During his speech after receiving an honorary doctorate degree at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tackled the global perception that Islam and democracy could not work together. The President sa
Furthermore, the President said Muslims in Indonesia got along well with democracy and modernity. Thus, the Indonesian democratic model could offer valuable lessons to Arab Spring countries, which are now facing similar challenges.
The debate over the relationship between Islam and democracy rests not only on Islamic doctrine but also on history.
Essentially, democracy is a system of governance where sovereignty lies in the hands of the people. But, many will say this contradicts the doctrine of Islam, which insists that sovereignty belongs to God. Advocates of this line of thinking put forward three arguments.
First, there is the fundamentally different view of the nation, or ummah. The view of the nation in modern democracy is tied to a physical space marked by territorial and geographical borders. On the other hand, Islam has its own understanding of a nation that is not bounded by borders, but aqidah (the basic tenets of Islam). Therefore, for many Muslims, nation is defined by faith, not geography.
Second, some Muslim scholars see democracy as a worldly value, when spiritual goals are of primary importance. Democracy, thus, becomes a secondary goal.
Third, a contradiction arises because the people’s sovereignty that lies at the heart of democracy is absolute, meaning the people are the ultimate holders of power. Laws and regulations are decided by the people through their representatives and not by God. But for some scholars, the people’s sovereignty is not absolute at all, since the laws of Islam bind it. In Islam, only God’s sovereignty is absolute.
These three interpretations are used by some Muslims to reject democracy. However, there are many Muslims who take the opposite view, arguing that democracy is inherent in people and in line with Islamic teachings. They base their argument on Islamic doctrines – justice, freedom, deliberation and equality – which espouse the basic principles of democracy. At this level, Islam does not speak about a procedural system but more about the basic soul and spirit of democracy. If the interpretation of democracy is the existence of certain social and political ideals, like the freedom of thought, faith, opinion and equality before the law, there would seem to be no contradiction, as these are guaranteed by Islam.
There are several cultural factors, however, that have slowed the growth of democracy in the Islamic countries of the Middle East.
First, there is a strong monolithic paradigm of thought over Islam. Such a paradigm stems from Middle Eastern Muslims’ limited understanding of Islam’s nature and essence, both with regard to the Koran and Hadith and with regard to history.
Islam is often viewed as a divine instrument for understanding the world and such a perception has prompted some Muslims to believe that Islam offers a complete way of life (kaffah). According to this understanding, Islam is an all-encompassing system of belief that offers a solution to all problems.
This view of Islam as perfect and comprehensive has a number of implications. If Islam is transformed for use at the level of political ideology and political practice, this could lead to the political belief that Islam must become the state’s basis of existence, Islamic jurisprudence must be accepted as the state’s constitution and sovereignty would lie in the hands of God.
In short, in the context of such a perspective the modern political system of rule by the people is in direct conflict with Islam.
Second, the absence of democracy in the Middle East could also be explained by the weak political will of the regimes to accommodate democracy. Leadership has long been based on family ties and regimes would lose this prerogative.
Third, the most ironic thing about the absence of democracy in the Middle East is the often tacit support of the Western world – the US in particular – for the existence of the authoritarian regimes. The US has seemed to care less about whether Middle Eastern autocracies developed any democratic character than about how they were able to secure America’s various economic, imperialistic interests. This has nothing to do with the nature of Islam, but it is obvious that the West, particularly the United States, is not always fully in step with its own exhortations to promote democracy globally.
Of special note, however, is the fact that the absence of democracy in countries of the Middle East is not a feature of the wider Muslim world. Indonesia, for example, has seen much success in the transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic system of governance. While Indonesia still has a long way to go before democracy fully takes root, at the very least it has been quite successful in tearing down the walls of tyrannical power. The general elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009 were testament to the wave of democratisation here and the direct presidential elections indicated a new phase history in Indonesian politics.
However, the most substantial and revolutionary change has occurred at the level of civil society. Muslims in Indonesia, slowly but surely, have grown and developed into a rational, autonomous and progressive community. They have started to think rationally and critically especially when they are facing political and religious elite, which tend to be intrusive, manipulative and exploitative.
The basis of Indonesian Muslims’ political preference is more in the courage of their thinking in line with their rational reasoning. The courage to think rationally has contributed to the creation of a free public sphere and this has been instrumental for Muslims in Indonesia to create the culture of open and fair political participation.
Indonesia would, thus, seem to prove that Islamic doctrine itself does not contradict democracy. Instead, Muslims’ interpretation of Islamic doctrine and cultural heritage forms their views on the value of democracy and its relationship to Islam.
As the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia can play a significant role in spreading democratisation in the Islamic world. The nation is a real-world example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
The writer is a political researcher at The Habibie Centre, Jakarta.