Political Islam’s Democratic Face

Published on Tuesday, March 23, 2004 by

Even as militant Islamists from Spain to Pakistan command headlines, the White House once more inflames Muslim opinion, and the Bush administration continues its effort to reinvent the Middle East in America�s image, proponents of moderate political Islam are quietly but effectively developing the template for democratic governance infused with Muslim values.

This week�s landslide victory for Malaysia�s new prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and the free-wheeling campaign run-up to next month�s Indonesian parliamentary elections, are vivid reminders that not all Muslims are extremists and not all democracies need be �Made in America.�

Abdullah vanquished the main Islamist political party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which ran on the promise that it would bring Islamic law to those states where it won control of the local government. But even in the two states PAS had previously ruled, and where shari�a was already in force, voters rebelled. PAS garnered less than 16 percent of the vote nationwide and gave up all but six of the 27 seats it had held in the previous parliament. Even its top leader lost his seat.

Across the Strait in Indonesia, much the same is expected to occur in next month�s parliamentary elections, which prepares the ground for the country�s first direct presidential elections in June. Islamist parties won just 15 percent of the vote in the 1999 elections and most observers think they will be lucky to do that well this time around. A recent survey by political scientists Saiful Mujani and R. William Liddle found that while more than 70 percent of Indonesians support the concept of shari�a �in the abstract,� when asked about specific aspects of Islamic law, such as requiring women to wear the veil or banning women from politics, support drops off dramatically.

But it is important not to be misled: Islam plays an important part in shaping the self-identify of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia, as across the Muslim world. Abdallah is no agnostic. He comes from a respected family of Islamic scholars. His commitment to secular government is informed by an equally deep commitment to protecting the conservative Muslim values he shares with the majority of Malaysians. The same is true of many of the leading Indonesian candidates for president. Which is precisely what gives them their credibility. In other words, �shared values.� Just different values than George Bush had in mind.

�Indonesians do not want to create a government in the image of America,� explains Ulil Abshar Abdalla, of Indonesia�s Liberal Muslims Network. �We want to find our own way, and Islam is an important part of who we are.�

Nor do these results reflect a softening of the anti-Americanism that has swept across the Muslim world in the post-9/11 era. Poll after poll shows that the U.S. is seen as an arrogant nation on an imperialistic crusade against Islam. In Indonesia, according to a Pew survey, America�s favorability rating has dropped from 65 percent in 2002 to just 15 percent in 2003. Central to that antipathy is U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.

�There is no greater symbol or stronger self-identification for Muslims worldwide than the plight of the Palestinians,� according to Jusuf Wanandi of Jakarta�s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Earlier this month, the U.S. launched a $60 million satellite channel, al-Hurra (the Free One), designed to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. The futility of that effort was underlined Monday, in the wake of the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin, as the Bush administration declared that �Israel has the right to defend itself,� thus unleashing a torrent of anti-American vitriol across the Muslim world and, very likely, ushering in a new wave of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.

Meanwhile, the White House had not a word of congratulations for Malaysia�s new prime minister. In fact, a search of the White House archive reveals no mention of Malaysia�s elections. Nor has the president or his spokespersons used the words �Indonesia� and �democracy� in the same sentence since Bush left that country last October.

But, in a twisted way, this just might work in the favor of the forces of democratic change in those countries � and, ultimately, for the rest of us. Being identified with the U.S. is the kiss of death. It is a key reason political leaders in the two countries have played politics with the terror issue. But the resulting short-term frustration on the part of the U.S. officials may well produce long-term gains.

The power of these emerging and evolving forms of home-grown Muslim democracies lies is the fact that they are inclusive not exclusive. Islamist parties are a part of the political process, not sidelined from it. The world has painfully learned the lessons of what happens when individuals are barred from political engagement. Much the reverse is also true.

The Lebanese group Hizballah, which pioneered modern Islamic terrorism with its wave of anti-American suicide bombings and kidnappings in the early 1980s, eventually evolved into one of the country�s most important political parties. In the process, its most extreme elements were sidelined, and it has not been involved in an anti-American terrorist act in almost two decades (though it continues its struggle against neighboring Israel, and remains in the cross-hairs of the Bush administration). In Indonesia and Malaysia, the forces of moderate political Islam are likewise giving their more radical cousins a means of venting their frustration that does not involve violence. In the process, they may well be designing a template for the political future of the Muslim world.

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