Keynote address by Anwar Ibrahim, Parliamentary Opposition Leader of Malaysia at Brussels, 28th September, 2010
First and foremost, there is essentially no problem in terms of compatibility, not a foundational problem at least that would make it impossible for a country with a majority of Muslims to be governed according to the requirements of a constitutional democracy. In other words, the notion of Islam being diametrically opposed to democracy and its principles is a fallacy.
Islam enjoins the faithful to uphold equality, justice, and human dignity. If violence and terror are being spread by Muslims in the name of Islam then it is an aberration reflective of such people and the focus should rightly be on the underlying causes of such actions, not Islam. Blaming Islam wonâ€™t solve the problem as long as the underlying causes are not addressed and resolved.
But detractors say that Islam not only condones but urges the faithful to commit acts of violence in the name of jihad. This is nonsense. But they cite chapter and verse to support this view. Yes, but it is only by extreme distorting of the textual interpretation. On the contrary, the truth is that Islam prohibits violence and terror by virtue of the principles of moderation and the protection of life, limb and property.
This is subsumed under the doctrine of the maqasid al-Shariâ€™ah, a most crucial and significant tool for the progress of Muslim societies, a tool which unfortunately has been much ignored. By virtue of this doctrine for example, jihad is a call to the faithful to fulfill the tenets of the religion by doing good and averting evil, establishing justice, promoting charity and helping the weak and the marginalized. It is not a battle cry for war, let alone one to justify mayhem and murder. Above all, jihad enjoins Muslims to maintain peace and harmony and safeguard the sanctity of life and property. These are ideals completely in consonance with the dictates of democracy.
But what about this incarceration/liberation dichotomy? The answer lies in debunking the school of ideological rigidity which is largely responsible for making the religion very rigid and exclusive. The fact is that Islam is amenable to adapting to modern times with its defining feature being its inclusive nature. Empirically, we know that Islam in Southeast Asia is a case in point. So is Turkey though the same may not be said about the Islam of the Middle East but that ought to be seen in the context of the geopolitical situation there.
The modernity of Islam in Southeast Asia is reflected for instance in the adoption of the principles of freedom and democracy for the establishment of an independent state. In this regard, the regionâ€™s transition to democracy debunks the notion of incompatibility between Islam and democracy.
As for equating Islam with intolerance and violence, that again finds no basis in reality. Muslim rule for centuries in Spain remains in the history books as clear testimony to the tolerance and spirit of convivencia among Muslims, Christians and Jews. In Southeast Asia, traders and Sufis spread the religion through their accommodative style of proselytizing which attracted adherents who have also kept some significant aspects of their pre-Islamic cultures. This explains why multi-cultural and multi-religious societies evolved in Muslim majority countries.
Today, those who call for violence and terror in the name of jihad can find little traction for their brand of Islam. A case in point is Indonesia two elections back when the people overwhelmingly rejected the radicals who rode on the jihad ticket. This is significant in debunking the notion that democracy in a Muslim majority nation can be easily hijacked by extremists and radicals.
Turkey is a fine example of what a Muslim nation can achieve if its leaders remain steadfast in observing the basic tenets of Islamic statecraft: modernist, moderate, progressive and tolerant with justice and the rule of law as a motto for governance. The recent referendum of the Turkish people in favor of fundamental constitutional changes to further strengthen democracy speaks volumes. In this regard, Turkeyâ€™s leaders stand in sharp contrast to the autocrats and dictators in some other Muslim countries who continue to deny the people democracy by raising the hijacking by extremistsâ€™ spectre.
The question arises as to whether there has been any real progress in political reform in the Muslim world apart from Turkey and Indonesia? Isnâ€™t it true that certain states continue to be under one-man or one-party rule despite the trappings of reform? And even though certain states appear to moving on the path to real democracy, the rhetoric often exceeds the reality. There must therefore be greater resolve for Muslim countries to embrace constitutional democracy and translate that into reality: hold free and fair elections, ensure the separation of powers and guarantee fundamental civil liberties including allowing the full participation of women in political life. Vindictive prosecutions, arbitrary arrests, and the use of the state apparatus to silence political dissent must be a thing of the past. Unless and until such reforms are in place, the convergence of Islam and democracy will only be a mirage.
As for the process of democratization itself, there is the troubling question of the real intention of certain Western powers. You cannot turn a blind eye to blatant human rights violations in some countries and condemn these practices in others. You cannot say to one country, give us your support in this current war weâ€™re waging, and we wonâ€™t interfere in your administration. The â€œyou scratch my back and Iâ€™ll scratch yoursâ€ diplomacy may be good realpolitik but it is a betrayal of the cause of democracy and freedom.
Unfortunately, however, it is partly because of this hypocritical approach to democratization that we still see many Muslim societies languishing under sham democracies. These are governments with the trappings of democracy but are in fact masquerades perpetuating injustice, human rights abuses and corruption. These â€˜democraciesâ€™ employ the entire state apparatus and exploit the peopleâ€™s hard earned money to promote their personal and vested interests. They plunder the state coffers, parcel out vast tracts of prime commercial land to relatives and cronies, and expropriate millions of hectares of virgin forests transforming them into wasteland.
So, the truth is that the assault on freedom and democracy is not from Islam, though the bulk of the perpetrators are Muslims. Indonesia and Turkey have demonstrated that democracy is not only acceptable but essential to Islam and that the enemy of Islam is not democracy but injustice, corruption, tyranny and greed. Indeed, freedom and democracy is part and parcel of the self-evident truths that would set mankind apart from the rest of Godâ€™s creatures.
The real issue is not whether Islam and democracy are destined to coincide but whether those in power in Muslim majority countries will uphold freedom and democracy, respect the rule of law and fulfil their duties to the people. If that doesnâ€™t happen then it is incumbent on us to make it happen. And that is a cause worth fighting for.