The caliphate: a threat to democracy? By Fachrizal Halim

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The Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) hosted the International Khilafah Conference last month. Since this event, Indonesian mass media has been discussing the pros and cons of implementing a caliphate system in Indonesia, which involves the formal application of shari`a (Islamic law) as the legal code for the ummah (Muslim community), under a head of state, or a caliph, who traditionally had both political and spiritual authority.
Those who are for the implementation of such a system, especially the HTI itself, cite that the obligation to enforce a caliphate system is based on the religious order to establish God`s law for the believers. This political transcendence seems to have a special appeal, one that drove thousands of Muslims to crowd in Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta in support of HTI`s vision. Given the huge number of people attending the event, one begins to wonder if the idea of establishing caliphate system would become a threat to the current democratic political system in Indonesia.
However, others view the idea of enforcing a caliphate system more as historical romanticism or idealisation than a mature political proposal. The desire to build a single Muslim polity under a caliph is considered a utopian dream. Moreover, those against the idea emphasised that the political reality of a nation-state, with a modern democratic political system as its foundation is not compatible with the caliphate system as suggested by HTI.
The most significant issue about the debate is the implication of HTI`s campaign of the establishment of a caliphate system for the future of democratic rule in Indonesia. HTI`s concept of a caliphate system is often categorised as a very radical resistance toward the existing global system. Like most Islamic political movements, however, it should be understood as a desperate attempt by Muslims to deal with the turmoil that resulted from the abrupt modernisation that occurred very quickly in most Muslim-majority states.
In this case, HTI argues that a caliphate system is only an alternative to the current system. It proposes that equal rights, justice, accountability, and good governance can exist outside of a Western constructed definition of democracy and has the potential to be upheld in other political systems.
Following this argument, Islam, with a particular reading of the Qur`an and hadith, has a mechanism that reinforces the social frameworks that are currently adopted by modern communities, such as democratic practice of politics, civil society, multiculturalism, and rational bureaucratic structures. In the Qur`an, the righteous are described as those people who, among other things, manage their affairs through "mutual consultation" or shura. In addition, the constitution of Medina during the time of the Prophet Muhammad established the importance of consent and cooperation for governance. According to this compact, Muslims and non-Muslims were equal citizens of the Islamic state, with identical rights and duties.
On the other hand, the extensive interpretation of Islamic norms will immediately show that a caliphate system proposed by HTI is not an absolute Islamic political system. A political system of the past, the caliphate system is no more than one possible political structure. It means this system has the potential to be partly accepted or completely refused by Muslims.
As a concept, the caliphate system as proposed by the HTI should be appreciated as an alternative political system and not as a threat toward democracy. One must remember that in the beginning of the 20th century, the world had witnessed the emergence of fascism and communism as neutral alternatives to democracy. Fascism and communism became threats to democracy only after Hitler and Lenin marshalled their troops to conquer Europe.
It is when different political systems are portrayed as a polarised dichotomy, with room for either one or the other in our international system, that one system becomes a threat. As long as it is campaigned in a peaceful way and is as compatible or at least complementary to democracy, the same analogy should be applied to the caliphate system proposed by HTI. Ultimately, history will determine which system, or systems, will survive.
Our common future is hopefully one in which all religious communities will live side by side in peace. The different political aspirations of religious communities should not be defined as a clash. On the contrary, it should be understood as an opportunity given by God to appreciate differences in the various faiths and to love others. At the end, this will give all sides an opportunity to show a collective commitment to the value of equality and justice. Only in this way, we hope that Indonesia will become a natural home where democracy can prosper.

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* Fachrizal Halim is a PhD candidate in the history of Islamic law at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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