Democracy & Islam: 'Indonesian Model' Put To The Test

The world's largest Muslim nation has been a vibrant, multi-faith democracy for 13 years. But that has not spared Indonesia from a rising number of terrorist attacks and growing religious intolerance.

Indonesia Muslim Celebration
Indonesia Muslim Celebration
Bruno Philip

JAKARTA - Before the start of the Arab Spring, many commentators evoked the "Turkish model" of democracy as an example to follow in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. But perhaps they were overlooking another nation a bit farther afield: Indonesia. With a population of 240 million people, 80% of whom are disciples of the Prophet Muhammad, Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country.

Though the Republic of Indonesia is not a secular state, the fundamental notions of its Constitution are built around the idea of a religiously pluralistic nation that is for the most part adhering to a principle of tolerance of all confessional creeds.

Thirteen years after the fall of the dictator Suharto, who had controlled power for 32 years, the "reformasi," ie, the post-Suharto era that began in 1998 demonstrates that Islam can be compatible with democracy. Still, terrorist attacks, the rise of intolerance within ultraconservative circles, and the emergence of a dogmatic piety within a "re-Islamized" society has raised fears that the "model" may be coming undone.

These developments do not call into question the distinctiveness of Indonesia's being a decisively religious state, since each citizen is required to declare his or her adherence to one of the six recognized faiths (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism). The state then guarantees the equality of the other religions alongside Islam.

A Different Kind of Islam

On July 1, 1945, when the Dutch East Indies, still occupied by the Japanese, were working their way toward independence, the future president Sukarno had affirmed the five principles of pancasila. These principles promised that Islam would not be the foundation of a post-colonial Indonesia. Sukarno had even referenced the French historian Ernest Renan and the speech he gave at the Sorbonne in 1882 during which he had defined the idea of a nation as "the desire to be together."

After a dozen years, the democratic construction had seen the establishment of presidential elections with universal suffrage, as well as the possibility of political change. Yet these developments coincided with the Islamization of social behavior through the establishment of Islamic principles as the moral benchmark.

The leader of the Liberal Islam Netork (JIL), Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a young intellectual specializing in the Middle East, still believes the Indonesian reformasi era and the peaceful transition to democracy was a success. These are advances that stem from the existence of "a strong civil society, a free press, and the stabilization of the economy after the 1997 Asian financial crisis," she says. "The conditions are not favorable for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia."

Shortly after the interview she gave with Le Monde in Jarkarta, Ulil Abshar Abdalla escaped a letter bomb attack, the latest sign that liberal Islamic circles remain the target of extremists.

For Said Aquil Siraj, the president of Nahdatul Ulama, a mass organization representing conservative Islam, the Islamic religion "is integrated into Indonesian culture." Islam is different here than in Arab countries, Siraj says, because its rapid development "is not the consequence of an imposition of Islam by force but rather — as it happened — through the trade routes of the early 11th century."

In Indonesia, Islam "is not an ideology," says Ahmad Suedy of the moderate Islamic NGO Wahid Institute. "Therefore it does not constitute an alternative political position." Nevertheless, Suedy admits, "contemporary Indonesia is characterized by a tension between liberals and fundamentalist circles that are attempting to influence a silent majority of moderates."


After a dozen years, extremist organizations, considered until now on the decline, have begun terrorist attacks again. Radical groups, inspired by Al Qaida, have organized themselves into "moral police" and regularly visit places of "decadence" (nightclubs, strip clubs, etc.) in order to enforce their moral code.

One of the figures associated with these movements is Habib Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who welcomes us into his "cultural center" wearing a long djellaba (a traditional loose-fitting robe). "Islam is neither democratic nor liberal, Islam is Islam," he forcefully asserts, adding with a scoff and a burst of laughter that democracy is nothing but a "demo-crazy!"

Despite the strength of the Indonesian model, the rise of a certain intolerance is accompanied by a disconcerting complacency, perhaps even collusion, from the highest authorities who are worried of antagonizing the ultra-conservative camp. "President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono does not prove himself to be strong enough against the militant radical groups," accuses Jajang Jamaludin, president of the Alliance of Independent Journalists.

In 2008, the government issued a decree restricting the freedom of worship of the Muslim sect known as the Ahmadiyas, who are considered heretics within orthodox Islam. The same year, a law against pornography was another gesture of the state toward pious Muslims.

Indeed, there is a certain schizophrenia on the Muslim question, even within individual Indonesians, captured in a poll four years ago conducted by the Islamic University of Jakarta. Of those surveyed, 85% were in favor of a republic based on the multi-faith political principle of pancasila, and not on Islam. Nevertheless, 62% opposed the election of a non-Muslim to the office of the president of the Republic, and 52% were opposed to the construction of churches in their neighborhood.

Read the original article in French

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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