Politics is a central aspect of social organization as it represents the activities that aim at coordinating the interests and concerns of citizens. Politics presupposes an agreement on a set of rules to ensure representation of citizens in decision making and governance, and to facilitate peaceful transition of power. In most functional democracies, elected officials are replaced whenever they lose popular support in national elections.
Many Muslim countries have embraced the democratic process, but most have not yet succeeded in overcoming the old politics of palace intrigue that plagued governance in historical Muslim countries. Sheer police and military power, as well as political conspiracy and trickery, is often used by political elites in Muslim countries to seek or maintain power. Malaysia and Turkey are among the very few Muslim societies that are ahead in practicing democracy, and holding their political leaders accountable, as both have a thriving multi-party system and markedly developed civil society.
Recent events in these two countries illustrate the difficult transition to democratic governance in Muslim societies. After a torturous route to political participation, the Islamically-inspired Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym as APK) that represents the middle class is locked in a power struggle with nationalist elites. The latter have shown willingness to use the judiciary and the military to undermine the standing of a popular political party that commands 2/3 majority in the parliament. The immediate conflict is over the constitutionality of allowing devout Muslim women to wear head scarf on university campuses.
Rather than recognizing that wearing head cover is a personal choice and religious obligation that must be protected by the democratic principle of freedom of religion, the nationalists accuse APK of undermining the secular tradition of Turkey, and are considering a ban on the party and its leaders. The party chair and Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan was imprisoned in the late 90’s for reciting a religious poem when he was Istanbul’s mayor. The nationalists apparently believe that they can fool the Turkish people by using democratic language and concerns to hide their desire to maintain grip on power and deny their ideological opponents the opportunity to control state institutions through fair democratic competition.
A similar struggle is underway now in Malaysia. The leaders of the ruling party, which has been in power since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, have apparently decided to maintain grip on power by implicating the leader of opposition in a sexual scandal. Anwar Ibrahim, who led the opposition into a major political victory last March and who is poised to become the country prime minister, stands accused of sodomy by a young political aide. Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and long term rival of Anwar, admitted to meeting Anwar’s accuser in his residence two days before the later made his damaging accusation. The deputy prime minister is himself linked to the murder of a Mongolian translator, and his political adviser and two of his aides are among those charged with the crime. The current sodomy accusation is a rerun of a similar tactics used in 1998 by the same party to deny Anwar, then the party’s deputy president, the right to contest for the highest office.
Both Recep Erdogan and Anwar Ibrahim represent a new breed of democratic leaders in Muslim countries driven by a new vision of politics rooted in Islamic morality that stresses the social accountability of political leaders. Both espouse commitment to religious freedom and to political and social pluralism. And both have shown the willingness to make great personal sacrifices to advance their vision of politics.
The heroic acts of courageous leaders like Anwar and Recep, while greatly admirable and inspiring, would not be sufficient by themselves to transform Malaysia and Turkey into functional democracies. Such transformation requires a new political awareness and activism that take away political power from the exclusive control of political elites and makes fair and equitable governance the concerns of engaging citizenry. It requires the emergence of vibrant and assertive civil-society organizations that reject political trickery and manipulation, and demand that elected officials are held accountable for their statements and actions.
Most importantly, transformation to true democratic rule presupposes a citizenry that is not willing to be fooled by its elected officials. The Qur’an gives a great insight into the source of power enjoyed by dictators and tyrants: their ability to fool the people to garner their support. This ability is, ironically, derived from the willingness of a corrupt people to be fooled into accepting false claims in exchange for gaining personal advantage. The Qur’an presents the Pharaoh as the epitome of arrogant of arbitrary political power, and attributes his ability to govern with impunity to the willingness of his people to follow him, even when he made fool of them: “[Pharaoh] made fool of his people and they obeyed him, they were truly people given to corruption.” While the contemporary ruling elites in nominal democracies may not compare in arrogance with the Pharaoh, the dynamics of retaining political control is often the same.
The efforts by the vestiges of arrogant and arbitrary power in Malaysia and Turkey are trying to maintain their political edge by fooling the citizens of their countries through political games and trickery, thereby turning national politics into circus. Their failure will signal the end of politics as the instrument of power-hungry leaders and the beginning of politics as an exercise in social responsibility. It will also make their two important countries a source of hope and inspiration for future transformation in other Muslim societies.
Will democracy take hold in modern Muslim societies? The next few months are poignant with agonizing fear and great hope, and the answer hinges on whether Malaysians and Turks will succumb to the intimidation of the power hungry or show the maturity and courage worthy of free and principled people.