The question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy has been discussed for decades. As shown in the Arab Spring movement across the Middle East, which started five years ago, Muslim populations in Asia and Africa have embraced democracy to fight discrimination, promote equality and social justice, as well as bargain for strategic political and economic positions.
Democratization has triggered more Islamic-inspired political rights and participation efforts — manifested in voter mobilization during elections, aspiration for Islamic-inspired legislation and rallies demanding accommodation for other Islamic socio-religious matters — especially in countries where aspirations of political Islam had been suppressed, such as Indonesia during the New Order.
However, to make democracy work, to keep it sustainable for the benefit of the whole nation, we need more than just political participation representing private and/or group/primordial interests. We need liberalism!
Almost two decades ago, the writer Fareed Zakaria warned us that instead of equality, happiness and prosperity, illiberal democracy would lead us to new forms of totalitarianism by depriving basic rights, especially those of minority groups.
While democracy basically means power is in the hands of the people, liberalism seeks to protect individual freedom and liberty, including free speech, assembly and owning property regardless of ethnic, class and religious backgrounds.
Like or not, the recent movements of political Islam — dubbed 411, 212, 112 and most recently 212 — have shown the spirited embrace of Muslims in a democracy.
The attack on Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama with the Blasphemy Law followed by the ulemas’ edict for Jakartan Muslims not to vote for him in the Feb. 15 election due to his Chinese and Christian background were grounded in their Islamic-inspired political aspiration.
Both the movement and its causes have livened up our democracy — yet they tend to violate the very principles of liberalism.
The movement — often equated with the “holy war” for Indonesian Muslims to obtain dignity and supreme power in politics, economic and social life in this era of democratization — has utilized religion and its doctrines interpreted and voiced by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Islam Defenders Front (FPI), the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) and other Islamic bodies and individuals to frame their political purposes and agenda.
The movement and its cause have been treated as sacred; thus any criticism of them, even from the government, will be framed as an attack to their political rights under the democratic system and/or accused as a blasphemous act according to the Blasphemy Law.
Next, by urging not to vote for Ahok, portrayed as a blasphemer and enemy of Islam, the movement intimidated Muslim voters of Jakarta on the election day on Feb. 15, although it was dependant on their religious pieties and inclination toward political Islam. Based on quick counts Ahok topped the table and therefore qualifies for the runoff slated for April 19.
Principally, there is no free speech against the movement and no protection of individual freedom and liberty as guaranteed within the liberal tradition in this Jakarta election.
The development of a democratization that neglects liberal principles will struggle to realize a just, equal and prosperous Indonesia.
Any democratic events, including elections for legislative members, the president, governors and mayors will become just a routine affair that gradually polarizes and disintegrates the multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multi-racial society of Indonesia.
To make political Islam benefit society, it should not just engage with democratization but also adopt the principles of liberalism. This idea is not new. In his work from the mid-1990s, among other places, Asef Bayat promotes the agenda of post-Islamism for Muslims eager to participate in democratization beyond the primordial missions of political Islam.
Proponents of political Islam should learn that all citizens have their civil and political rights guaranteed by the Constitution regardless of ethnic and religious backgrounds. They should also learn to be calm and respect freedom of speech, especially speech addressed against their religious doctrines by carefully and selectively utilizing the Blasphemy Law on any criticism.
Lastly, proponents of political Islam should also work hard to educate Muslim voters on politics, public affairs, human rights, anti-corruption activities and other projects to reduce social inequality and promote wider social justice.
By adhering to the principles of liberalism, political Islam will not only enrich the country’s democratization but also sustain itself and benefit the whole populace of the nation, irrespective of their primordial roots and affinities.