Islam and Democracy: Intellectual Origins and Macro-Context

Written By Dinda Revolusi on Rabu, 06 April 2011 | 11.02

Many leading scholars of democracy and Muslim society speculate that Islam is inimical to democracy. This claim is mostly based on the observation of Islamic history, from the early period of about 1500 years ago to the present. In the long history of Islam, relative to other religions, democracy has been absent. Islam is a crucial cause of this problem, it is argued, as Islam has a unique political philosophy inimical to democracy. Political secularization, the separation between religious and political domains, or between religion and state, which is an essential part of modern democracy, is not characteristic of Muslim societies. Islam is therefore not likely to contribute to political secularization and democracy.

This chapter addresses this question through a brief consideration of contemporary Islamic political thought and action among Muslim intellectuals. It focuses on contemporary Indonesian Muslim elites, parties, and movements. It lays a foundation of intellectual origins and a macro context of individual attitudes and behavior. If observation of Muslim societies is restricted to contemporary Muslim political thoughts, parties, and movements, it can be shown that the negative evaluations of Islam and democracy are accurate only regarding one variant of Islam. However, as mentioned above, critical analysis is mainly based on their observation of the past, not the present. It is true that the past shapes contemporary Muslim societies and polities, but it is not the whole story.

As discussed in the introduction, the way the past shapes today’s Muslims' views about politics may be influenced by the way cultural agents or interpreters interpret the past, the tradition. Their view of the past may be different from that of their predecessors without becoming less Islamic. They may even feel that their "new Islam" is more Islamic than "old Islam" placed in a new society. This does not mean that "old Islam in a new society" has disappeared. It still exists, and is probably dominant in Muslim societies as Samuel Huntington and other pessimists believe. But it is not alone. It is competing with "new Islam in a new society." Today’s Muslims are struggling to define the meaning of Islam in a new world.

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