Tyranny of Majority: Democracy or Political Islam’s fault?

From Editor: Actually the thoughts about the malleability of Islam, making it possible to moblize people politically, are applicable to other religions, such as Christianity. All in all, the reinterpretations of religious teachings are all done by human kind; we are and will never ever be God and perfect.

1. Introduction

Arskal Salim described the democratization in Indonesia as having a danger of “tyranny of majority” by the dominance of Islam in the state. [1] Interestingly, this assertion induces a question: What’s the origin of this religious tyranny of majority problem—is it one of the intrinsic features of democracy or due to the incompatibility between the Islamic beliefs, which is intolerant by nature to other value systems such as religious ones, and democratic values?

There is a remark on the definition of political Islam for discussion. It’s the synthesis of Islam and politics whereby Islam becomes a medium for the expression and practice of politics.[2]

Another remark will be made on “majorities and minorities”. The meaning of the term is in a relative sense and changes in different contexts. In this essay, it mainly refers to Muslims and non-muslims in the aspect of religious issues.


2. Origin of Tyranny of Majority

2.1 Describing the tyranny of majority problem

Arskal Salim well illustrates political islam efforts, as shown by the three cases mentioned, are conducted in a hierarchical and intolerant manner, which can possibly eliminate the diversity in the society.

2.2 Democracy by nature allows the tyranny of majority?

One may say the tyranny of majority problem is led by the nature of democracy. With the practice of “one person, one vote”, the majority as Muslim in Indonesia can then easily have an advantage over non-muslims in shaping the political decision making process on religious affairs.

This assertion does have some credits. Before further elaboration, we may make a remark on “democracy” we are referring to. We shall focus on the actual practice of democratic institutions as well, rather than simply just its spirit as “to value and protect rights of all citizens equally”[3]. Owing to the large size of the state with huge population, technically it’s not feasible to conduct direct democracy, under which almost everyone can be involved as Greek assemblies, on every public issue. Thus, representative democracy, which is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals, many of whom may appear as a member of political parties, representing the people, is commonly used in democratic regimes. [4] The essence of the representative democracy is then on “vote”, which constitutes the power base for individuals to get political power; the more vote they get, the stronger the political power they can have. Because of this “vote-oriented” feature, a series of political behavior, which all talk about maximizing the number of vote, are then derived: whether the political parties are programmic or clientalistic[5] to gain mass support; the election itself is used instrumentally as a means of social control by legitimating certain forms and avenues of participation while deligitimating others and so on. On this basis, political parties are sometimes described as “necessary evil” in the representative democracy due to the “vote-oriented” feature, by which the majority, acting as a large vote and thus political power source, is taken more care, sowing the seeds for tyranny of majority problems and being contradictive to democracy spirit.

On top of that, we cannot just simply treat representative democracy in isolation of other variables, which include the economic and political conditions, social structures, which help the shape the actual content of representative democracy. [6]So to speak, the content of representative democracy, including party settings, is arbitrary to contexts.

We shall return to the Indonesia context. There are two factors, related to representative democracy, favouring the tyranny of majority of mulsim over non-muslims: first, the 88% of population as Muslim believers provides a strong incentive for political parties to take more care of their wills, as reflected by the political islam effort, as trials to maximize the number of votes in election; second, the socio-cultural structure is not favouring for the public to be conscious about the importance of respecting the rights of minorities as non-muslims. Besides the case of regulations of place of worship, there was news on 16 Oct, 2009 which can illustrate the overwhelming power of muslim in socio-cultural context.[7] An AV porn star, Maria Ozawa, was invited to Indonesia to take a comedy film, which is not pornographic at all. However, due to the attacks from Muslim students, hardliner organizations, and Amidhan, the Chair of MUI, as well as the demonstrations organized, the film company eventually could not stand with such social pressure and cancelled the schedule of Maria Ozawa for taking the film in Indonesia. What may attract our notice is that in the meantime the invitation received some support from feminists and even got the agreement from Minister of Religious Affair in Indonesia. In short, the vote-oriented feature of representative democracy, along with the socio-cultural context it situates in, the Muslim believers get a huge advantage in religious affairs discussion, in the realms of agenda setting, policy formulation and so on.

One needs to notice that though political parties play an important role of articulating interests into the state in representative society, it’s not the sole one for doing so. It can be explained by understanding political parties as one of the elements of political society bridging the state and civil society[8]. Based on this relationship between civil society and political parties, in the context of religious affairs in Indonesia, large Islamic organizations as NU and MUI in the civil society can possibly have prominent influence on shaping the orientations of political parties. This gives hints on how the socio-cultural contexts define majorities and minorities, via political parties, leading to tyranny of majority problems in representative democracy. The partnership between MUI and PKS on influencing agenda settings of religious affairs illustrates this point. [9]

One may argue if the socio-cultural context matters, then why we lay the blame to democracy itself but not the immature society? The answer stems from the key feature of “vote-oriented” of representative democracy. Once this feature exists, the majorities will always matter for distributing the political influence. The socio-cultural contexts just help us to distinguish who the majorities and minorities are in different places and time. The blame is only invalid when one sufficiently argues that “vote-oriented” is not the key feature of representative democracy.

