May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Islam and democracy cannot meet

Imam Subkhan

Editor’s note: This interview is the first of a set of three articles in this edition debating what Islamic law would mean for Indonesia. Inside Indonesia believes an open forum like this is important. Who is right? You decide! We started off by asking Irfan Awwas to explain his vision for Islamic Law (syariah) and respond to common criticisms of the campaign for its implementation in Indonesia. Jennifer Donohoe then reviews responses to a campaign for Islamic law in South Sulawesi, and Suraiya Kamaruzzaman presents a critical appraisal of what Islamic law has meant for Aceh and its women.

Irfan Awwas chairs the Executive Committee of the Indonesian Council of Mujahidin (MMI). Its spiritual commander (amir) is Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, currently detained for interrogation under Indonesia’s anti-terrorist laws. Irfan Awwas’s brother, Fikiruddin, was arrested in Malaysia under that country’s Internal Security Act and is now also detained in Indonesia. However, there is no evidence to suggest that either Irfan Awwas or MMI as an organisation are directly involved in terrorism.

Irfan Awwas has spent his life struggling for Islamic law. Born in 1960 in east Lombok, he was once a student at the Pondok Pesantren Gontor Islamic school in East Java, and after his teen years became a Muslim activist. During the New Order, he was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment because of his activities at the Ar Risalah bulletin, which advocated the implementation of Islamic law.

As the Executive Committee Chairperson (Ketua Lajnah Tandfiziyah) of the Indonesian Council of Mujahidin (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, MMI) since 2000, Irfan has continually campaigned for the need to uphold Islamic law. The Council recently held an open debate with Yayasan Wakaf Paramadina at the State Islamic University (Universitas Islam Negeri, UIN) in Jakarta to discuss the book Fiqh Lintas Agama (Inter-Faith Jurisprudence) written by Nurcholish Madjid and his colleagues. Irfan considers this group to be provoking society to reject Islamic law.

Irfan is also a stern critic of American foreign policy, particularly as it relates to terrorism. Amidst conducting advocacy for the release of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, he met Inside Indonesia at MMI headquarters. In his outspoken style, he spelled out his thoughts on upholding Islamic law.

Why is MMI intensively campaigning for Islamic law?

Islam’s universal mission is rahmatalil’alamin. This means to free humankind from destruction and develop a harmonious and prosperous life blessed by Allah SWT. It was for this mission that Allah sent the Prophet Muhammad. To obtain rahmatalil’alamin, a person must acknowledge the oneness of Allah, and surrender their entire life to Allah’s laws. If we as the Indonesian nation believe that Islam is rahmatalil’alamin, then there is nothing to fear if we make Islamic law the law of the country.

What would you say to those who reject Islamic law, particularly non-Muslims? Even among Muslims there is a negative stereotype of the term ‘Islamic syariah’.

There is a discriminatory view in Indonesia and the rest of the world towards various conflicts. People frequently look at Muslims’ stance towards non-Muslims. Currently, people think that Islam is hardline and a threat to non-Muslims. But it’s not fair to ignore the attitude of non-Muslims to Muslims. What about the 500 people slaughtered in Nigeria, and the hundreds slaughtered in Pattani and what about America stripping naked prisoners in Iraq in a clear violation of human rights, and Britain as well. Why do they commit these crimes? Is it religion, a political mission, or something else? We need to get to the bottom of that, then people can be fair towards Islam. In Islam, all humans of whatever religion or ethnicity are objects for proselytisation. Not objects to attack.

How can you convince people that Islamic law will bring them blessings and help them in their lives?

It would be much easier to convince them if Muslim intellectuals all had the same stance. But talk won’t convince people that syariah is His mercy for the universe. That is why MMI’s main aim is the formalisation of Islamic law in state institutions. When there is a legal and political umbrella for the implementation of Islamic law, people will be able to see how effectively Islamic law can provide benefits and how effective it is in destroying kemungkaran (evil, harmfulness). This will be clear if Islamic law becomes the law of the state. But if we just give speeches or write about it in books, then it can never be proven. People will look more at the negative side.

One of the main causes of this opposition between secular people and religious people is secular democracy. Robert Hefner once asked me, ‘What’s the biggest obstacle to Islamic law being adopted in Indonesia?’. I answered, ‘Democracy!’.

Why democracy?

