HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS the world over live in democracies of some shape or form, from Indonesia to Malaysia to Pakistan to Lebanon to Tunisia to Turkey. Tens of millions of Muslims live in — and participate in — Western democratic societies. The country that is on course to have the biggest Muslim population in the world in the next couple of decades is India, which also happens to be the world’s biggest democracy. Yet a narrative persists, particularly in the West, that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Islam is often associated with dictatorship, totalitarianism, and a lack of freedom, and many analysts and pundits claim that Muslims are philosophically opposed to the idea of democracy. On this week’s show, Mehdi Hasan is joined by the man expected to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and by Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, to discuss Islam, Muslims, and democracy.
Anwar Ibrahim: We represent Islam the sense that is has to tolerant, liberal, plural, and even accept some of the values of the west.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed.
It’s a never-ending debate. Why do so many Muslims live in undemocratic countries? How do you get more freedom in the Middle East? Does Islam have a problem with democracy? They’re age-old and often quite cliched questions. So, on today’s show, I want to do a bit of debunking and deconstructing, with the help of a very special and a very relevant guest.
AI: You have corrupt, oppressive, tyrannical states and they use the label Islam.
MH: That’s my guest today, the renowned Malaysian leader and former political prisoner Anwar Ibrahim, who is on course to become the country’s next democratically-elected prime minister. I’m also joined by Dalia Mogahed, the American Muslim writer, scholar and former White House adviser.
Dalia Mogahed: When you look at the facts, they simply don’t support the idea that there is a clash of civilizations or a clash of values.
MH: So, on today’s show, what’s the deal with Islam, Muslims and democracy?
Islam and democracy. Is there a clash? Is there a contradiction? I’ve been hearing this question posed by right and left alike my entire life. Since before 9/11 but especially since after 9/11, when we were told by George W Bush, Tony Blair, the neocons and others, that the real problem in the Muslim-majority world is the lack of democracy and freedom and political pluralism. And guess what’s to blame for that? Islam or at least political Islam, whatever that is.
Now, I have a lot of problems with this rather lazy and simplistic narrative, which completely and conveniently overlooks the role played by Western governments in propping up Muslim dictators like the President of Egypt or the King of Saudi Arabia, but here’s my biggest one: it’s factually inaccurate. Right now, in 2019, hundreds of millions of Muslims, possibly the majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, live in democracies of some shape or form, live in countries where they have the right to vote, the right to choose and to change their own governments — from Indonesia to Malaysia to Pakistan to Lebanon to Tunisia to Turkey, not to mention the tens of millions of Muslims who live in Western countries, in Germany, France, the UK, Canada, the United States. The mayor of London, last time I checked, was a Muslim. And in fact, the country which is on course to have the biggest Muslim population in the world in the next couple of decades is India; which also happens to be the world’s biggest democracy.
So why is it that in the West, in particular, people still associate Islam with dictatorship and totalitarianism and a lack of freedom, why is it so many folks still think Muslims have some sort of inherent objection to, or problem with, the idea of democracy? That we’re not interested in, or grown up enough, or liberal enough, for democracy? What’s the actual reality? It’s a big question but it’s a question I’m asking on Deconstructed today and we’re lucky to have two fascinating and very clever guests who I hope are going to enlighten us all.
More than twenty years ago, Anwar Ibrahim was on the cover of Time magazine, which called him “the star of a rising generation of Asian leaders.” But the then deputy prime minister of Malaysia and devout Muslim leader spent the next two decades in and out of prison on trumped-up charges.
News Anchor: Malaysian reformist leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been released from prison. The release comes after his opposition alliance won the elections earlier this month.
AI [at press conference]: Now, there is a new dawn for Malaysia. I must thank the people of Malaysia […] regardless of race and religion who stood by the principles of democracy and freedom.
MH: Today, this long-standing advocate for democracy, dialogue and human rights who’s become a bit of a rock star in the Muslim-majority world, is a step away from becoming prime minister of, yes, democratic Malaysia, having come out of prison and helped pull off the unlikeliest of election victories last year. Anwar Ibrahim joins me now to talk Islam and democracy.
