Moderate Islamists and peaceful democracy

Moderate Islamists and peaceful democracy

It has become widely acknowledged that political exclusion and oppression fosters extremism, whereas democratic participation encourages moderation and compromise. While the former is evident in the experiences of many Islamic groups with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the latter can be observed through the political stances of Islamic political parties in post-Suharto Indonesia.

Can we have an Indonesian kind of inclusive Muslim democracy in the Middle East?

One of the most contentious issues in relation to the promotion of democracy is whether or not the political process in newly emerging democracies should be unreservedly open to all political forces for free and fair contestation. Should “un-democratic” forces, for example, be isolated and suppressed in order for the democratisation process to proceed steadily? Although there is some logic in this argument, in actuality it only provides autocratic rulers with the justification to hamper democratic reform and curtail civil liberties.

Many Western governments that have prioritised the promotion of democracy in their foreign agenda, particularly the current US administration, often join human rights organisations in criticising human rights violations and undemocratic elections in authoritarian states. However, when it comes to the repression and persecution of Islamic political movements and activists, Western governments’ criticism of these regimes tends to be very quiet and gentle.

The reluctance and inconsistency of many Western and international players in their promotion of democracy in Muslim countries is largely due to recent rise of Islamist electoral gains and popularity in some Muslim countries. Egypt is a notable example, where the Muslim Brotherhood achieved an unprecedented success in the 2005 legislative elections winning 88 seats in parliament (20 per cent of total seats). These concerns are indeed exaggerated and skillfully exploited by authoritarian regimes that still rely on US support to perpetuate the status quo.

It would be very short sighted to think that the exclusion and suppression of Islamic political actors would weaken their social and popular support. While this may temporary weaken the political influence of the moderate Islamists who adopt peaceful democratic means, it only strengthens violent groups and fosters underground activism, which appears as the only viable alternative to open and transparent action on the face of uncompromising despots.

Western support of authoritarian rulers, especially with regards to US’s alliances with the so-called “moderate regimes” in the Middle East, sends a wrong message to the people in these countries. This is one of the reasons why the West has been increasingly associated in the eyes of the oppressed with their oppressors and, thus, being held responsible for their long sufferings.

We cannot promote democracy and side with the oppressors, and there is no wisdom in taking an autonomous stance in this struggle for freedom. It is in the interests of the whole world to minimise the sufferings of the unfortunate and to eliminate all kinds of oppression. Otherwise, the unscrupulous despots who pretend to offer their help to fight terrorism, while they oppress their own people, will continue to provide an inexorable source of extremism.

The only way to combat extremism is through the elimination of oppression and authoritarianism and the promotion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. However, it is not possible to advance democracy without the inclusion of all political forces, particularly the popular Islamic groups that are willing to abide by democratic rules and reject violence.

Political participation and engagement encourages all political groups that aspire to be elected to moderate their stance and focus on practical rather than ideological issues. Islamic groups are not exceptional cases.

Indonesia’s fully inclusive democratisation process clearly shows what Islamists are really about and how they would behave in a free and unimpeded political atmosphere. Since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998, all Indonesian political forces, including Islamists, have been allowed to freely organise and participate in democratic, free and fair elections.

Initially, the proliferation of Islamic parties in post-Suharto Indonesia prompted many sceptics to express their concerns about the future and stability of the democratisation process.

Some observers even speculated that the Indonesian society will be plagued with internal violence and conflicts. However, contrary to these pessimistic expectations, Indonesian Islamic forces did not obstruct democratic reform in their country. They rather played a leading role in facilitating and stabilising the democratisation process. They actively participated in legislative and constitutional democratic reforms, promoted democratic agendas and have consistently demonstrated their unequivocal commitment to the democratic rules of the game, even when the outcome was not favourable to their cause.

Therefore, despite the existence of some challenges and shortcomings, particularly with regard to the persistence of strong patrimonial politics and weak political programs, with the full participation and support of the mainstream Islamic forces, Indonesia has successfully developed most of the features of a democratic country.

All authoritarian legacies and anti-democracy alternatives have been eliminated. Freedom of speech and the media, associational autonomy and civil liberties are largely guaranteed. Free and fair elections and peaceful rotations of power have become the norm. Democracy, in other words, has become the only game in town with the full support of the mainstream Islamic forces.

In fact, and most remarkably, the only alternative to patrimonial politics (a major shortcoming of Indonesian democracy) appears to be emerging from the camp of Islamic parties. The PKS (Prosperous Justice Party), which is very close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in its ideological and organisational outlook, is the only Indonesian party which relies on policies and programs rather than charismatic leadership and patrimonialism.

Almost all other Indonesian parties mainly rely on charismatic leaders in order to gain electoral support. Many observers agree that the PKS will likely lead to a gradual democratic consolidation and more institutionalised democratic practices in Indonesia. The PKS managed to foster an image of a clean and visionary party and develop coherent policy-oriented political program. As a result, it was the only Indonesian party which significantly increased its share of the vote in the 2004 parliamentary elections. The number of its parliamentary seats increased from seven (in 1999 elections) to 45 seats.

Although Islamic movements are significantly diverse, they are still widely depicted by the Western media as monolithic and hostile. It is very simplistic and misleading to group all Islamic groups and movements together and regard them as radical or violent. We cannot keep on all the nice talk about tolerance and pluralism while rejecting the basic and political rights of those who disagree with us.

People throughout the world, especially in democratic countries, should continue to press for an end to regime repression of democratically spirited liberal and Islamic groups. They should pressure their governments to categorically reject such repression and condemn it in the strongest terms.

We should not have the slightest doubt that wherever given a chance, people of all backgrounds and cultures will choose democracy, freedom, peace and progress.