Firstly, democracy has driven out Allah SWT from national life. Allah’s sovereignty has been replaced by the people’s sovereignty. If the people hold sovereignty, then almost all of Islamic law is useless. Then people say, ‘Don’t bring Islamic law into national life,’ and, ‘Why must be the state handle religion, it’s a private matter?’.

Secondly, democracy states that truth lies with the majority. Whatever the majority says is correct. In Islam truth comes from Allah.

Thirdly, democracy uses the principle of ‘one man, one vote’. In democracy, a professor, a prostitute, a thief and a religious scholar all have the same say. In Islam, an educated Muslim has greater say than a layperson. Martin van Bruinessen asked me, ‘What if the prostitute is clever?’ But what does that matter if they have no morals?

Finally, democracy says nothing of the hereafter, so people don’t care about morals. In secular democracy, nudists are more valued than those wearing jilbab (Islamic headscarf). In France, people who wear jilbab are demeaned, while people are free to go nude in demonstrations. In all democratic countries, in the name of human rights people who drink, gamble or engage in prostitution have greater status than people who declare all of this forbidden. This is because democracy doesn’t deal with judgement in the hereafter. In Islam, it’s extremely important to build a virtuous life in this world and the hereafter.

What is MMI’s strategy in struggling for Islamic law?

At present we are conducting socialisation of Islamic law. Even at this stage, the obstacles are extraordinary. Imagine if we ever got to apply it. The socialisation involves seminars, producing publications and holding dialogues with officials and the People’s Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR).

To achieve formalisation of syariah, MMI will need to work through existing state institutions, such as the parliament and through Islamic political parties. When Islamic parties have struggled for syariah, they haven’t gained majority support. Their electoral support has steadily decreased since 1955. The secularisation of politics in Indonesia has succeeded. In view of this, does Indonesian society still need Islamic law?

Indonesian society itself, rather than just its leaders, is mostly Muslim and almost everybody longs for Islamic law. This is because they see Islamic law as a part of their faith, and because they’ve seen that living without syariah is no better [than living under it]. When secular people reject the formalisation of syariah because there are non-Muslims who do not agree, we can turn around and ask, when there are Muslims who reject secular legislation and demand that Islamic law be adopted, do people listen to them?

With so many Islamic parties, they never win. Imagine if there was one Islamic party in Indonesia and the entire Islamic community and all Muslim leaders had the same vision to uphold Islamic law. Instead of confusing the Islamic community and making them afraid.

Islam and democracy each seek to develop their own civilisations. The two cannot meet; in fact each defeats the other. So don’t expect that Islamic law will be enforced under secular democracy. That will never happen, it’s a fantasy.

So democracy and Islam can’t be married?

Islam is not identical to democracy, but some of democracy’s teachings are a part of Islam, for example, musyawarah (communal deliberation) although with different defintions. In Indonesian democracy, musyawarah is to find a consensus. Islamic musyawarah aims to find the truth.

How can you prove that Indonesians long for syariah?

Indonesian people have never been educated on how to become true Muslims. All that the state has fostered through its educational institutions and pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) is how to become a ‘Pancasila-ist’ Indonesian. There has never been education on how to develop into a Muslim living in the true Islamic way.

However, to gain majority support in this country, almost all leaders, be they Islamic, political or military, use Islamic symbols, for instance by wearing a peci (rimless black cap). So we can see that in the depths of their hearts, Muslims miss Islam. But what sort of Islam? That is what most of our Islamic leaders have failed to explain.

But the inclusion of the Jakarta Charter in our Constitution was rejected. And even Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, as the country’s two largest Islamic organisations, reject syariah, if it means formalising Islamic law in our Constitution. They prefer a cultural approach to introduce Islamic values.

Let’s not overgeneralise. Who’s to say that all of Muhammadiyah’s members follow Syafii Maarif [the Chairperson of Muhammadiyah’s Central Board]? Who can prove that all NU followers agree with Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur)? Even Hasyim Muzadi [the Chairperson of NU’s Central Board] is challenging Gus Dur as a presidential candidate. Many NU and Muhammadiyah people support Islamic law, it’s their leaders who are dominant.

Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia is not calling for the Jakarta Charter. We concentrate more on the socialisation of Islamic law and on convincing DPR members that Islamic law is valid under the Indonesian Constitution. They key is for Clause 29 subsection 1 and 2 of the Constitution to receive detailed clarification.

What does MMI believe the clarification of the clause should be?

