Islam and democracy in Southeast Asia

Islam and democracy in Southeast Asia

From Dec. 10 to 12, 44 sisters and brothers from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia gathered at the historic Manila Hotel for the First South East Asian Forum on Islam and Democracy. This regional conference is the product of four previous roundtable discussions in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The group represented a wide range of civil society organizations and leaders, many representing religious and political organizations.

The four previous roundtables were designed to give a platform to progressive Muslim voices for democracy, pluralism and tolerance in Southeast Asia. We hoped that we could build unity of purpose and strategies within the forces of reform and change, identify progressive actions and programs that advance democracy, pluralism and tolerance among Muslims in our countries and in the region.

We hoped that this conference would pave the way for the creation of a major regional organization, the South East Asian Forum on Islam and Democracy (SEAFID), promoting democratic efforts and allowing democracy and reform advocates to learn from each other”s experiences, hurdle our differences and harness what unites us as we work for our communities. During this 1st SEAFID, we had a two-point agenda: consensus on whether we could have a regional network and the priority areas we could work on together. We hoped; we did not expect. To everyone”s surprise and delight, not only did we attain consensus on the two points, we actually agreed on a draft charter, subject to further refinements as we did not have time to go into the important details.

Many believe that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The youngest participant in our conference, 18-year-old Rashad Ali from Malaysia, said that the first SEAFID showed that democracy is alive in our Muslim communities. He was referring to the debates we had and the consensus we achieved after heated discussions.

Proud as we all were of what we accomplished in two short days, we also realized that the task is not done: it has just started. We already have plans to convene the small charter drafting committee very soon so that we could thresh out the problem areas and incorporate the suggestions made by majority. The final charter might be agreed upon during SEAFID 2, perhaps in Jakarta next year.

During our first roundtable on Islam and Democracy in Manila in Sept. 2005, our keynote speaker was incoming ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan. He noted that Muslims in southeast Asia must make the choice to live in an open and democratic society and make their own choices. He observed that while Southeast Asia is generally moderate, tolerant, and inclusive, and continues to enjoy economic growth and relative political stability, peace, and security for the past three decades, this prosperity and growth has been uneven as it benefited some, while it marginalized others. (In Thailand and in the Philippines, the Muslim communities are the most marginalized.)

This is where democratization becomes essential. Dr. Pitsuwan, a member of the Thai Parliament, also warned that competition in an open society be rules-based, and that all players must follow these rules (especially governments?).

Former President Fidel V. Ramos was our keynote speaker for SEAFID1. He picked up the thread which Dr. Pitsuwan spun two years ago. FVR spoke of the “Age of Democracy” that has engulfed practically all nations. He observed that, “From authoritarian dictatorship, democracy is now at least the nominal pattern of governance in most parts of Southeast Asia.” He cautioned, however: “The 2006 military coup in Thailand and the continuing repressive rule of the generals in Myanmar remind us how fragile democracies in our region can be.” His main point was this: economic progress, political stability and their sustainability is dependent on the consistency of democratic governance. (I wondered if this was a message for the Philippines.)

FVR, Surin Pitsuwan and all of us at SEAFID 1 are in agreement: As our governments try to speed up our integration into a globalizing, rapidly modernizing world, we – the peoples who should be represented by governments – must address the democracy deficits in our region if we are to survive, not to mention competitive. We, Muslim stakeholders in the Philippines and in the region, need to bring our voices together in a powerful chorus lest our governments forget that they represent us and move in a direction that will, in the end, put our communities in peril.

One of our vocal participants quoted theologian Niebuhr in response to the question about the compatibility of the need for democracy: “Man”s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man”s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Amen, brother Khaleed.