The Long View: Islamic democracy

Islamic democracy

By Manuel L. Quezon III
First Posted 02:19am (Mla time) 05/31/2007

There was a fascinating account in Mindanews last Tuesday about a proposal by Archbishop Orlando Quevedo to establish a kind of Electoral College system in Muslim Mindanao — and some reactions to the proposal. Quevedo said that based on his observations in Muslim Mindanao since the 1960s, “there is a distinct traditional political structure — with possible cultural and, perhaps, religious elements — at work in how leaders are elected.” Traditional leaders in the community, he said, decide for the community: their status ensures acceptance of their decisions as the will of the whole.

Mindanews reported that Quevedo shared his observations following the claim by Norie Unas that Team Unity’s 12-0 sweep in Maguindanao province was the product of the Islamic tradition of Shura (consultations). Allegations of fraud have engulfed not only Maguindanao but also the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Shariff Kabunsuan and Lanao del Sur and Marawi City, which make up the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Some Muslim leaders have denounced the allegations as a manifestation of the lack of understanding of Muslim culture, made worse by the traditional distrust, even contempt, Filipino Christians have for their Muslim fellow citizens.

The biases are certainly there. You only have to recall the effort of the late Max Soliven to deny the Muslims a prayer room in Greenhills (an effort loudly, and effectively, opposed in turn not only by Muslims but also by Christians who were upset by Soliven’s campaign) to confirm these. But certainly it is wrong to think that the problems spring from a culture of electoral fraud that is unique to Mindanao and, somehow, uniquely Islamic. To think so would be slander against Mindanaoans and Islam.

Quevedo proposed that “ARMM elections should be by a council of elders or the like in a given municipality or province.” Some Filipino Muslims have taken up Quevedo’s proposal. But there have been objections, too, from those who’ve studied the region’s history. Historian Patricio Abinales, for one, says such proposals are just a thinly disguised effort to perpetuate a traditional leadership that has ill-served its constituents.

In a 1996 article, titled “Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions of Reformation,” (, Robin Wright points out that “Islam … is not lacking in tenets and practices that are compatible with pluralism. Among these are the traditions of ijtihad (interpretation), ijma (consensus), and shura (consultation).”

The real question is: Is the Shura fundamentally opposed to the democracy practiced in, and expected of, Filipinos everywhere else?

Filipinos, whether Muslims or Christians, value their elders; and regardless of their faith, many families — the basic bedrock of all our regional cultures — prefer to arrive at decisions, including those related to voting, by consensus. But that is irrelevant to allegations of fraud; the counting is the primary issue now, and mathematics involves no religion. Other problems — e.g., voter intimidation and bribery — are not unique to the ARMM; they are nationwide. The problem is, the opportunities for getting away with fraud are larger in places at the periphery (geographically and resource-wise) of the nation — like the ARMM — except when the national media and election watchdogs make a concerted effort, as they’re doing now, to focus on how voting and counting take place.

Whether Christian or Muslim, local leaders are tempting “preys” to national leaders who want to use them. Local leaders hope that national support will give them an edge when it comes to their primary goal: to stay in power and deny it, in turn, to their opponents. When an administration has a fighting chance, nationally, there’s no shortage of local leaders willing and able to do their part; when an administration faces a public tide of resentment, the fight becomes particularly crucial, and media attention and civic participation can be countered. National and local leaders connive to delay matters so that votes can be manipulated strategically: hence the focus on the Muslim Mindanao provinces where the voting has been delayed, and where local leaders can claim they can deliver blocs of votes, and where media are most hard-pressed to report the real score.

So let’s keep our perspective. Islam then, is not, by its nature, fundamentally opposed to, or incompatible with, democracy; though there may be particular interpretations of Islam that are less comfortable with democracy. And so the productive dialogue involves non-Muslims respectfully asking if the tradition of Islam demands the kind of political reexamination Quevedo has proposed.

Wright points out that the debate over Islam and democracy is one that interests the entire Islamic world: “Overall, the obstacles to political pluralism in Islamic countries are not unlike the problems earlier faced in other parts of the world: secular ideologies such as Ba’athism in Iraq and Syria, Pancasila in Indonesia, or lingering communism in some former Soviet Central Asian states brook no real opposition…. Rigid government controls over everything, from communications in Saudi Arabia and Brunei to foreign visitors in Uzbekistan … also isolate their people from democratic ideas and debate on popular empowerment.”

To think of Islam as anti-modern, anti-democratic — and to suggest that because of this, democracy can’t be practiced in Islamic societies — is a flawed notion and might actually be a kind of subconscious throwback to the biases and prejudices that have led to troubled Muslim-Christian and Muslim-secular relations.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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