Opinion

Indonesia, Islam and democracy:
A perspective

There are currently hundreds moderate Muslim organizations in Indonesia, many of them set up following the fall of President Soeharto in May 1998. The nurturing of these civic organizations may be as important to the future of Indonesia’s democracy as is the curtailment of extremists. 

Furthermore, simple political maturity, such as developing true parties with accountability and that stand for something beyond personality as well the development of an educated and experienced electorate should protect and stabilize Indonesia’s democracy. 

However, a critical component of Indonesia’s democratic future involves recognition of the special role of Islam in the state. 

As most Indonesian Muslims want their government to respect Islamic customs even if they do not support the creation of an Islamic state, the line between support for and opposition to sharia is often blurred. 

Many Indonesians, including those who are only nominally Muslims,  hold conservative values and support strict moral laws without necessarily seeing them as purely religious- or sharia-based. 

It is easy to mistake support for a conservative moral law as support for Islamism when it is more simply a reflection of basic conservative values. 

By the same token, many Muslims in Indonesia reject some social arrangements and norms that are commonly associated with democracy in the West, including our pluralism and secularism. But this too neither makes them theocrats nor anti-democratic. 

While the political debate is often framed by pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, the lines are really much more subtle than this and democratic negotiation will require all parties to recognize this so that they can find common ground. 

In this regard, Ahmad Shboul (2005) reminds us that keeping religion out of politics is not the same as keeping it out of society in general and that aside from the communists, even the most secular governments of the Western world have not attempted to do this. 

Shboul suggests that the US attempts to secularize Arab politics may have even resulted in a backlash that has contributed to the growth of political Islam. Westerners would do well to remember that there is not only one form democratic society can take.

In fact, we do well to remember that even in the West, notions over what accruements democracy must have remains in flux and have changed over time. 

As Hefner points out, whereas family was once seen as the central base of Western culture, today individual freedom is often elevated above family unity. 

Additionally, the very notion of family is being redefined as Ame-ricans consider a variety of arrangements including domestic partnerships, civil unions, and gay marriage. 

Despite our consensus on many central values there is constant stress in Western societies over the proper balance of individual right and needs of the community, equality and freedom, and even the pro-per role of religion and morality in politics. 

Just as various Western democratic societies define each of these somewhat differently, Muslim democracies are likely to have their own brand of pluralism.

The debate over the passage of sharia-based legislation reflects that that Indonesia continues to map out the most central questions concerning the basic shape of its democracy.

The debate is less a debate about whether sharia is good or bad, but more about the proper meaning of sharia and its relationship to the state and thus its relationship to the national ideology of Pancasila.  

Ultimately, it reflects a deep debate over the very meaning of the Indonesian nation and what it means to be Indonesian. 

All of us have multiple identities. We may define ourselves as students, scholars, husbands, wives, athletes, musicians from an array of images that form our composite selves. 

However, for a nation state to succeed it is essential that one of the imbedded images that a country’s inhabitants hold of themselves is that of their national identity. 

But it is not enough to simply be an American, German, Indonesian or Turk, for a nation to function it is necessary that one’s national identity represent some share sense of community, and thus shared values. 

Most nations form out of a long history that creates a shared past.  In most of Western Europe these shared histories have been bound together by common languages, religions and cultural norms. 

Thus, while the Italians and French were both Catholics, the growing awareness of their differences became an expression of nationalism. 

Indonesians similarly may share Islam with others across the globe, but Islam can fulfill only part of the nationalist vision. Of course this is especially true in light of the tens of millions of Indonesians who are not Muslims. 

The challenge for Indonesia is to find a place for sharia that neither subverts the uniqueness of Indonesia from rest of the Islam nor undermines non-Muslim Indonesians.

Indonesian Islamic scholarship has long and deep ties to the Middle East that form a strong bond with the rest of the Muslim world and recent decades have seen what is often called the Islamization or sometimes even the Arabization of Indonesia. 

It would thus be a mistake to dismiss Indonesia as a worthy example of what the type of democratic society that Islam has produced even if it would be a mistake to assume that what can work in Indonesia could be exported to rest of the Islamic world.


Blake Respini is a graduate of Stanford University, USA, and lecturer at the Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University, USA. Herdi Sahrasad is associate director at Center for Islam and State Studies, Paramadina University, Jakarta, and PhD candidate at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta

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