Revisiting Discourse on Islam, Human Rights and Democracy to Navigate Present Muslim Challenges


Adam M. Tugio

We hear a lot about Islam being misrepresented in the news these days.  Reports of violence, discrimination, restrictions on women’s rights have led to the erroneous conclusion that human rights and democracy has no place in Islam. Heinous acts by irresponsible people who use Islam as a pretext to further their nefarious intentions have exacerbated this misrepresentation, defaming Islam’s genuine face as a religion of peace and a blessing to the entire universe, rachmatan lil’allamin.  As a result, the Muslim community living outside their country has been facing several issues such as Islamophobia, discrimination and racial profiling.

With the gradual spread of Islam, the relationship between Islam and democracy has continuously been the subject of scholarly debate.Both in the West and in the Muslim world, discourses on Islam, human rights, and democracy have gained tractions and becomes hotly debated subject.  Question about the compatibility of Islam and democracy is at the heart of this discourse as if the latter has no place in Islam.

For Muslims, Islam is a divine revelation,a comprehensive set of principles and moral guidance from God Almighty (Theocentric). The human rights, on the other hand, are a set of values produced with logic or co-related with a human orientation (Ethnocentric), and associated with secularism due to the separation of roles and functions of the religion (church) and the state.

Consequently, if one views Islam from formalistic approach as a structural organizational system, democracy will be seen incompatible with sharia Islam. In this case, a footnote is required however.  Islam is silent on the type of government (monarchy or republic) or on the selection of a leader (musyawarah by the council or baith or appointment).  Both were used in different time in the early years of Islam.

If one views Islam as a set of substantial values or principles that are critical to humanity, he or she will recognize that Islam and democracy are mutually reinforcing.  Muslim scholars and historians should be credited in this regard by demonstrating that the arrival of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) meant the freedom of mankind from all forms of human rights violations. On account of its liberating theology, Islam is said to created a stable basis for society by eradicating Jâhilî  traditions, and led to the establishment of human rights principles that we know in the modern times.

What we found fascinating is that Islamic values such as egalitarianism (al mussawwa), justice (al addudiyah), pluralism (al-musyarakat), personal freedom and protection and tolerance (al tasamud) are not only found in the Holy Qur’an, but also manifest themselves in the 6th Century Charter of Madina. 

To put things in context, comparable ideas were articulated in Magna Carta in the 12th Century or six centuries later.  The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) only in 1948.  Given this lengthy interval, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the Charter of Madina was well-ahead of its time. This is something that the Muslim community should be proud of, and as a reflection of developing effective means to encourage its implementation in today’s environment.

Fast forward to our time, the OIC ratified the Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (IUDHR) in 2010. The OIC has further established the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) and in February 2012, Indonesia had the honor of hosting the maiden session of this august body. This positive step reflects the OIC’s readiness to adhere to the UDHR’s core human rights principles.

Given the preceding factors, it is quite evident that in terms of substantive values, Islam, human rights and democracy are not mutually reinforcing rather than competing. Consequently, debates on the universality and cultural relativity of human rights from Islamic perspectives seems less relevant.  Islam and modernity can coexist together.

The most pressing challenge for Muslim world is how to implement basic rights while preserving Islam as a source of energy for enforcing duly deserved rights in all the aspects of human life.  Equally crucial is determining how Muslim majority countries can offer safeguards for their citizens to exercise their constitutional rights in a free and in a responsible manner through democratic processes so as to deliver socio-economic benefits to the society and nation.

The Muslim world, like in other parts of the globe, is in a state of flux, with its youth facing cultural disorientation. The amazing expansion of social media in the twenty-first century meant that peoples’ thoughts are more powerful than they had ever been before. As people seek more political space and more engagement in the shaping of their futures, effective government requires the backing of civil society, as well as a strong belief in and tireless nurturing of democracy. 

In this connection, this available information sheds light on some important areas of concern that needs our immediate attention. The Human Development Index (HDI) reveals 36% of the 57 OIC members were in the low human Women’s Empowerment Policy Index. The Gender Development Index (GDI) indicates the majority of women and girls in OIC countries face considerable impediments to education, healthcare, and economic prospects, among other things. The Islamic Indices of 2020shows that, on average, non-Muslim majority nations outperform Muslim-majority countries, with the bulk of Muslim-dominated countries falling to the bottom of the list.

It is noteworthy that the Islamic Indices recognizes the importance of Islamic principles and teachings from the Holy Quran and Hadith’s in establishing successful institutions and enhancing Islamic state governance. The Islamic Indices includes good governance and the rule of law, freedom and equitable opportunity for self-development, and a free market and high economic performance.

However, we should not be offended by these findings, but rather use them as a reflection for improving the status and conditions of people in Muslim world, thereby honoring the Madani society’s moral inspiration. The OIC has charted a pathway to close the gap of women empowerment with the adoption of the POA for the Advancement of Women in 2016.  The POA outlines measures for mainstreaming gender equality in education, health, and promoting women’s economic empowerment.  The OIC also adopted series of resolutions last year urging members to pay special attention to women in economic adaptation efforts throughout the COVID pandemic and afterwards.

The human talent works best in a conducive environment, which opens ways for socio-economic advancement and development.  As Islam and democracy are mutually reinforcing, a broad democratic approach and sharing of lessons learned would certainly help the Muslim world to strengthen its common commitments and practices of Islam as a religion of peace and blessing for all mankind,rahmatan lil-allamin.

Adam M Tugio, Indonesian Ambassador to Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Views expressed here are personal.