Elect Leaders Based on Competence, not Religion

There are two reasons why some Muslims in Jakarta reject a non-Muslim governor, like Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. The first is the literal interpretation of the scriptures. The second is the matter of majoritarian psychology. 

Those who oppose the non-Muslim leader have no common sense. Their rejection is solely based on several verses in the Koran that, according to their literal interpretation, prohibit non-Muslims from leading Muslims. In the case of Ahok, who will take over from Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as Jakarta governor, these people believe Islamic law is placed higher than the Constitution, so non-Muslim figures must be rejected because they do not suit Islamic law.

In fact, that literal interpretation is not the only one, and not absolutely true either. The verses cannot be interpreted literally, treated across all times and places, or removed from their context. Because, first, there are many Muslims in the West who have a non-Muslim president; and, second, the earliest Muslims at the time of the Prophet migrated to Abyssinia to seek asylum from the Christian King Negus. Thus, if the verses are understood to be applicable in all times and places, these two examples are violations of the commands of the scripture. 

Of the criticism, those rejecting a non-Muslim leader might answer back with the excuse that the two examples would only prevail in the context where Muslims were a minority. However, precisely at this point, there is a double standard: while Muslims are the majority, their interpretation is literal, but when Muslims are the minority, their interpretation is contextual. Thus, the idea underlying their interpretation is literalism plus majoritarianism — and once again this is one of the interpretations that is not absolutely true.

The verses that are deemed to ban non-Muslim leaders do not mention the majority-minority dichotomy. In other words, the majority-minority problem is something added into the interpretation. There is no verse in the Koran that says this all at once: “If Muslims are the majority, they are obliged to have a Muslim leader, and if otherwise, the leader is allowed to be a non-Muslim.” The majority-minority problem here is irrelevant. The relevance is the matter of text and context. 

Contextually, the verses were revealed in Medina and responding to a specific context. 

Take one example of those verses: al-Maidah [5]:51. This verse was revealed after the Jews violated the Charter of Medina, even to the extent of inciting a war. After that, in short, Muslim-Jewish relations were severed. As recorded in history, prior to this case, there had been tribal alliances between the Ansar of Medina (Aus and Khazraj) and the Jews: the Aus with the Jews of Quraiza on one side and the Khazraj with the Jews of Nadir on the other side (in fact, the term used in the Koran is awliya, the plural form of waliy, derived from walayah, which means alliance or coalition rather than leadership). 

After a tense relationship, the revelation instructed them to break up the alliances. The contextual narrative of the revelation (asbab an-nuzul) can be read in Tafsir at-Tabari, the oldest interpretation of the Koran.

By looking at the substance and the interlocutors of the verse, it is clear that the context in Medina with authority over the so-called Islamic ummah was focused only on the Prophet and cannot simply be transplanted in this age, in the context of the nation-state in which all religions are equal before the law, let alone a democratic system in which the executive has only one-third of power. By applying past political systems built upon religious community, we are essentially going back to the medieval age; it is a setback to the pre-modern era, when the nation-state as “imagined political community” (Benedict Anderson’s term) had not yet been established. 

In addition to the problem of contextualization, this discourse also leaves an irony. This is often caused by the gap between what is contained in the scripture and Muslim political reality; between the revelation and the historical practices.

One example that is worth bearing as an analogy here is that Indonesian Muslims were once embroiled in a controversial issue over a female leader. In the classical Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, there is almost — not to say completely — no stipulation allowing women leaders. The argument is based on, among other things, the prophetic tradition (hadith) saying “lan yufliha qawmun wallau amrahum imra’atan” (will not succeed the people who hand over their affairs [of leadership] to women). 

In fact, Indonesia as a Muslim-majority county once had a female president, so did predominantly Muslim countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Bangladesh.

Contrary to the literal interpretations of the classical Islamic law that forbids women from being leaders, those phenomena are clearly violations. However, many Muslims have no objection to this. The irony is why is there relatively no problem with regard to a Muslim female leader, but on other hand, there is with a non-Muslim leader, while in fact the core problem is the same? 

The irony will continue to exist until the gap between the literal interpretations and the rational necessity of modern times has been properly bridged. Rational logic in terms of leadership is clear: leaders are elected based on their competence, not religion, gender, ethnicity, or being from the majority group. 

In fact, traces directing toward rational choice when it comes to state leadership actually exist in the works of classical Islamic scholars. Interestingly, one of them can be found in Majmu’ al-Fatawa (v. 28, chapter Qa’idah fil-Hisbah) of Ibn Taymiyah, the spiritual teacher of the literalist Salafism. Ibn Taymiyyah once said, “God will help a just state though its leaders are infidels, and will not support an unjust state though its leaders are believers.” 

It means that the success of the state has more to do with justice than religion. 

~ published in the Jakarta Post, 24/10/2014

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