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Islam between Two Models of Democracy

OurIndonesia – The political setting’s transformation after the New Order has unexpectedly given space for the growth of Islamic sharia enforcement in Indonesia. Opposing views are surfacing with each group seeking to uphold their own views. Regrettably, instead of proposing argumentation to convince other parties, they have stigmatized each other.

In the perspective of Islamic sharia advocates, people refusing it are considered as being Islamaphobes. Meanwhile, anti sharia groups view Islamic sharia advocates as people engaging in religious politicization. This article considers the pros and cons regarding sharia implementation from the perspective of the democratization process.

Two Models of Democracy

The explanation given by Robert Pinckney (1994) about models of democracy might be useful for observing pros and cons regarding sharia enforcement in Indonesia. At least there are two models of democracy that are relevant here, radical democracy and liberal democracy.

To Pinckney, radical democracy is indicated by the rising view that every citizen’s rights are protected by the principle of equality before law, but not as much as individual rights protected under liberal democracy vis-à-vis the state.

It is because the majority’s will in radical democracy is the most important and the state is in the position to enforce that majority’s will. This democratic discourse, according to Douglas M. Brown (1988), seems to emphasize the formal meaning of democracy or the radicalization of formal democracy.

Meanwhile liberal democracy emphasizes acknowledging citizen’s rights as individuals as well as their rights as members of society. Therefore, it aimed to maintain citizen’s representation and protect it from other group’s treatment.

The state here is not in opposition as the operator of majority’s will, since it may clash with the minority’s will. The state functions as an arbitrator to guarantee the maintenance of representational levels and the protection of all citizens. The advocates of sharia are the radical democracy groups.

Based on the argument that majority of citizens are Muslim hence it is natural if the enforced law originates from sharia. However, since they realize that sharia implementation accomplished only through constitutional mechanisms, so they believe that it will be achieved only when they are politically dominant.

The starting point of this group is the state, since the state by its authority is believed to implement sharia effectively among the Muslims. The democracy’s keyword for this group is the majority’s will applied by the state. This sort of democracy, according to Judith Miller (1993), is a general trend in almost all political Islamic circles in the Muslim world.

Facing the above group, liberal democracy group is less in favor with the struggle of Islamic sharia enforcement, since to them such struggle will sever the equality principle of citizens as a pillar of democratization. Therefore, the state should not answer the demand for sharia enforcement within a multi-variant state like Indonesia.

Otherwise, sharia implementation would lead to standardization and will contravene the freedom of religion as a human right. To this group, in a state with plural citizenship, the rights will be distributed equally and universally on the base of political territorial membership and not on the base of a religious community membership. This group gives priority to the substantive meaning of democracy rather than to its procedural formal meaning.

Procedure or Substance

The next question is this: how does democracy actually work; does it give more priority to procedure or substance? Is sharia enforcement by the state, demanded by majority, an undemocratic step? Isn’t there any “element” of anti-democracy in Islamic law? Is it true that if Islamic sharia is implemented by the state it will carry a non-democratic implication, mainly in a plural state such as Indonesia?

Even though Islamic teaching contains many values supporting principles of democracy, the condition is considered as against democracy whenever the demand of sharia enforcement is accommodated. It is the very significant position of sharia in Islam that is more important than democratic life itself.

Daniel E. Price (1999) uttered that many political Islam group in muslim countries claimed that the presence of state is no more than a means to implement sharia. Therefore, they will support and maintain even a state led by authoritarian regime, whenever it has sharia enforcement policy. This sort of view will prolong authoritarian regimes and complicate the coming of democratic regime.

It is true that Muslims are the majority population of this nation. However, the enforced law here is not necessarily based in Islamic law, since the logic and democratic procedure is not based on the majority of the population but based more on the political majority (vote).

For that reason, democracy’s principle and substance requires equality, non-discrimination and individual freedom; a tough condition which cannot be created if sharia is realized particularly for the Indonesian muslim. Since in democracy, though each citizen may influence political condition by using perception, ideology and religion he believed, no one can use the state as a religious instrument and apparatus.

It contravenes the principle of the state’s neutrality in giving the same treatment, not only on religious plurality but also on every interpretation within a religion and on individual freedom to choose any interpretation.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.