Compatibility between Islam and Democracy (2): Political System and Civil Society Point of View

 Compatibility between Islam and Democracy (2): Political System and Civil Society Point of View

Civil Society Point of View

It is has been assumed that the presence of civil society in Islamic countries will decrease the quality of democracy. Evidence for this claim is that in many parts of the Muslim world, civil society and democracy are under siege or in a backward condition because of authoritarian military backed governments, economic problems, regional and ethnic conflict, inadequate institutions and infrastructures (Esposito, 2003).

It is also asserted that violence and religious extremism are often associated with Islam and Islamic movements. In the name of stability and security, many of rulers in the Post Gulf War period also have used the issue of religious extremism to avoid political liberalization. They also use this issue to repress Islamic movements and restrict civil society which is very important elements in democratization (Esposito, 2003).

However, as Esposito (2003) explains, religion has been a significant factor in developing civil society and democracy in many Muslim societies. In fact, in many historical periods, groups in Islamic civil society have also played an important role in the economic, culture, and social life of Muslim communities as intermediaries between state and society (Esposito, 2003; Abootelabi, 1999).

For example, religious endowments and Islamic philanthropy in NU, Muhammadiyah, and Dompet Dhuafa’ in Indonesia often support schools, universities, hospital, poor people, and others social welfare activities. In addition, Islamic civil society groups in Indonesia such as Nahdhatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, women’s organizations, and several NGO (non government organizations) have championed the rights of women by doing various activities.

Indeed, as Esposito (2003) writes in his article, in many countries, Muslim scholars and activists also regularly have held many programs in empowering of women’s status and role in society such as discussion groups, political education, publications, and advocacy.

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Furthermore, in the contemporary Muslim world, Islam is also often associated with the emergence and the development of civil society (Esposito, 2003; Abootalebi, 1999). Islam does not only criticize government policy, but also makes alternative solutions to promote democracy and to strengthen political participation of society.

For example, Islam and civil society organizations in Indonesia have a successfully collaborated experiment to overthrow Soeharto’s regime which intimidated and suppressed people and Muslim communities. Besides that, Islam consistently promotes and empowers the political education and civic education for the people.

Moreover, Muslims today need civil societies that are stronger in relation to the state (Tibi, 2008). The reason for this is that in order for democracy to function in the Islamic world, democracy not only needs civil Islam such as in Indonesia, but also a civil state and civil society (Tibi, 2008). The reasoning above implies that Islam and democracy are compatible because of the existence of civil society in Islam in long decades.

It is also showed that the concept of freedom and human rights in democracy are basically similar with the purpose of Shari’ah (sources of Islamic law) in jurisprudential theory. This is because, according to Khaled Abou El Fadl (2003), the purpose of Shari’ah in legal thinking is to guarantee the wellbeing of the populace (tahqiq masalih al-‘ibad).

Hence, according to Muslim jurists, the law and policies of the government must fulfill 3 areas:-necessities, needs, and luxuries (El Fadl, 2003). Furthermore, A list of democratic rights and liberties can be found in the earlier major Muslims scientific work. The Western notion of freedom is exactly similar with Islamic concepts about justice (‘adl), right (haqq), consultation (shuro), and equality (musawat) (Voll, 2007). The concepts above clearly argue that Islam and democracy can co-exist.

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This essay has discussed the compatibility of Islam and democracy by considering and examining aspects of the Islamic tradition which support democracy. It has emerged that Islam and democracy obviously have many similar concepts about how to support the sovereignty of the people, to govern society, to encourage political representation, and to strengthen civil society.

In terms of both religious doctrine and tradition, Islam can be interpreted from two perspectives:- liberal and fundamentalist. On the one hand, fundamentalist Muslim groups often claim that Islam is not compatible with democracy and other contemporary thinking. This is because they understand Islamic tenets by using the textual method, rigid, closed dialogue, and with a purpose to build the Islamic state.

On the other hand, liberal Islam argues that Islam has many general concepts which endorse the implementation of democracy in the Muslim world. They use the rational and contextual method, which is very important to interpret, and to understand God’s purpose as stated in the Qur’an. By considering Islamic traditions and Islamic history, it is obvious that Islam and democracy are compatible and has been practiced by many rulers since the Prophet Muhammad lived in Medina.

Within Islam there is also a long tradition of debate and consultation between citizens and governments. The above arguments suggest that Islam and democracy could support each other in building a better world. It would be interesting in the future to examine how the Muslim countries have implemented democratic values in their state polices and what their position regarding Western concept of democracy versus the use of their own experience to build democracy.

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Ahmad Fuad Fanani

Ahmad Fuad Fanani is a Muhammadiyah cadre and a Researcher at MAARIF Institute for Culture and Humanity.

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