Opinion

Islamic fundamentalism
and democracy

Amid the hyped resistance of Muslim hard-liners to a planned concert of American singer Lady Gaga in Jakarta, there is reason to hope that ultimately the democratic process will offer a way for Islamic fundamentalism to coexist in society.

To understand this, we need to see how Islamic fundamentalism arose and how recent changes have evolved Islamic fundamentalism into a democratic player rather than an opponent of democracy.

Islam has been around for 1,400 years, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Islamic fundamentalism took root as a major regional political force. Islamic fundamentalism grew from an acute sense of disappointment with the failure of good governance. It was the way that Muslims dealt with the failures of leaders, religious as well as political, in serving society.

Islamic fundamentalism grew as an anti-democratic regional force three decades ago with the primary aim of being a revivalist or fundamentalist tradition that aimed to restore Islam to its original state unpolluted by western cultural influences.

According to one scholar, there are three factors that contributed to the rise of the incompatibility between Islamic fundamentalism and democracy: The rise in oil prices and the ability of Islamic states to provide better service to the people, the Iranian revolution that was neither based on economic reasons nor military-over-civilian domination and the Afghan War.

In the case of Indonesia, these three conditions along with the fall of the Soeharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998 established room for Islamic fundamentalism to grow with the belief that democracy was unable to create good governance. Instead it was the purity of Islamic values that would help Muslim society succeed, they believed.

Nasr, in his book The Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of the State described three factors that lead Islamic fundamentalism to become more open to democracy.

First, the military dynamics in which countries that have been led by authoritarian rulers or military regimes suppressed expression of both Islamic fundamentalism and Muslims. The ability of Islamic fundamentalism to survive depended on its ability to adapt under authoritarian regimes.

Conversely, under a democratic regime, Islamic fundamentalism needs to promote rather than impose its views. For example, in Indonesia after the fall of the Soeharto, the Islamic fundamentalism movement throve, such as in the formation of Islam Defenders’ Front (FPI). Under a democratic regime, Islamic fundamentalism movement is challenged to offer good ideas to win the hearts and minds of the society rather than to force their views.

Second is the economic dynamic. Evidence shows there is a positive correlation between democracy and economic prosperity. Higher economic development is associated with a higher democracy index. In democratic countries like Turkey or Indonesia, Islamic fundamentalism as an ideology needs to provide similar economic benefit to the society.

In democracy, partial integration of Islamic values has occurred, marked by, among other things, sharia banking.

Third, the Islamic fundamentalism is open to democracy as part of efforts to lure voters. Islamic fundamentalism proponents such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Aceh Party in Aceh coexist in the political system as a form of political legitimacy.

In Palestine, Hamas as an Islamic fundamentalist advocate entered the political race and embraced the political movement provided by democracy. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embodied their ideological values by entering the political contest as the Justice and Freedom Party (Hizb Alurriya wa Al-’Adala). All of the above Islamic fundamentalism parties have partially won electoral contests.

As a political force, the next challenge for the parties is to prove to their constituents whether they can provide better policies. They have to show that the purity of Islam as an ideology can bring improvement in the society.

The emergence of Islamic fundamentalism is an accumulation of bad policies and bad governance. Modernization and globalization through military dynamic, economic dynamic as well as competition for voters, have contributed enormously to the Islamic fundamentalism’s alignment with democracy.

Nevertheless, religious tolerance, women’s rights and respect for the minorities remain the biggest challenges for the Islamic fundamentalism movement to succeed in a democratic system. At the end of the day, Muslims have to adapt themselves to the democratization process. For Muslims, Islam is an absolute truth, yet democracy as a relative truth can be compatible with Islam.

The writer is currently a master’s degree student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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