Islam and Democracy:
Collision or Co-Existence?
(16 June 2003)
- Dr Robert Wirsing, of the APCSS, spoke to the subject
of Islam and democracy in the context of South Asia. He began by noting that religious
radicalism in South Asia was often highly exaggerated, and sometimes
misleadingly so, by the international media.
- Commenting on the recent gains by Islamist political
elements, Wirsing cited a number of factors that had played into this,
including the weakness of mainstream political parties and the growth of
Pushtun nationalism (in the wake of events in Afghanistan). In essence, the 11% of the vote for the
Islamist movement has to be seen in context of a broader political, identity
and nationalist background – not simply an emergence of Islamic
- Dr Wirsing finished by raising the issue of
globalization. While many has
stressed its positive developments, Wirsing noted that the soft power
influence of the west was causing a good deal of resentment within the
Muslim world. He suggested that
this may be a more critical point of discord than the Israeli-Palestinian
- Richard Baker, of the East/West Center, examined the
issue with regards to Southeast Asia.
In his introductory remarks he expressed the general point that
democracy and religion were, fundamentally, opposed to each other. Religion has often been authoritarian in
nature, and demands allegiance to the divine, oftentimes at the expense of
the will of the people. Religion,
Baker noted, has often been a “social weapon of mass destruction”.
- In a broad sweep of Southeast Asia, Baker focused
mainly on Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim country and the
most important nation in Southeast Asia.
He noted that the largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama
and Muhammadiyah, which account for some 70 million members, were
moderate, generally supportive of democracy, and had recently forged an understanding
to cooperate in undermining the anti-democratic radical fringe
- In Malaysia, by contrast, Baker noted that the
relationship between mosque and state was more ambiguous, as religion was
not altogether in the private sphere.
Islam is the official state religion, while UMNO (the ruling party)
and PAS (the main Islamist opposition) have been competing to use Islam as
an electoral tool to out-do the other.
Nonetheless, Baker saw no real prospect of anything like an Iranian
style theocracy emerging in Southeast Asia.
- At the end of the session, each speaker was invited
to sum up on the issue. All felt
that Islam and democracy were, in theory, compatible. Saikal argued that in many Middle
Eastern contexts an Iranian style accommodation between Islamism and
democracy may have to be found. He
warned against unrealistic expectations of democratic development,
particularly as many regimes in the Muslim world are essentially
- Saikal elaborated on this and other themes in the
roundtable afterwards. On the
issue of autocratic regimes in the Middle East, he cited the example of
UAE, which has an extremely rich population. Yet he noted that political discontent was suppressed by the
government, and this was often blamed on the United States for propping up
this kind of regime. Therefore,
even an affluent Arab population, one that has no poverty, still harbors
anti-American suspicions. Others
in the roundtable noted that many in the Muslim world had claimed to
understand bin Laden’s anger at the west, even though they themselves fail
to understand al-Qaeda’s puritanical brand of the Islamic faith.