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When asked about the ideal form for an Islamic state, Muslim figures such as Mohammad Natsir or Mohamad Roem, surprisingly, did not mention any country from the Middle East.
As recorded by Zainal Abidin Ahmad in 1956, when Muslim leaders here were tempted to establish a democratic Islamic state or a nation ruled by a majority Muslim party in the 1950s, they looked to developed democracies such as Switzerland and the Netherlands as models.
Zainal was intrigued by the concept of “siyasat al-akhlaq” as proposed by philosopher and theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111).
Translating the term as “moral state”, Zainal, a prolific thinker, made his way through a lengthy traditional Arabic bibliography on the subject, as well as reading widely texts that were published in English, French, German and Dutch.
After discussing the notion of the religious state as put forward by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and the critique of the “church state” by Martin Luther, Zainal came to a conclusion. “This does not mean that there should be a ‘religious state’. Even al-Ghazali clearly opposed a state led and controlled by priests or religious leaders.”
“He [al-Ghazali] recommended a ‘moral state’, led by an ordinary human of good morality. The state and morality are not two separate entities, but are bound together. According to al-Ghazali, a state without morality means destruction. Morality without a supporting state will yield error.”
As to how to run a nation, Indonesian Muslims not only straightforwardly indicated a preference for democracy, but also wanted to directly replicate how developed countries in Europe were governed.
Learning from non-Muslim states was never a problem, according to these thinkers, as long as it ended in jalb al-mashalih, the making of good.
Compared to contemporary Indonesian Muslim thinkers who support the idea of Islamic state or Muslim majority rule, the past figures represent a great leap forward.
They understood that democracy referred to nations where it was better applied, and they dared to criticize how many Islamic states were ruled. The thinkers accepted Indonesia as it was, albeit with caveats.
While Zainal Abidin Ahmad, for instance, was happy to discuss al-Ghazali and followed by Karl Mannheim, Nietsche and Toynbee, contemporary Muslim radicals can only munch the same grass. The radicals are only capable of repeatedly delivering sermons and acting as if they were new prophets with the “truest” truth.
If we listen to the message of the radicals — whether in print, online or broadcast by radio stations that are gaining more popularity — we are directly reminded of the martial atmosphere that has persisted in the Middle East since the Middle Ages.
The radicals forget that Indonesia is — and was — a much safer and peaceful place. They forget that Mohammad Natsir, whom they often refer to, was very democratic and very intellectual before he was made into a figure of cult veneration after he established the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII).
The decision of key Muslim figures to join the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) movement in 1958 was taken as an uprising against the Guided Democracy of Sukarno, but it was more an expression of disappointment over the way democracy was manifested in the nation.
Or, in the words of the country’s other founder, Mohammad Hatta, Muslims were less patient with what was going on and forgot that democracy was something to build gradually and very often bitterly.
The notions of Islamic states or parties — as well as Christian states or parties — are not mistakes if we understand what democracy is. Even in the US, an Islamic organization such as the Hizbut Tahrir can exist, although it struggles for the idea of a caliphate, a utopian theocratic Muslim state run under sharia.
Even a secular state such as Germany has the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while Italy has the Christian Democratic Party (CDP).
Regardless of the share of the vote they gain at the ballot box or the ideologies they espouse, the existence of the parties has been accepted legally and democratically.
Thus, the systematic annihilation of religious parties in the Guided Democracy era (before 1966) and under the New Order (1966-1998) was therefore undemocratic.
After the Old Order was poisoned by communist authoritarianism, the New Order exploited “Islamophobia”, based on what happened along the 1950s, for the military to establish a state nationalism.
We today must be careful not to be trapped by what might be called liberal fundamentalism, rejecting or regarding with suspicion any ideas using religious symbols or with religious origins.
Since democracy requires the rule of law and a legal mechanism to contest political ideas, what all groups must do is to play as fair as possible.
As we observe Independence Day, we hope that we will get a hold of more maturity in democracy. Included must be a willingness to accept anyone who has a different idea, however odd it might be, and decide their reception or repudiation democratically.
The writer is a researcher at the Paramadina Foundation and the Ciputat School for Democratic Islam.