We agree with the clarification provided by Prof. Dr. Hasairin, LLB, because we consider him to be a mufasir (expert in interpretation) on the 1945 Constitution. Hasairin interprets Clause 29 subsection 1 — ‘The Indonesian state is based on the One and Only God’ — to mean three things. Firstly, in the Republic of Indonesia, based on the One and Only God, legal stipulations and regulations that are inconsistent with religion are forbidden. Secondly, the government must give freedom and independence to the Islamic community to implement syariah, to the Christian community to implement their religious laws, and so on. And thirdly, if state support is not required, the government must give freedom and independence to religious communities to implement their teachings at a personal level.

If the government were to implement these three interpretations, then all of Muhammadiyah and NU’s objections would be refuted. Because the 1945 Constitution states that demands for the enforcement of syariah are legitimate and constitutional.

In several regions — Cianjur, Padang and Makassar for example — there are demands for Islamic law to be formalised, and in Aceh Islamic law is already in force. But after it was adopted, there was no significant change. And women tended to become victims.

The government’s response to demands for Islamic law has been half-hearted. When the syariah laws were ratified in Aceh, on the first day Abdullah Puteh [the Governor of Aceh] stated that all the laws of syariah were in force except for hudud (punishments specified under syariah for certain offences). How can Islamic law be effective if it is cut-down from the outset? Then we see a policeman on television blocking the way of a woman not wearing a jilbab. This gives the impression that Islamic law is just about jilbab and that women are the victims.

In truth, the correct understanding of syariah is not confined to law and punishments. When syariah is first adopted, the punishment would not be to cut off a thief’s hand because the thieves at that stage will have been produced by the democratic system. It would be irresponsible for us to cut off their hands. The first thing that the government will need to do in the implementation of syariah is to create an atmosphere where people will be ashamed to commit evil deeds and violate syariah. For example, the infrastructure for gambling and prostitution would first have to be removed.

Then the challenge would be to make it so that people did not need to steal to pay for school fees or to eat. The government must provide a guarantee to the poor and distribute employment evenly.

We only ask that people be fair, we don’t need them to defend Islam. If society is of sound mind, then they’ll accept syariah and reject democracy. In democracy, when a woman wears a tank top it is considered fine and not degrading to the dignity of women. But when syariah is adopted and women are told to wear jilbab, they are called victims. Do Indonesians prefer to see women exposing their aurat (parts of the body which must be covered according to the standards set by Islam) rather than wearing jilbab? Our logic is back to front.

But syariah has also been criticised for not addressing the root causes of social problems, such as corruption, unemployment and poverty. For example, when they call for places of vice to be closed, they only say it is haram (forbidden) and must be destroyed.

This is an error on society’s part. Why demand a solution from people who are not in a position to provide one. Give us power and we will provide a solution. They are in power, but they tell us to provide a solution. That is discrimination, it’s unfair. If we are only proselytising then we can only give a warning, hey, don’t do that or we’ll come there. Nevertheless, because Islam is rahmatalil’alamin, even though we’re not in power, we will still provide a solution.

How is syariah superior to the present system of government?

Islamic law is far more effective than democracy at facing kemungkaran (evil). In democracy thieves receive prison terms. Even if they’re sentenced to ten years, will this cure them of the habit? Will they stop robbing? No. In fact, they leave prison as more professional thieves.

Meanwhile, the state bears the cost. They give the thief free food, while their wives and children who have done no wrong receive nothing. What sort of government is this? Then the children may also become thieves, because their father was detained. So it’s not an effective way to stop theft.

Imagine if we used Islamic law, and the thief’s hand was cut off. Once we’ve created circumstances where the welfare of society is guaranteed, if there are still thieves, only then will we prosecute them. The judge can then decide whether the level of robbery justifies cutting off the thief’s hand or not. If we punish thieves in this Islamic way it may seem cruel. But by cutting off one thief’s hand, we teach all the other thieves their lesson.

Supporters of democracy are hyprocrites. They use exactly the same punishment as Islam but don’t want to call it Islamic law. For example, thieves in Singapore are punished with lashes, an Islamic style of punishment. And that is Islamic law. But when we use the same punishment and call it Islamic law they criticise it. What sort of logic is that?

Imam Subkhan ( is a program coordinator at LABDA Shalahuddin, an NGO that promotes civil society and progressive Islamic concepts in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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