TWO weeks ago, I participated in an international conference in Kuala Lumpur organised by the Istanbul Network, a group of think-tank leaders from Muslim majority countries.
During the Q& A session, I posed the following question to the panel: Why should non-Muslims support an Islamist party, whether in a Muslim-majority country such as Malaysia or in a country where Muslims are in the minority, if the party in question only has an exclusively religious agenda for the Muslim community? I did not get a direct response to the question, and this still lingers in my mind after the conference.
To be fair, many distinguished speakers presented many good papers which examined the history of democratic transitions, outlining the relationship between Islam and democracy and further looking at the socio-economic undercurrents behind such transitions.
Case studies on Islamic political parties and movements in different countries were also discussed. I appreciate the evolution in certain countries such as Tunisia and Turkey that witnessed political transitions from an Islamist party to a party of Islamic Democrats, in Ennahda and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) respectively.
One fundamental difference between many Islamist parties around the world and Malaysian ones, is that Malaysia has a large proportion of non-Muslims in the population which the Islamist parties, like it or not, need to interact with.
If an Islamist party only appeals to the Muslim community in Malaysia, it would restrict its political influence to parts of the country with very few non-Muslims.
This was the situation faced by PAS in the past when its influence was mostly limited to the northern and east coast states in Peninsular Malaysia.
For a party to win elections at the federal level in Malaysia, it has to be part of a coalition which has a broad support across all ethnic groups. Even if an Islamist party like PAS only wants to appeal to the Muslim community, its views and positions must be acceptable to other parties within the coalition, some of whom will definitely represent the views and aspirations of non-Muslims in the country.
Unless an Islamist party wants to stand apart from any political coalition, it has to take into account the perspective of non-Muslim voters. This is one important yardstick of democratic transitions, which is the consideration of the diverse voices of the people, even from those who do not support the party / coalition in power.
Given that the Muslim community does not live in isolation, the positive and negative impact of policy difference and public opinion have to be resolved by ‘Ijma’ or the consensus of the masses.
The concept itself already has ‘bottom-up’ democratic elements and it does not imply majority rule but a need to consider as well as respect minority rights. However, consensus building often needs reference to some form of common denominator among different community groups.
Thus, it is not an issue when an Islamist party brings in Islamic values in policy discussion, if the values are a common denominator shared and understood among all the communities. For that, the doctrine of Maqasid al-Shari’a has been well-received and applied in some places in the Muslim world as the guiding principle in response to multiple issues concerning public interest, ranging from economy, environment, health and even human rights.
This shows that religion could be a big part of the political discourse if it stays aligned and relevant to people’s daily life and societal functions, be it Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions. No religious practices or values should be forcefully imposed on the people, whether they are believers or not.
In my opinion, what sows distrust among communities in Malaysia in present day, is the allegation or perception that one gets differential or preferential treatment over others. If an Islamist party is going to pit Muslims against non-Muslims, and in doing so, creates a siege mentality among the former, the ensuing result is a negative campaign which is based on fear and discrimination. This cannot go
far in winning over the middle ground which includes a sizeable non-Muslim population.
Worse still, this reinforces the negative perception that an Islamist party tries to divide the people based on religion and treat them differently. Thus, such appeals which are premised on religious exclusivism and exerting obligations and values on others, could prove to be detrimental to social cohesion and nation building.
However, this really needs not to be the case. Political Islam, as any other movement, has plenty of diverse ideas and means to achieve its goals. Post-Islamism is emerging as a reaction to the perceived failure of many ruling Islamist politics in the Muslim world at addressing fundamental citizen needs and expectations such as jobs, education and the provision of basic public services including rubbish collection and access to clean water.
Given that the world has liberalised through recent decades via the information technology revolution, any attempt to control thoughts and ideas by using the religious monopolist, puritan and statist approach will surely be meet with strong resistance. The changing trend in the socio-demographics of many of these Muslim countries will raise more questions on the views and roles of an Islamist party, especially among the younger generation who are growing up in an environment where information and networking is much more accessible compared to before.
Presently in Malaysia, Parti Amanah Negara represents the mainstream political variant of Islamic Democrats. I see the vast potential and the positive impact that their political movement can bring to Malaysia. Hopefully they will present and bring out a more wide-ranging and progressive political Islam discourse in Malaysia, to showcase that Islamic values could be universal, inclusive and meaningful to all.
After all, Christian Democrats in the western world have proved to be able to command broad support and govern in fairness to all citizens, why not Islamic Democrats? In that sense, why should non-Muslims NOT vote for such ideals from Islamic Democrats who can truly represent them?