MH: Anwar Ibrahim, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
AI: Thank you.
MH: To many in the west, Anwar, many here in the U.S., there is a clash, a contradiction even, between Islam and democracy, but you come from a Muslim majority country of more than 30 million people that is a democracy, a flawed democracy. But which democracy isn’t? So what do you make of this constant claim both from right-wing Islamophobes, but also from well-meaning liberals who genuinely seem to think that Islam and democracy, Muslims and democracy don’t go together?
AI: I think, to quote Edward Said, it’s a clash of ignorance. There’s very little understanding what’s happening on the ground, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. It is as democratic as the United States, Turkey, of course, there are some criticisms, but there was elections which was seen or perceived by the West even as independent and no militia. As you know in the last year’s elections, and now proceeding towards a vibrant democracy. India, although Muslims are the minority but they support the Democratic process. You have Christian democracy in Europe. Why can’t we have Muslim democrats in the Muslim world? The issue is the fundamentals of the democratic process cannot be compromised — judicial independence, free media, equal rights for citizens — and that is being observed.
MH: It’s more than just having elections. A lot of countries have elections which turn out to be not so democratic.
AI: Exactly, with elections in an undemocratic society will always be flawed.
MH: So what’s your explanation then for the preponderance of dictatorships across the Muslim-majority world, especially across the Middle East and the Arab world?
AI: Well, there are also internal dynamics within Muslim societies that must be addressed, but you can ask the similar questions at the Washington elite, the London elite, who actually has been to a large extent complicit in this arrangement. They support the dictators and authoritarian regimes, but I would not use that as a complete argument because I think the Muslim societies themselves need reform and need a further commitment towards this and it is happening in the Muslim world, in Indonesia, Malaysia. It is not happening, unfortunately in the Arab world. The problem is the Arab nations and not a Muslim problem.
MH: And unfortunately, as you yourself have noted Arab nations are often conflated with all of the Islamic world, even though Arabs are a minority of the world’s Muslims. As you mentioned, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. You said in 2014, that “All eminent Muslim democrats must condemn not just groups like ISIS and Boko Haram but the dictatorships and autocratic regimes in the Muslim world that have persistently denied democratic rights to their citizens and whose human rights records could even put North Korea to shame.”
And when I read that quote Anwar, I’m kind of torn because on the one hand it’s so refreshing to hear a Muslim leader willing to criticize Muslim-majority countries when a lot of Muslims as you know, in our communities turn a blind eye to our own problems and we’re very happy to criticize Israel or America or the West. We don’t want to say things about Muslim countries. So I’m glad that you’re willing to say that. On the other hand, there is this view that it feeds into a dangerous narrative that says Muslims are all collectively responsible for bad things that happen in Muslim societies that we have to constantly play this condemnation game and some would say, you know, what do I have to do with Saudi Arabia? Why should I condemn them? Nothing to do with me. I’m not Saudi. I’m not to blame for Saudi Arabia. I’m not responsible.
AI: That is a problem. I endured these atrocities and imprisonment for two decades. I don’t expect much either from the West or the Muslim world, but the bare fact, the reality is capitals, Western capitals including the United States were more, at least, committed though oftentimes ambivalent, but at least, they have been seen to be more supportive. So they —
AI: — Rhetorically, at least, which is not happening in the Muslim world. So, I think that my position is we must be morally coherent and consistent if you condemn atrocities in, for example, some other countries, Latin America, Africa, you must be prepared to do the same.
MH: You’ve noted that in the West, we often equate the Arab countries, as I said, with Islam. You’d like to talk about Indonesia, Malaysia, Muslim democracies, which are culturally politically distinct yet Malaysia does have an official religion. The constitution states that Islam is the religion of the federation but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the federation. Is it your view that you don’t need to be secular in order to be democratic that you can be an Islamic or Muslim democracy?
AI: The Constitution stipulates Islam [as] the religion of the federation. It’s not an Islamic state. It stipulates judicial independence, free media, which need not necessarily be tied to the religious precepts. That must be clear. Secondly, I think, the issue of secular or Islamic, it depends on how you you conceptualize. If it is laïcité in the extreme sense—
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