Faith and facts

Ninus Andarnuswari

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Journalists covering a terrorist attack in Central Jakarta, 14 January 2016.
Photo: WikiCommons

Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia
Janet Steele 
NUS Press: 2018
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The question of whether or not Islam is compatible with liberal democracy has long animated political scientists. Samuel P. Huntington famously offered a fatalistic view — that it would lead to a “clash of civilisations”, especially between the West and the Muslim world.

Indeed, advocates of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy are quick to claim that Islamists everywhere aspire to estabish an Islamic state, where shariah law would be fully implemented to cure all the ills of modern society. (Shariah includes stipulations to cut off the hands of thieves and stone people who commit adultery.) Those proponents draw further ammunition from the fact that many Muslim countries have existed under authoritarian rule for much of their modern history. As if that’s not enough, the advent of “global terrorism” spawned by militant groups like al-Qaeda, Islamic State and others leads to the inevitable conclusion that Islam is anathema to the ideals of democracy.

In some cases, the enmity is mutual. Many in the Muslim world harbour suspicions that democracy, along with its fundamental tenets such as human rights and freedom of speech, is some sort of a Western concoction or conspiracy to undermine Islam. In Indonesia, for example, Islamic groups such as the vocal Islamic Defenders’ Front see democracy as an evil Western plan to thwart Muslims at every step. To make their point, they assume a hostile attitude toward the use of words like “liberal”, “secular” and “pluralism”. The Indonesian Ulema Council has even denounced “pluralism” — (deliberately) mistaking it for a heterodox act of people from all religious backgrounds praying together and mixing rituals. A simple online search for “Ulil Abshar-Abdalla”, the founder of the Islamic Liberal Network, who comes from a prominent Nahdlatul Ulama family (the largest moderate Muslim organisation in Indonesia), associates his name with “sesat” (heresy). Add the word “liberal”, and the results offer a glimpse of the widespread prejudice against Western ideologies.

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