Conference Reports

Islam and Politics

Date: 19-Jul-2002

Islam and Politics
Kuala Lumpur International Forum on Islam 2002
July 19-21 2002
Sheraton Imperial, KL
Organized by Department of Deputy Prime Minister


The three-day forum was intended to bring together scholars and intellectuals for an open debate & discourse on challenges in Islamic world, and validify contemporary opinions. It drew speakers who are experts in religion, political science, law, sociology and anthropology from countries including the Netherlands, Turkey, Indonesia, United States, Canada, South Africa, Iran, Britain, Switzerland, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The forum aimed to demonstrate that Islam is fundamentally egalitarian, open, tolerant and pluralist in nature. It encouraged Muslims to challenge the narrow rendering of Islamic theology and to break free from the rigid man-made interpretations of the law.

The forum looked into the concept of an Islamic State and the assessment of Islamic States post-1945. It analyzed the success and failure of countries that had declared themselves or were seen as Islamic states, e.g. Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, and looked at issues relating to non-Muslim minorities, fundamental liberties/human rights, women, economics, politics, culture and the relationship between Islamic countries and the West. The forum included current topic on "Politics of Islamic Movements," which looked into the common traits and differences that define them. There were also discussions on the Islamic perspectives of human rights, democracy, politics and economics of globalization.


  1. Concept of Islamic States: There is no precise model or definition of an Islamic State. The term was used after the Prophet's time and after Western Colonization when Muslims needed an identity.1 The concept has been experimental, pragmatic and is mainly a phenomenon developed after the colonial revolution, determined by four significant forces: traditional political culture, process of modernization, colonial heritage and existing international order of bipolarity.2 It is believed that a state is Islamic if it upholds the principles of justice and not simply based on religiosity, dogma of Islam or of devotional acts. A person can be a Muslim without believing in a state or any system of government. Therefore the formation of a government is not an Islamic obligation. However, the concept of Islamic State is at best open to further exploration and interpretation in the language of Islamic jurisprudence. What exists today is in fact Islamic States "in the making."

  2. Assessment of post-1945 Islamic States: The Muslim world is facing the dilemma of reconciling territorial identity. It faces three fundamental challenges: (a) Islamic values and social/national integration within the existing territories of the states; (b) economic development, productivity and welfare inconsistent with Islamic axiological framework; (c) international environment and Islamic trans-nationality of foreign policy. The propagation of the so-called "sacred" state ideology in some dysfunctional Islamic States creates a certain form of "criminal state in the name of an ethical project."3 It is believed that justice in present Islamic States cannot be achieved without modernization and democratization. The rights of citizen, especially that of women, must be introduced into the jurisprudence. Nevertheless, their continuous resistance to democratization ascribes to many factors, including Islam itself and influence of Islamic heritage, weak civil society, financial dependency on foreign sources or resources such as oil & minerals, foreign influence, persistent patriarchal modes of thought & social relations, fragmented nature of Muslim societies and colonial experience.

  3. Law: The recent emphasis on Syariah and divine sovereignty aims to provide an Islamic identity. Its original purpose, i.e. to curb the tyranny and restrain state absolutism, has been neglected and thus leads to the failure of law. Islamic jurisprudence is human product, not binding but enlightening because the law Syariah, revealed in Quran and through Prophet, is a dynamic ever-developing and open-ended legal system. It is acknowledged that constitutional law is one of the most under-developed areas of Islamic laws due to the prevalence of dictatorship that suppressed freedom of expression in politics.

  4. Islamic Political Movements: It was essentially a non-Hudud movement that was concerned with the intellectual liberation of Muslims, anti-corruption, curbing social problems and injustice. Some Muslim scholars assert that disorientation and dislocation caused by the perceived threat of globalization led Muslims to seek religious comfort, to return to Islam or to Islamic authenticity. It produces at least two tendencies: (a) the return to Syariah; and (b) the adoption of Sufism4 for psychological and spiritual peace. The revival movements based on the first tendency are problematic, the groups tending to carry out serious and radical attempts for Islamic political entity. Unfortunately, all these movements are built and organized around a particular sect that is intolerant of other sects and versions of Islam. (The most significant "clash of cultures" today is the rival political traditions within the same Islamic community). While disagreeing with each other, these are essentially protest movements, aimed at purifying Islam, to a certain extent, by introducing 14th century-old version of Islam to the 20th & 21st century society.

  5. Islam, Human Rights & democracy: The present failure of political Islam seems to make human rights impossible. The problem is that Muslims have not taken modernity into consideration and many view human rights apologetically and believe Islam has all the answers. Self-righteousness is the crippling predicament in Islam. Nevertheless, an Islamic State is a state of ummah, a civilian state. It is neither theocratic nor totally secular, rooted in the notion of trust and vicegerency to administer justice and secure welfare of the people. It is a qualified democracy, elected by the people and must conduct its affair through consultation. The modern democratic process could provide practical mechanism for securing human rights as well as achieving principles of Syariah, because the constitution and courts could guard Islamic legitimacy and principles of Syariah.

The forum was largely attended by those who acknowledged and advocated the significance of democracy, ijtihad, open debate in Islamic law within the sociopolitical framework of time and space. Though the forum aimed to achieve certain consensus among the liberal/moderate Muslim scholars and participants, the growing number of conservative Muslims remains a great threat to the world at large. The internal conflicts are still going on between advocates of progressive and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

Dr Robert Hefner believes that infusing religious values into political process, acknowledging the importance of religion and allowing it to shape action and policy-making, are ways of reconciling the conflicts. Ironically, it is precisely the differences in religious values that are causing conflicts among the people groups, and differences in interpretations of Islamic theology that are causing disunity within the Muslim ummah. In any of the multicultural and pluralistic South-east Asian countries, how does one determine which religious values to be appropriately applied? How does one decide which version of Islam (UMNO or PAS) is the true Islam? Once the religious values of certain Muslim groups are infused into public institution, the government structures and policies will be based on the Quran and Islamic law, and would therefore be unquestionable. As such, where do non-Muslims stand?

Upon recognizing that intense political merging of Islam and political power do not provide greater political stability, the conservative clerics are under increasing challenge in Iran, and political Islam is largely suppressed in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and even Algeria.

Muslims scholars may say that Islam is essentially a qualified democracy. But the fact is that most people in the Islamic world - with a few exceptions - do not live under democratic governments, so how can one be convinced that democracy is possible in an Islamic State? While there may be a continuation of such free debate forum in Islam among the moderate scholars and Westerners, the majority of citizens on the grassroot level remain ignorant and conservative.

  1. Dr Mohammad Fathi Osman
  2. Prof. Dr. Davutoglu
  3. Dr. El-Affendi
  4. Mystical movement, probably a reaction against the growth of jurisprudence.

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