Saturday, December 09, 2006
ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY CAN
© Duncan Graham
French Muslim scholar Soheib Bencheikh, 45, has been touring Java giving
speeches and meeting key people, including the Indonesian Ulemas’ Council (MUI).
He was born in Saudi Arabia, lived in Algeria, studied in Egypt and now heads an
Islamic teaching institute in Paris.
Bencheikh, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles, became famous for supporting
the ban on Islamic headscarves in France. Before giving a speech in Arabic
to staff and students at Surabaya’s State Islamic University he spoke to Duncan
Isn’t Islam and democracy a contradiction? Doesn’t Islam say only God can be
supreme, not the people?
Have you ever heard God speaking to you? He speaks through the people. He’s left
a message to us that must be interpreted by us, the people. Men and women have
their own understanding of that message.
Those who say Islam and democracy can’t co-exist don’t understand either term.
There’s a great lack of knowledge.
To be a thinking person is to always be searching and constantly having doubts.
How can an intelligent human have total belief in any faith?
They can’t. The 100 per cent believer doesn’t exist. Nor is there a 100 per cent
atheist. Between the extremes of total belief and non-belief there are many
positions – and these are constantly changing. Today you may have only a few
doubts – tomorrow, many.
The real test for all theologians is to constantly interrogate the self.
Last year the MUI issued an edict against pluralism, liberalism and secularism.
What’s your response?
They’re going backwards if they think they’re still living in a time when
nations were separate and didn’t interact.
The idea that the state should be more Islamic is coming from history, not the
A secular state protects minorities. If France didn’t have liacite (the law
prohibiting the state recognising religion and now a core value in French
culture) then Muslims would be at risk from the Catholic majority. This protects
everyone – but many Moslems don’t understand the history of liacite.
A secular state also protects by keeping politics out of religion. Politicians
try to use religion to further their personal interests. Without religion,
political debate can be rational and free of dogma
Religion without politics attracts only those genuinely interested in faith – it
liberates religion from the opportunists.
In Indonesia the majority follow Islam, and the state demands all belong to one
of the government-approved religions.
We should not use force, but respect. There should be no pressure on the
conscience - people should be free to choose or not choose.
All the more reason for a secular government to protect the minorities. Even
here in Indonesia you have to be prepared to recognize that Islam is a minority
religion in the world.
The reality is a future where there will be no single majority religion.
How do you respond to those who say the Koran is the word of God and cannot be
questioned or tampered with in any way?
The book itself isn’t sacred – it’s the objective ideas within the text. When we
talk about the book we have to think about the language that was used, the
context, and the culture at the time – even the weather!
In Indonesia we’ve had a preacher jailed for leading prayers in Indonesian.
At the time of the Prophet there was no unified Arab language. The language used
in the Koran was that of the Prophet’s tribe. From the very first Muslims were
authorized to use their own languages.
Some say that although Muslims in Indonesia are in the majority they suffer from
an inferiority complex.
Arab civilisation was once the highest in the world. It helped lead to the
Renaissance in Europe. Now everything has moved to the West. Arab civilisation
is finished! We need to be part of what’s happening in the West – either that or
live in the nostalgia of the past.
It’s always easier to blame others for our problems rather than look into
ourselves to see what’s wrong. We have to recognize that we don’t have a
monopoly on ethics and morality.
If the light goes out in your room is it best to sit in the darkness, or ask
your neighbors if you can share in their illumination, or fix the problem?
Export your Indonesian form of Islam to the world. Don’t try and import from the
You have a moderate form of Islam here synthesized with other beliefs. We should
not be afraid to express our ideologies, ask questions of ourselves and through
such questioning, develop our thinking.
Modern Islam is sweeping away all traditions – that’s too easy and not
convincing. The challenge is to go back to the Koranic text and apply new
readings that are applicable today.
Islamic culture is brilliant! If you love others you want to share your culture
with them – and we want to share.
Muslims were wrong to protest against Danes when cartoonists lampooned the
This is what freedom of expression means. Even if people are mocking, at least
they’re showing an interest in Islam and starting to recognize it as part of
Could you talk like this is Saudi Arabia?
Yes, because I’m not attacking Islam.
But you’re attacking some people’s ideas of Islam.
The people most disturbed by the idea of a secular state are politicians who try
to maintain power by using Islam. These legislators are hypocrites. This power
Islam is not the property of individuals – it’s a message to the world.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 December 06)