The arrival of the 21st century has seen Muslims the world over grappling to determine their identities amid unique challenges brought by the waves of modernisation and globalisation. The Muslim-majority nation states account for a quarter of the world’s total of 192 nation states, encompassing the Middle East, South Caucasus, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Muslims also constitute a significant minority in countries such as India, China, US, UK, Germany and France. Totalling a fifth of the world’s population, the Muslim world has absorbed the Islamic faith into its richly diverse customs and traditions. The aim of this article is to examine whether the mixing of religion and politics inherently produces the antithesis of a progressive political order. The method of the assessment is made through analysis of the nature of governance, political culture, and the prospect of democracy in Muslim societies, focusing on three Muslim-majority states: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Indonesia.
Speculation on the prevailing dearth of democratic systems in Muslim societies has made some scholars perceive the Islamic ideology to be inherently undemocratic and anti-modern. Therefore, the issues relating to the governance types, political cultures, and the prospects of democracy in Muslim societies deserve attention. It is necessary, however, to distinguish the term “democracy” from “liberalism”. It can be argued that “democracy” is accommodative of varying connotations. Examples include direct and indirect democracy; majority rule and majority vote.
The selection of the three nation-states has been carefully made so as to canvass the diverse characteristics of Muslim political cultures across the globe. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia presents as an iconic image of the orthodox Islamic heartland, as it is the guardian of the two Muslim holy shrines as well as boasting to be the birthplace of the Prophet of Islam. On the other hand, Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population of 183 million, which makes it a significant candidate in determining the future shape of Islam. The Islamic Republic of Iran not only depicts a Shiite perspective concerning the issues under discussion, but also holds symbolic significance for all Muslims.
Factors shaping local Muslim political culture
The factors of geopolitics and strategic interests have generated Muslim political movements, since the final quarter of the 20th century, that have sought to return to indigenous values rather than mimicking a classic Western model - a common impetus prevalent amid other non-Western societies such as China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and India.
The resurgence of religio-nationalist movements in Muslim societies is a common phenomenon shared globally by other non-Muslim societies. Examples include the Hindu nationalism in India, Zionism in Israel, political Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and Evangelical nationalism in the US. “Muslim political culture” implies any mode of political culture that is claimed by Muslims to be in line with the Islamic guidelines. “Islamist movement” refers to an “umbrella designation” for a very broad array of movements: pro-scientific, anti-scientific, pacifist, violent, devotional, political, democratic and authoritarian with diverse philosophies, shaped by a unique interlocking of multifarious factors. Some of the examples are mentioned below.
Authoritarian non-Muslim regimes risk confronting radical Muslim opposition groups when “economic and social fault lines intersect with ethnic and religious ones”, as in the cases of Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Philippines, Thailand, Xinjiang, and elsewhere.
An overwhelming majority of the opposition Muslim political parties seek peaceful and legitimate means to come to power whenever the ruling state makes an effort to liberalise and ensure a civil society. For instance, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) operates peacefully in accordance with the state regulations of Malaysia, which boasts industrial growth, political stability and “one of South-East Asia’s most vibrant economies”.
Anti-Western sentiment in the minds of Muslims mounts up relative to the degree that the West in general and the US in particular is perceived to be the principal international supporter of corrupt governments in the Muslim world, such as Shah’s Iran, Saddam’s Iraq in 1980, and now Islam’s Uzbekistan, where democratisation would raise the likelihood of the “client states’ being transformed into … less predictable nations which might make Western access to oil less secure”. The US and its allies are seen as having a double standard with regard to international policymaking. Examples include the US’s discriminatory stance on the following:
- the violation of U.N. resolutions (Israel, Iraq);
- the prevention of support for so-called terrorist organisations (IRA, HAMAS); and
- tolerance of the mixing of religion and politics in nation-states (Eastern Europe, Algeria).
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia exemplifies an ultra-conservative or traditional model of governance, built upon the historical template of patrimonial and nomadic Nejdi tribes. The Saudi regime institutionalised Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrinal philosophy, which favoured an austere interpretation of the sacred texts, with politically quietist and socially conservative implications.
The presence of a sizeable Shia minority within the population and the neighbouring Shiite Iran has also had catalytic effects on promoting the exclusivist philosophy of kingdom-sponsored doctrine.