to now we do not have to debate about the compatibility of Islam and democracy that much. The dissident voices are in the very small minority and they have never received that much airtime. Right from the first day we became an independent country, we have never really questioned democracy.

This makes us one of the luckier ones. In many other parts of the world where Muslims form the majority, the debate has never subsided. Worse, in some places the contestation turns violent too.

When talking to the conference delegates, many suggested to me that among the biggest factors contributing towards opposition against democracy is disillusionment with the system. They believe that democracy in their countries continuously result in the rise of corrupt and kleptocratic regimes, not good governance and freedom. This frustrates them, leading them to reject the system.

The lesson for us is, if we want to continue enjoying the benefits of democracy, we must make sure it does not eventually lead to disillusionment too.

(Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, IDEAS)



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