Another argument will say representative democracy would self-adjust for addressing the problem of tyranny of majority given by poll results in May 2009. Despite the fact that almost 90 per cent of the electorate is Muslim, Islamic parties gained less than 30 per cent of the vote – their lowest figure over the three democratic elections held after the downfall of President Soeharto in 1998.[10] One may conclude that the majority will not necessarily induce tyranny along the timeline and thus optimistically the religious tyranny of majority problem would be solved. This argument is flawed by two reasons. First, the obvious decline in support for Islamic parties does not necessarily mean that the influence of muslim on religious affairs declines when the case of Maria Ozawa shows the muslim religious power is still overwhelming. The possible explanation for the declined support for Muslim parties may be just due to their weak governing power but not the decreased influence of the religion. This perspective is resonated with the observation saying that “if the new secular government fails to address Indonesia’s deep-rooted social and economic problems over the next five years, an Islamic alternative might become more appealing.” [11] Second, as mentioned before, as long as the description of “vote-oriented” feature is valid, the tyranny of majority problem will still exist, though the content of majority will change with contexts.

In short, the religious tyranny of majority problems are derived from the “vote-oriented” feature, which is the hallmark of representative democracy. It thus induces tension with the spirit of democracy as “valuing and protecting rights of all citizens equally”. There are two possible ways out: 1. The version of reinterpretation of Islamic belief emphasizing on tolerance gains the dominant political power, which will be shown as not likely to happen in Indonesia’s context in the following section; 2. The political leaders are determined not to be “vote-oriented” on religious affairs by acknowledging the importance of respecting the rights of minority religious groups as achieving good governance. This would somehow be contingent.

2.3. Political Islam: an enemy to democracy?

We cannot ignore the impact of political islam on democratization while thinking about the origin of tyranny of majority problem. The question to be asked is if the islam belief is by nature incompatible with democracy? If it is so, one may overthrow the above assertions, by arguing that it’s in fact the intolerance caused by Islamic belief, incompatible with democracy spirit, leading to tyranny of majority.

To start with, we need to ask what actually constitutes the Islamic beliefs. We could understand the beliefs as being generated by reinterpretations of writings in Koran. This explains why the Islamic belief actually constitutes a wide spectrum, with moderate, radical believers, popular muslim, politically activist Islam, Islamic fundamentalism and so on[12], but not a single piece of cake. The force pushing the reinterpretation generations may largely come from the tension between secularization and tradition which can be revealed by the tension between conservative and reformist muslim. The reformist Muslim thought is reactive for making Islam relevant by articulating a jurisprudence that addresses modern concerns and issues. [13]

How actually are the reinterpretations generated? The dichotomy of religion and religiosity helps explaining this. On one hand, the religion may be defined as “a coherent corpus of belief and dogmas collectively managed by a body of legitimate holders of knowledge”, while on the other hand religiosity refers to the ‘self-formulation and self-expression of a personal faith”. [14] The collectively managed belief dogmas could be exemplified as state-sanctioned interpretations of Islam once the state is legitimate enough to do so, constituting the political Islam.[15] The personal faith, which can be shaped by secularized values, backgrounds, experiences, knowledge level and personalities, can induce a wide range of reinterpretations of Islamic believe either from the collectively managed dogmas or directly from Koran. Shortly conclude, the Islamic belief is actually very malleable by nature due to reinterpretations.

Owing to the malleability of Islamic belief, its reform is rather vigorous along the timeline. The following example may well illustrate this point. Despite conservative Muslim opposition to the idea of rule by a woman, Indonesia, as one of the largest Muslim states in the world, have had elected women as their heads of government whereas none of these women was directly opposed by an Islamist Party. [16]

Returning to the question of whether the Islamic belief is incompatible with democracy, the key of the answer is not on Islamic belief itself but which kind of reinterpretation is getting dominant political influence. This perspective possibly explains why on one hand a Tunisan Islamist leader with political exile, Rashid Ghanoushi, asserted that “if by democracy is meant the liberal model of government prevailing in the west, a system under which the people freely choose their representatives and leaders, in which there is an alternation of power, as well as all freedoms and human rights for the public, then Muslims will find nothing in their religion to oppose democracy, and it is not in their interests to do so.”[17], while on the other hand, by late 1990s, most Islamist parties and professional associations were at best either simply banned or at worst had their leaders thrown into prisons in the Muslim world. [18]

One may put a narrower argument saying that when Islamic belief is embedded into the state, which will no longer be secular, its incompatibility with democracy spirit may then surface. [19] Given by the vigorous malleability of Islamic belief shown in the paradigm shift towards female ruling, it’s an open question whether this argument is valid or not. The answer depends on how far the reinterpretations such as reformist Muslim can go.

