Fri, 06 Jun 2003

Islam promotes democracy, British minister says

A'an Suryana, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The common perception in the West that Islam is anti-democratic was misconceived, visiting British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien told a discussion here.

"Some in the West have wrongly argued that Islam and democracy are incompatible, holding the view that Islam fosters a submissive attitude that puts it at odds with the intrinsically confrontational nature of democratic politics.

"This is nonsense," O'Brien told participants at a discussion titled "Islam and Democracy" at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Based on his experience, O'Brien said democratic traditions were present in Islamic thinking.

"The Prophet Muhammad led the early Muslim community according to 'shura' or consultation. And the concept of consultation is compatible with democracy, and is continued today at many levels in Muslim communities," said O'Brien.

There is no system in the world that is better than democracy, he said.

"While democracy is not a panacea for all the ills society faces, it does assist in the attainment of economic prosperity, tolerance and political progress," said O'Brien.

Despite his assertion that the values of Islam were compatible with democracy, he said there were still many Muslim countries in the world which did not practice democracy, especially those in the Arab region, the place where Islam originated from.

A 2001 survey by the Freedom House New York titled "Freedom in the World 2002: The Democracy Gap," revealed that a non-Islamic state is more than three times more likely to be democratic than an Islamic state.

Another speaker in the discussion, Azyumardi Azra, underlined that the values of Islam had nothing to do with the crisis of democracy, which he said was currently plaguing some countries in the Islamic world.

Azyumardi, a professor of history at the Jakarta-based Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University here, said there were three factors that contributed to undemocratic tendencies in Muslim countries, but asserted that these had nothing to do with Islam.

Firstly, most Muslim countries were less developed in terms of education and economic prosperity. Poverty had deprived them of the infrastructure and prerequisites instrumental for the development of democracy.

Secondly, there had been a tendency among Muslims to believe in unity, and to blend religious and political affairs. This had led to the demise of democracy, Azyumardi said.

Thirdly, the West, which claimed to be the pioneer of democracy, supported autocratic regimes in Muslim countries for its own interests, said Azyumardi.

"This adverse clientele relationship has contributed to the decline of democracy in the Islamic world," he said. "As a result, many people in Muslim countries have lost their faith in democracy and look for an Islamic alternative."

He suggested that the West stop applying double standards.