Political Freedom and Liberal Democracy in the Islamic World
Speech by Anwar Ibrahim, Parliamentary Opposition Leader of Malaysia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), Berlin, 30th September 2010
Let me begin with the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, a towering figure in the landscape that we are about to traverse this evening, a bridge, if you will, over the gulf that is said to separate the East and the West, between Islam on one side, and freedom and democracy on the other.
In his poetic answer to the West, the Payām‑e‑Mashriq, Iqbal sets up the epiphanous encounter between Jallaludin al-Rumi and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe not on earth but up in the heavens. Reciting Faust, his magnum opus, Goethe convinces Rumi that here is one enlightened soul who understands the Great Mystery. We know that Iqbal’s Payām‑i‑Mashriq itself was greatly inspired by Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan (West-Eastern Divan) which in turn drew its inspiration from the great 14th century master of the Persian ghazals Hafiz Shirazi. “Ad-Diwan Sharqi lil Mu’allif al-Gharbi,” these were the words inscribed in the original script by Goethe himself on the title page, and it may be literally rendered as “The Eastern Divan by the Western Author.” So, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and admiration, West meets East, and East meets West and the process goes back and forth.
Today, however, the encounter seems to have taken on a slightly different keel. For simplicity, it looks something like this: West tries to meet East by first tossing a couple of bombs; East says no thanks by firing a couple of missiles in return; West feels outraged and burns their books of wisdom and religion, and East goes berserk by blowing up their buildings.
My apologies for making light of the situation but the point is that the discourse today more than ever before is blindsided by hatred and misunderstanding giving rise among other things to “freedom and democracy phobia” on the one hand and Islamophobia on the other. This sets the stage for the clash of ideals and values, between political freedom and democracy on the one hand and Islam on the other. Yet in spite of this initial alarm and sabre-rattling war cry, I am quite certain that the clash is more imagined than real. I’m not suggesting that Islamophobia doesn’t exist; indeed it very real but it is borne by falsehood, and fuelled by irresponsible parties from both sides of the divide. The upshot is stereotyping and cliché mongering about what Islam represents.
Now because of the disparate actions of certain people conducting themselves in the name of the religion, we find ourselves in a quagmire of false notions about Islam: that it is anti-freedom, anti-democracy, that it enjoins murder and mayhem, promotes divisiveness and exclusiveness and so on and so forth.
So, let us try to clear the fog that has descended on the discourse. Firstly, there is essentially no incompatibility between Islam and democracy. To say that it is infeasible for Muslim-majority countries to practice constitutional democracy is to fly in the face of reality. Let’s start with Turkey, a fine example of a liberal democracy where the majority of its population are Muslims. They have free and fair elections, they have a proper judicial and legal system, they have fundamental liberties protected by the constitution and they have a relatively free press. You will not be prosecuted simply because you are a leader of the opposition party and the police won’t beat you up just because you criticise the government. You can go about your daily business without the fear that at any time the authorities may just raid your homes and put you behind bars without a trial.
Now, the recent referendum of the Turkish people in favor of fundamental constitutional changes including imposing further constraints on the role of the military is clear testimony that democracy is alive and well. Detractors would like to suggest that it is so because it has chosen to depart from Islamic practices. We beg to differ. We would like to see it as a classic example of what a Muslim nation can achieve if its leaders remain faithful to the core values of Islamic statecraft: modernist, moderate, progressive and tolerant with justice and the rule of law as a motto for governance. In this regard, Turkey’s Muslim leaders fortified by the principles of liberal democracy, stand in sharp contrast to the autocrats and dictators in some other Muslim countries.