On the other hand, seemingly the democratization process favours the radical reinterpretation of Islamic beliefs, which somehow undermines democracy, as shown by the Indonesia experience. The Laskar Jihad seems to be a good example illustrating this point. It emerged and gained prominence in a short span of time, partly made possible by funding and training from segments of military. More importantly, Laskar Jihad was able to use the unrest to influence public opinion and insist on their version of the religion. [20] The attitudes of mainstream Muslim leaders to Laskar Jihad are somehow ambivalent. On one hand, they disapproved the violent acts of Laskar Jihad but on the other hand, most importantly, they said the leader of Laskar Jihad, Ja’afar Thalib, had every right to try to protect Islam and that he was a legitimate Islamic leader. [21] So to speak, the violent acts which will disrupt consensus building for healthy democracy is legitimized by mainstream Muslim leaders in this world’s largest Muslim state whereas Laskar Jihad just holds a particular version of Islamic belief among reinterpretations. Though after Bali bombing, the radicals are challenged by moderate muslim and secular politicians to a greater extent, whether this pattern of political competition will be fundamentally changed remains an open question. [22]

Shortly conclude, this section aims at pointing out it’s flawed to say the tyranny of majority is caused by the incompatibility between Islamic belief and democracy whereas neglecting the voluminous reinterpretations of the belief. It is argued that whether political islam undermines the healthiness of democracy or not depends on which type of reinterpretations is getting dominant political influence.


3. Conclusion

This essay argues that both the feature of representative democracy and political Islam contributes to the religious tyranny of majority problem. For the former, it’s due to the tension between the key feature as “vote-oriented” of representative democracy and democracy spirit. For the latter, it’s not the belief itself written in Koran that matters, but reinterpretations of it. Once the more radical and intolerant reinterpretations gets the dominant political influence, it paves the way for tyranny of majority problem via means such as violent acts and so on.

The possible way out from tyranny of majority thus depends on two conditions: first, the political leaders are determined to stick to good governance criteria such as consensus oriented and not “vote-oriented”, which is somehow contingent and hard; second, there are sufficient check and balances on the version of reinterpretations adopted as political islam to prevent the radical ones from being politically dominant.


[1] Arskal Salim, “Muslim Politics in Southeast Asia in Indonesia’s Decentralization: The Religious Majority and the rights of Minorities in the Post-Suharto Era,” in Indonesia: Democracy and the Promise of good governance, Ross Mcleod and Andrew Maclntyre, eds, Singapore:ISEAS, 2007, P.115

[2] Mehran Kamrava, editor, The new voices of Islam, London : I. B. Tauris, 2006. P.6

[3] Langohr, Vickie (2001) ‘Of Islamists and Ballot Boxes: Rethinking the Relationship between Islamism and Electoral Politics’, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 33: 591-610.


[4]Victorian Electronic Democracy : Glossary“. July 28, 2005. Retrieved 2007-12-14.

[5] Allen Hicken, “Developing Democracies in South East Asia: Theorizing the Role of Parties and Elections,” in Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region and Qualitative Analysis, Erik Kuhonta, Dan Slater and Tuong Vu, eds, Standford, CA, Standford University Press, 2008 P. 96

[6] Ibid P.93

[7] Ming Pao, 16-10-2009

[8] Jean L. Cohen & A Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992, Preface & Introduction Prefix ix

[9] Arskal Salim, “Muslim Politics in Southeast Asia in Indonesia’s Decentralization: The Religious Majority and the rights of Minorities in the Post-Suharto Era,” in Indonesia: Democracy and the Promise of good governance, Ross Mcleod and Andrew Maclntyre, eds, Singapore:ISEAS, 2007, P.131

[10] Inside Story: Indonesia’s Islamic parties in decline, 12 May, 2009, http://news.anu.edu.au/?p=1208

[11] Battle for Indonesia’s Islamic vote, BBC news, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/358276.stm

[12] Mehran Kamrava, editor, The new voices of Islam, London : I. B. Tauris, 2006. P.6

[13] Ibid P.15

[14] Oliver Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York: Columbia University Press 2004) P.5-6

[15] Mehran Kamrava, editor, The new voices of Islam, London : I. B. Tauris, 2006. P.4

[16] John L. Esposito and John O. Vo, Islam and Democracy, http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2001-11/islam.html

[17] London Observer, 1992

[18] Mehran Kamrava, editor, The new voices of Islam, London : I. B. Tauris, 2006. P.8

[19] Caria Traub, Islamism and Democratic Governance: Islamist Political Parties in Turkey and Indonesia, LKYSPP Research Paper, November 19, 2007, P.17

[20] Suzania Kadir, “Mapping Muslim Politics in Southeast Asia after September 11” in Pacific Review, vol 17, no2 June 2004,  P.212

[21] Ibid, P.213

[22] A Rabasa, Political Islam in South-East Asia: Moderates, Radicals & Terrorists, Adelphi Papers 358, P. 37




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