Islam and democracy are compatible in Southeast Asia, declared Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's opposition leader and former deputy prime minister at a June 24 Asia Program event. He stressed that we must stop "labeling" Muslims based on inaccurate generalizations and assumptions in order to overcome the "unjust vilification of Islam."

Islam is not, as widely believed, "at loggerheads" with democracy. The assumption that "while democracy liberates, Islam incarcerates" is wrong. Regretfully, Anwar said, these generalizations—reinforced after the September 11 attacks—have equated Islam with violence and terror, and democracy with dignity. Far from being a stumbling block to democracy and freedom, Islam, stressed Anwar, preaches the values of "equality, justice, and human dignity" as the core tenets of sharia law and shuns violence.

Islam in Southeast Asia, in particular, is "modernist" and "inclusive" unlike the more "rigid" and "exclusivist" nature practiced in parts of the Middle East. Since Islam was spread "through traders and Sufis"—not through the sword—over time, the religion has absorbed local cultural and multiethnic traits, making it less of a breeding ground for religious extremism. Today, the outcome of such interactions and multicultural influences may be seen in Indonesia and Turkey—two states that have demonstrated the success of balancing democratic ideals with a strong Islamic identity.

The conduct of U.S. foreign policy, in pursuit of what Anwar described as Wilsonian ideals, has worked against the blending of Islam and democracy. For example, the global war on terror has undermined public perceptions of Muslims and of Islam. The United States, in Anwar's view, should play a more active role in redressing these problems.

Anwar acknowledged that the path to democracy for some Muslim states remains elusive, but they must strive for it "on their own" if "they no longer want to suffer through injustice, dictatorship, tyranny, and violence." He emphasized the need to give moderate Muslims a greater political voice to ensure a smooth transition to democracy.

By Sue Levenstein
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program