Toward an Islamic democracy

Can the current "clash of civilizations" yield a new hybrid system to fill the needs of Muslim countries?

September 26, 2006 20:46
4 minute read.
muslim leadres 88

muslim leadres 88. (photo credit: )


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Many today argue that the world is engulfed in a terrifying "clash of civilizations" between the Muslim world and the West. Even though many also refute the idea of such an international collision, it is clear that Muslim-Western tensions are playing out today in some parts of the world, the most recent instance being the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Another example of such a clash is the non-physical one that has occurred in the discourse on democracy. Most Western countries have accepted the idea of democracy and applied democratic political systems. However, only a small number of Muslim countries have adopted Western-style democracy. Some Muslim countries even reject this term and have created their own political systems based on Islamic principles of governance. In addition, when some Muslim countries embraced democratic principles, the results were sometimes surprising and often viewed with dissatisfaction by the Western world. Specifically, the establishment of certain governments which came to power in free elections has resulted in Western criticism on several counts. One well-known example occurred in Algeria in 1990, when the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) won the election, only to be overthrown by a Western-supported military. A more recent controversial election victory was that of Hamas - persona non grata in the eyes of the United States - which is still categorized as a terrorist organization despite winning a free election in Palestine. The Hamas government has yet to receive any support from Western countries under the influence of the US. MISPERCEPTIONS about the principles and implementation of democracy have caused a great deal of misunderstanding between Muslim and Western cultures. Many Muslim peoples fear democracy in their countries will result in the erosion of moral and religious values and would represent yet another invasion of Western cultures and norms. For their part, many Western cultures wonder whether democracy is compatible with Islam and fear the rise of Islamic extremist parties. And one specific concern that Western and Muslim academics have often differed on is whether democracy has room for Shari'a - Islamic law. Yet, regardless of these obstacles, the Western world should continue to work with Muslim countries to help them build their unique versions of democracy. Efforts toward greater understanding of the various definitions and perceptions of democracy, and toward the practical implementation of democracy in predominantly Muslim countries, should be met with greater Western support of these processes. ONE COUNTRY that is often held up as a positive example of a democratic political system in a predominantly Muslim state is Indonesia. Following its independence in 1945, Indonesia decided not to become an Islamic state as such, but a democratic nation-state, and it has not seen a rise in Islamic extremism or violence. The country's experience with the emergence of the Party of Justice and Prosperity (PKS) as the sixth runner-up in the last parliamentary election is an interesting case in point. In the 2004 parliamentary election, no less than 8.3 million voters gave their support to the party and helped establish its 45 representatives in parliament. The party was also successful in placing prominent members as ministers in a cabinet led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. The accusation that overwhelming success by the PKS would cultivate Islamic radicalism and spawn terrorist groups was unfounded. On the contrary, the result of a survey conducted by the Kompas daily on this party in June 2005 showed that while most people tended to be pessimistic over the future implementation of political platforms in Indonesia, this opinion did not apply to the PKS. No less than 60.4 percent of respondents expressed their optimism about the positive image of the party. For many people, the victory of PKS and the emergence of other Islamic parties are considered a positive move that will result in constructive change. Unfortunately, this example has mistakenly been seen as the emergence of Islamic radicalism and terrorism in Muslim world by some. Yet, the Indonesian example fits with a trend that other countries have also seen when more radical groups, such as the IRA in Northern Ireland, have found room to participate in government, resulting in a decrease in violence and extremism. This suggests that the West should not impede the integration of radical Islamic groups into political systems. WHAT IS CLEAR is that a new perspective of democracy in predominantly Muslim countries, based on the needs of both the Muslim world and the West, must be developed in an effort to achieve long-term peace. Furthermore, Muslim and Western populations should aim for greater understanding and empathy, each toward the other. Above all, the Western world should take its first concrete step by giving more opportunity to Muslim scholars, governments and civil society activists to practice their understanding about democracy in their own countries and consider opportunities to merge Shari'a law with the idea of democracy. Some Western intellectuals, such as John L. Esposito, John O. Voll, Jeff Haynes and Martin E. Marty, have tried to push the adoption of democracy in Islamic countries. In fact, many believe that there is a democratic system that is compatible with the basic principles of Shari'a. There are hopeful signs that the next steps in building mutual understanding between the Muslim and Western worlds are taking shape, so that the current "clash" over the term democracy may yield a new hybrid version that combines the benefits of democracy in the West with the unique needs and circumstances of predominantly Muslim countries. The writer is executive director of the Center for Asian Studies in Jakarta. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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