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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.

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