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The proper boundary of “Political Islam”

While politicians cannot avoid being influenced by their religious views, the only legitimate arguments in political debate are purely secular rational ones. The reason is that I am not required to believe any part of your religion, so arguments based on your religion have no legitimacy with me, and vice versa. That applies even to my co-religionists, since each individual is free to practice their religion as much or as little as they wish.


4 March 2011

The label "Political Islam" has become so elastic that it is applied to organisations as far apart as the Taliban of Afghanistan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey. This vagueness of meaning should be no surprise. After all the word "socialism" has been used to describe both the USSR under Joseph Stalin and the United Kingdom under Gordon Brown!

In January I attended a seminar on "Indonesia's future political landscape" organised by Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (in Bahasa: Partai Keadilan Sejahtera abbreviated to PKS) which was held at the Inmarsat Conference Centre. This gave me the opportunity to set out my views on the proper limits of political Islam.

The day was divided into two sessions:

  1. Political Islam in Muslim Countries and the West
  2. Challenges Facing Indonesian Political Parties

I was asked to speak for 10 minutes on "Challenges Facing Indonesian Political Parties.” Although I have spent a week in Indonesia when I attended the World Islamic Economic Forum in Jakarta in February 2009, I cannot claim to be an expert on Indonesian politics!

I explained that the challenges fell into two categories:

Challenges which arise in all new democracies

The main challenge is embedding democracy when there is no democratic tradition. I offered the following key requirements:

  1. Leaders must change. Accordingly limits on presidential terms were essential and needed to be observed.
  2. Winners of elections needed to recognise that a democratic majority is not a "blank cheque" to do anything that you wish in government.
  3. Losers of elections need to accept (in the absence of manifest fraud) that the electorate has spoken and that the majority is entitled to govern.
  4. The existence of a "Loyal Opposition" (using the British term) is essential for the proper functioning of democratic politics. If the governing party does not face an opposition that is credibly capable of being elected into power, one can expect bad government.

Challenges specific to Muslim majority countries / the boundary of Political Islam

One common problem is religious ideologues who contend that democracy is un-Islamic. They argue for a government by God instead of a government by men; however their true agenda is government by themselves as religious leaders with monopoly rights to speak for God.

However, the most important challenge is understanding the boundary between politicians’ private religious beliefs and their actions as politicians. All politicians have some kind of belief system; for example David Cameron and Barack Obama are both committed Christians. A politician cannot leave his religious beliefs outside the legislature. Indeed religious belief has inspired many movements that have made the world a better place; for example the Christian struggle in England to abolish the slave trade and the civil rights movement in the USA.

The key point is that a political leader is not entitled to force his personal religious views on other people. Accordingly it is entirely improper for him to propose that "We must legislate for policy X because my religion requires policy X." The only acceptable basis for a politician to proceed with legislation is "Policy X is desirable for the following reasons ..." where the reasons are justified on rational pragmatic grounds that can be debated between individuals without any appeal to religious doctrine.

I explained that in my view the best example of a political party combining a religious perspective with actual government is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. The AKP are quite properly inspired by Islam, but have had to be particularly careful about not following an explicit Islamic agenda because much of the Turkish establishment and the Turkish armed forces hold an extreme secularist viewpoint. The existence of this opposition has helped by forcing the AKP to concentrate on good government rather than seeking to focus on "Islamic issues." They have set a standard for Islamically inspired parties around the world to emulate.

Supplemental comments

Why Hinduism for the example?

Using Christianity or Judaism would not be as clear, since Muslims believe in the earlier revealed Jewish and Christian scriptures, although we consider them partially corrupted. Accordingly for Muslims the example is clearer citing a different religion.

I read the Bhagavad-Gita in my twenties and found it inspiring. That translation, by S Radhakrishnan (who became president of India) is no longer available, but there are many others. I also own and like the verse translation by Edwin Arnold.

I recently had a brief discussion regarding the above boundary with a Muslim friend and was surprised to find he disagreed. He appeared to believe that something being stipulated in the Quran was sufficient justification for proceeding with legislation to enact that Quranic provision into national law.

My counterargument is straightforward.

As a Muslim, what would be your reaction if a Hindu politician stated that policy X must be made national law because the Bhagavad-Gita requires it? I would expect your response to be "The Bhagavad-Gita may be a fine book but I am not a Hindu so why should policy X be enforced on me? If you want to promote policy X, you need to explain why it is a good policy."

Such a response is entirely appropriate and is equally open to non-Muslims faced with the proposition that policy X must be enforced because the Quran requires it. No non-Muslim is required to accept the Quran as the word of God.

While the above argument may be self-evident, there is a more subtle point. It is also improper for one Muslim to seek to impose policy X upon another Muslim because the first Muslim believes that the Quran requires policy X. Muslims hold an enormous spectrum of views regarding Islam; it is the inalienable right of each human being to believe what they wish and the ultimate arbiter will be God on the Day of Judgement. Accordingly for one Muslim to impose his religious views on another Muslim is just as wrong as a Hindu imposing his religious views on a Muslim.


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