Islam and Democracy
Indonesia: Gambling That Tolerance Will
April 15, 2007
SEVEN years ago, in the pre-9/11 fall of 2000, I was
retrieving my luggage at the airport in Jakarta when a tall Indonesian man in a
flowing white robe and green scarf accidentally bumped me off my feet. He
apologized and helped me up. Then I noticed he was part of a gang of grim young
men stalking the airport with wooden rods.
He said they were from the Islamic Defenders Front and
were searching for Israelis to kill. I doubt they found any, but I was shocked.
Such bullying and militancy contrasted sharply with the Indonesia I had
come to know on previous reporting trips: a model of Islam as a tolerant,
compassionate, inclusive and peaceful religion.
The many varieties of culture and styles of life in this
enormous archipelago had bred a unique form of Islam — or, more precisely, many
such forms, thriving side by side and often drawing on a rich pre-Islamic
history replete with magic, Buddhism and South Seas gods. I had thought the
prospects for retaining this style had only been enhanced by the coming of
democracy in 1998.
It has not quite worked out that way, and now the big
questions facing Indonesia
are: Can Islam and democracy co-exist? And what would such a democracy look
Many optimists argue that there may be no place on earth
better suited to be a Muslim democracy. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim
population — some 207 million people, rivalling the
number of Muslims in the Middle East — and the optimists say its relaxed and
varied traditions are one reason that the vast majority of Indonesians remain
committed to a tolerant form of Islam. The fastest-growing Muslim movements, in
fact, are moderate and outspoken in their promises to compete only through
But there is also fear that the global rise of militant
fundamentalism has begun to change Indonesia. With democracy’s arrival,
radical Islamists were allowed to return from exile, where the former military
government had sent them. That was followed by the terrorist bombing of a
nightclub on the predominantly Hindu island
of Bali in 2002, in which 200 people
died, then by other bombings in Jakarta and Bali, again. The government says it has seriously
weakened Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorism network blamed for those attacks. But
the Islamic Defenders Front, less lethal but more numerous, still vandalizes
bars and discos in Jakarta
and beats up their patrons, trying to force the businesses to close.
Meanwhile, Islamic observance has turned more
conservative. Many more women wear the veil. And Islamic political parties have
gained strength by arguing that they can do something about Indonesia’s
endemic corruption and violence.
is an experiment in Muslim democracy, which if successful could have
ramifications for other parts of the world,” said Sidney Jones, director of the
International Crisis Group’s Jakarta
office. “If the United States
wants to advance democracy in the Islamic world, then Indonesia takes
on added importance.”
Experts don’t think Indonesia is at risk of a takeover
by Islamic militants anytime soon. The two largest Muslim organizations, the
Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, stress tolerance and freedom of thought, and
together have 70 million members.
Those groups were big winners in the transition to
democracy. In the nine years since the fall of its last autocrat, Suharto, who
limited religious expression in the name of nationalism, Indonesia has
had three fair and open presidential elections, one of which put a woman in the
presidency. Security officials have been able to arrest, convict and sentence
more than 200 people for terrorist acts, using an open legal system that would
seem familiar in the West.
Still, the Indonesia
I knew in the late 1990s has become a more fearful place.
“We are so happy with the democratization process in Indonesia,
but there is a blackness in this process,” said Eve
Sundari, a legislator from the Indonesian Democratic Party. “Now the door is
open. Everybody can fight for their power to control people. Suddenly Islamic
groups want to impose to other Muslims their laws.”
The surprise that democracy would complicate, rather than
simplify, the prospects for peace raises perplexing questions about Indonesia’s
example: Is democracy the best antidote to terrorism? Even if so, can a culture
of tolerance survive that contest? Why are Indonesians appearing to turn more
observant and traditional just now? And does that mean they would accept
violence, repression, or sexism in the name of Islam?
The questions, yet to be answered, point to a conundrum:
Pluralist democracy, by definition, requires tolerance. Fundamentalist
religion, by definition, demands uniformity.
Indonesia’s history, optimists say, may
point the way to a compromise.
A leading explanation for Indonesia’s traditional liberalism
is that Islam did not go there by force. It arrived in the 13th century on
trading ships from the Indian subcontinent, and island dwellers often layered
its beliefs atop existing Buddhist or Hindu practices. Allah had to keep
company with Dewi, goddess of the rice paddy; Nyai Loro
Kidul, Queen of the South Seas; and Nini Tawek, the angel of the Javanese kitchen.
Part of Islam’s popularity in Indonesia has always been its
adaptability. Early Islamic preachers used Indonesian shadow puppet shows to
disseminate the religion — culture instead of force. Even today, many
Indonesian Muslims regularly consult shamans — mystical healers believed to
have paranormal powers — to have fortunes told, or to have spells cast and
That is the backdrop against which Azyumardi Azra, an
Islamic scholar based in Jakarta, says that the
vast majority of Indonesia’s Muslims “believe
in democracy and fully embrace its principles.”
“While there is a growing sense of Islamic identity or
piety among Muslims in Indonesia
— people are free to practice religion in ways that were forbidden under the
dictatorship — far less than 1 percent of the population subscribes to
extremist, global jihadist views,” he says.
He and others argue that political and economic concerns,
rather than religion, have propelled the turn to Islamic parties — issues like
sectarian and ethnic violence, poverty and corruption. A 43-year-old man named
Rudy, who runs my favorite warung, or food stall, in Jakarta, put it this way: “Indonesians are
turning to Islam for help because everything else we have tried has failed us —
the Dutch, the military dictatorships, even democracy. My life is really no
better today than it was under Suharto.”
But any turn to religious movements worries some experts.
It means, they say, that the terms of political debate have already begun to
change, with many questions being framed around Islamic values.
Yenny Wahid, an outspoken critic of fundamentalism, says
many would-be leaders now feel a need to look pious. “When you’re close to god,
you are a good person and you have a certain level of impunity,” she said.
An Indonesian government official said: “It seems
counterintuitive for us to be worried about Indonesia’s small bands of
religious radicals in a country of tens of millions of moderates. But there is
a battle for the soul of our religion going on here, and the voices that ring
loudest these days are the extremists.”