Contesting the politics of identity
October-December 2017
By: Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin

Democracy, pluralism and religious harmony

Winston Churchill once asserted that while democracy might not be perfect, compared to other political systems, it might be the best system for delivering justice in a nation-state. Democratic principles that pledge equality, the rule of law and the protection of human rights allow individuals with different backgrounds to have equal access to and participation in – and benefit from – welfare and prosperity. However, to attain these ideal principles, people must accept individuals with different backgrounds in an equal manner. In other words, justice can survive only if the individual entitlements to basic rights, liberty and dignity are respected and administered equally before the law (David Held, 1987). The major challenge to new nation-states is transforming traditional sentiment into modern citizenship, based on a contractual and consensual basis. Within this context, democracy is useful in fostering mutual respect among differences, recognition of equality before the law, equal access to and participation in public life, which are the prerequisites to establishing public trust as a foundation of civil society (Alexis de Tocqueville in Henry Reeve, 2002).

In this process, democracy provides a corrective mechanism for managing tensions and conflicts by preventing major groups, be they demographic, economic or religious, from dominating others. Democracy is also expected to ensure equality as the foundation for maintaining unity in diversity, which is something to do with the politics of respecting rights and delivering justice. In this manner, democracy allows civil society to function as a check and balance to the state in its exercising power for the people.

Public trust cannot be achieved merely by understanding diversity as cognitively plural. It requires stronger engagement by people to create a desirable society. Constructive and empowering engagement is the key to so-called workable pluralism. While “diversity” might be a given, pluralism is an achievement that should constantly be nurtured to maintain equilibrium and stability. In “workable” pluralism, religious identity recurrently prompts social tensions and conflicts, but is not necessarily the main root cause of intolerance. All social dimensions equally contribute to soaring prejudice and intolerance, which impedes pluralism.

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