The hard task facing Muslim democrats

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

It was a challenging conversation. The Moroccan parliamentarian wasn’t having any of my argument. Egypt was the largest Muslim country in the world, he insisted. Why on earth was I talking about Indonesia?

Five years on, I would like to think he has discovered that the Arab world does not have a monopoly on Islam. Indonesia, with a population of 250 million, is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. And Bangladesh and Pakistan are not that far behind.

But things may not have changed all that much. My Moroccan interlocutor’s lack of knowledge of Islam’s global outreach and different interpretations is not unusual.

Ignorance about Islam’s presence outside the Arab world is surprisingly widespread. For too many people, Islam is still often seen as a Middle Eastern religion, a preserve of the Arab world.

True, there is recognition of Iran and Turkey as non-Arab Muslim countries. But few have an inkling that the Middle East and North Africa are home to only 20% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims – and that an estimated 60% of Muslims live in Asia.

For too many people, Islam is still often seen as a Middle Eastern religion

Also, as the Pew Research Centre points out, more than 300 million Muslims, or about one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population, live in countries, including India, China and Russia, where Islam is not the majority religion.

The narrow focus on Arabs and Islam has several unhappy consequences. Glossing over the Shia-Sunni divide and various other manifestations of the religion, it leads to an unfortunate equation between Islam and its extremist Wahabi/Salafi interpretations which are sourced in the Middle East.

The Arab-Islam focus also links Islam to Middle Eastern terrorism, wars and conflicts. And it ties Islam to largely unpleasant authoritarian regimes, monarchies as well as frail and fragile states.

The war in Syria, the rise of the so-called Islamic State, terrorist attacks in major global capitals, dictatorships and intolerant regimes cast a dark shadow over Islam and Muslims across the world.

The spread of extremism and ultra-conservative versions of Islam reinforce perceptions of the religion as violent, cruel and anti-democratic. The reality is more complicated. Wahabism may be spreading its devastating message across vast swathes of the Muslim world, but gentler versions of Islam still survive – and struggle to thrive – in many parts of the world.

In Asia, Africa and many parts of the Middle East, there are Muslim democrats who are struggling to make freedom, justice, gender rights, democracy and the rule of law a part of a progressive message of Islam in the 21st Century.

Most find it difficult to make their voice heard over the strident clamour of extremists. Unlike those advocating violence and terror, Muslim democrats don’t make the headlines. And their struggle can lead to confrontation with governments

In Asia, Africa and many parts of the Middle East, there are Muslim democrats struggling to make a progressive message of Islam

Authentic Muslim democracies are certainly few, far between and flawed. Even Indonesia, which is well-placed to lead the struggle for Islamic renewal given its largely positive record in transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, is plagued by creeping intolerance and attacks against religious minorities. Turkey has certainly lost the plot. Democracy in Tunisia remains fragile.

Even so, the voice and message of Muslims – politicians, scholars, human rights groups, feminists – who are striving to craft a new narrative on Islam need to get a wider audience.

In Asia and Africa, their task is not easy, not least because it requires a fundamental shift in attitudes and mind sets away from the Middle East. But the future of Islam’s renewal lies in the vast non-Arab world which is home to a majority of Muslims.

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