Indonesia is yet another good example of the practice of political freedom and liberal democracy in a nation with a predominantly Muslim population. Of course, they had to go through the entire political evolutionary process to come to where they are today. After gaining independence from the Dutch, they had a brief experiment with democracy but it was short-lived and after May 1965, Indonesia came under the dictatorship of Suharto during the so-called New Order era. And this went on till the 1998 collapse which set forth the era of Reformasi. Now, just to get an idea of how alive and well democracy is in Indonesia, just switch on to their television stations and without fail, there will be aired daily forums and discussion sessions highly critical of the ruling party and the President. I am not suggesting that the system is perfect or that they have attained full democracy but at least most of the essential elements of a vibrant democracy are in place. Just move over to the neighbouring Muslim majority nation and we can see the stark differences. And the absence of real democracy in that neighbouring country as well as other Muslim majority countries has very little, if any, to do with Islam. Islam, I would say, is getting a pretty raw deal here because of the actions of these tyrants, dictators, autocrats and pseudo-democrats.
But are we denying that there is a problem of Islamic fundamentalism? Is the problem of extremists, of terrorists and of suicide bombers a figment of the imagination? Of course not. That is a complex issue but the hypotheses of correlating various acts with Islam are mere correlations and do not reflect the causal links. The underlying causes must be studied and steps taken to address them if we are to see any resolution to these issues.
As for the claim by some that fundamentalists are gaining traction on the political front in certain Muslim countries, the problem is largely blown out of proportion. It is true, however, that ideological rigidity is not conducive to the promotion of constitutional democracy. It is partly because of this rigidity that sees some fundamentalists citing so-called sabre-rattling verses from the Holy Book to condone acts of violence in the name of jihad. We, however, maintain that Islam prohibits violence and terror by virtue of the principles of moderation and the protection of life, limb and property. The objectives of the religion are clear: jihad enjoins on Muslims to do good and prevent evil, establish justice, promote goodwill and charity and help the weak and the needy. It is not a war cry, 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. But it remains incumbent on reformists and progressives to make it clear that Islam is for all time. Modernity is not anti-thetical to Islam. Casting the religion in stone is.
For those countries still bent on remaining static, we would urge them to democratize.
I make this call on the platform of Islam itself. Because Islam enjoins the faithful to uphold equality, justice, and human dignity, the resolve to embrace constitutional democracy is a reaffirmation of these principles. Our message is consistent on this: 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. Put an end to vindictive prosecutions, arbitrary arrests, and the use of the state apparatus to silence political dissent.
On the question of the democratization process itself, I call on certain powers to stop practising double standards. Please do not blow hot and blow cold. Human rights violations are violations no less. We cannot allow some countries latitude in this and condemn them in others. The diplomacy of “you give me this, and I’ll give you that in return” is well and good in certain matters but not so if it is a betrayal of the cause of democracy and freedom.
The hypocrisy has to stop unless of course we want to see Muslim societies continuing to languish under dictatorships, autocracies and sham democracies. Sham democracies as you know are now the rage particularly in Southeast Asia. They are more insidious and pose a greater threat to political freedom and constitutional democracy than even dictatorships and autocracies. Dictatorships and autocracies are at least clearly visible and we know that they cannot by any stretch of the imagination pretend to be democracies. Sham democracies on the other hand come well armed with the trappings of democracy. We can’t see or in certain cases we pretend that we can’t see that they are masquerades perpetuating injustice, human rights abuses and corruption.
With the entire state apparatus at their disposal, they rob and plunder the nation’s wealth and resources, imprison dissidents without trial, deny press freedom and render the judiciary into a spineless organ of state whose existence is to serve their political survival. Yet, and this is the most insidious part, their leaders are recognised as leaders of the “free and democratic world” standing shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of the established democracies.
So, this begs the question whether there has been any real progress in political reform in the Muslim world apart from Turkey and Indonesia. Certain states even in the Middle East appear to be moving towards democracy but the rhetoric often exceeds the reality. Nevertheless, let us not be confused about what the real issue is. It is not whether Islam and democracy are compatible but whether leaders in Muslim countries will uphold freedom and democracy. Nor is it a problem about the East being at loggerheads with the West. If I may just conclude with a few lines from Iqbal’s Zarb-i-Kalim:
Shun neither the East
Nor fear the West
For it is Nature that sets
you turning each night
(wherever you may be)
To the morning bright”