Muslim, Despotism, and Protecting the Majority

Arguing about the differences between republic and democracy, Immanuel Kant once said that democracy, in the proper sense of the term, is necessarily a despotism, because it sets up an executive power in which all citizens make decisions about and, if need be, against one (who therefore does not agree).

Such a reminder to a politics 101 class is of important as we witness the ongoing debate on how to accommodate what so called aspiration of Muslim "majority", a debate also appeared recently in the polemic between Aguswandi (who wrote Say No to Conservative Islam, The Jakarta Post, Aug. 30) and Zulkifliansyah (who responded with his Islam, Muslims and democracy in Indonesia, The Jakarta Post, Sept 12).

The problematic claim "Muslim as a majority" is typical within the arguments of Indonesian Islamists like Zulkifliansyah. To them, the demographical data recording religious affiliation is a fair justification to claim the right of Muslims as a majority to make way for their religious values and interpretation in public life.

Aceh is a province with, say, 99% of its population are Muslims. If that majority fight for their Islamic aspirations, such as the implementation of Islamic law, and they win it "democratically", then nothing wrong with that implementation of Islamic law in Aceh. It would be politically and morally correct because that is the way democracy, according to this argument, works.

From a Kantian approach, however, the problem this argument poses is that it moves "democracy" from the level of sovereignty to the level of forma regiminis (the form of government or the way people are governed). "From the people, by the people, and to the people" is a nice formulation for the sovereignty but, alas, not for the regime. When this democratic formulation of sovereignty is applied to the form of regime, then the regime is in fact despotic one.

It is necessarily true that democracy, in many ways, would be in favor of the majority and that is after all the practical way we elect our representatives and political leaders and the way we make some decisions. However, because of its majority-sided tendency, democracy indeed requires republic, a way to govern people representatively. Expanding Kantian approach for Indonesian context, I would rather argue for putting at least two requirements to govern the people representatively.

First of all is toleration. Zulkifliansyah is right that it is literally undemocratic not to acknowledge the freedom of people to choose a conservative path and because not all conservative can be pooled in one camp. Some, he believes, are promoting the broader sense of shariah. The problem, however, is that he can't guarantee that such a conservatism would also embrace toleration required to live together within the game of democracy.

When a locality implement its Perda anti-Maksiyat (local law preventing amoral behaviors) containing an obligation to wear busana muslimah (simply interpreted as headscarf instead of modesty), it applies indiscriminately to all those identify themselves in their identity-cards Muslims, regardless their personal interpretation on the case. As it has been implemented, local law doesn’t tolerate Muslim women to wear a modest but non-headscarf clothing. In some cases, even non-Muslim women are forced to wear headscarf.

Headscarf is only one of several interpretations and forcing one interpretation against different ones is despotic, not democratic. If we are required to respect the conservative to promote their idea, they are required to embrace toleration first.

The second most important is protecting the minority. If we look at how the Islamists promote their ideology in the name of democracy, the main feature is indeed a struggle for protecting the majority. We will be able to make the case easily in this upcoming Ramadan.

Muslims, the Islamists always argue for, are the majority; and because the majority are fasting throughout the month, those who are not fasting must respect the majority. I said "must", because the respect is more than a moral preference to respect the fasting Muslims. It has been instead a public obligation supported by local laws (perda) regulating entertainment business, enforced by local police and, worst, by Islamic groups using violence in the name of Muslim rights to perform their religious obligation. We just need a couple days until the front pages of Indonesian papers would report their attacks on the night clubs during the fasting nights.

If such a tendency to accommodate the majority's aspiration implies the policy of protecting the majority rather than the minority, we really need going back to school and re-learn how to implement democracy for the sake of our beloved bhinneka tunggal ika nation.

Without those two basic requirements, on which we are lack of, democracy is nothing but despotism.

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