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Indonesia, Islam and Democracy in

Masdar Hilmy
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Indonesia, Islam and Democracy in

Indonesia—together with Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey—has been called a “Muslim democracy” because it is considered electorally competitive, especially over the past decade (Nasr, 2005). Since the collapse of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998, Indonesia has witnessed three consecutive general elections, in 1999, 2004, and 2009, to elect legislative representatives and presidents—the first freely democratic elections in this country since 1955. Three presidents have been produced by these elections: Abdurrahman Wahid (1999), Megawati Sukarnoputri (who succeeded to Wahid’s presidency after he was forced to step down by the People’s Consultative Assembly in 2001), and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (elected in 2004 and 2009). In addition to these national-level general elections, hundreds of local elections are also held at the provincial, district, and municipality levels to elect local parliaments, governors, heads of districts, and mayors. These elections marked the end of the authoritarian New Order regime and the new chapter of democracy in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

Conceptualizing Democracy in the Indonesian Context.

The inception of democracy in Indonesia’s political structure has had a tremendous impact on the country’s socio-political life. The introduction of constitutional amendments allowing wider political participation for the masses has paved the way for a better and more accountable checks-and-balances mechanism in government. Rampant corruption at all levels is now more commonly brought to light, and perpetrators—even high-level ones—are more often tried and convicted, but corruption is still a serious problem in Indonesia. It is true that the people now elect their leaders directly and, in principle, can throw them out of office at the next election, but in practice endemic corruption is not so easy to deal with and the justice system still has serious shortcomings. Another effect of democracy involves the contest among political parties and elites to determine what constitutes the public good. In this context, religion has been a vehicle through which elites can exercise power and gain political support by manufacturing a more Islamized public sphere. The sharīʿah-inspired bills at the national level, and local bylaws (Peraturan Daerah/PERDA) introduced in several jurisdictions throughout the country, are a byproduct of this contest. This has been a most productive phase, yielding abundant regulations regarding pornography and so-called “porno-actions” (kissing in public, wearing skimpy clothing, and so on), anti-immorality laws (targeting particularly alcohol consumption, prostitution, and gambling) and a wide range of sharīʿah regulations in Aceh (Hilmy, 2010, pp. 238–240).

At a more substantial level, however, Indonesia is considered a “semi-democracy” in the World Values Survey, a category used to describe forty-seven countries around the world that have experienced democracy for less than twenty years and have a current Freedom House rating of 3.5 to 5.5 (Norris and Inglehart, 2004, p. 24). Freedom House describes these countries as “partly free” (others use the terms “transitional” or “consolidating” democracies), to indicate that these countries do not yet have “full-fledged democracy.” This assessment suggests that, to a large degree, the type of democracy being implemented in Indonesia is electoral democracy, not substantial democracy characterized by civic values such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the like.

This type of democracy, interestingly, is not driven by an abstract, meticulously considered theological and ideological underpinning that represents a genuine synthesis between Islam and democracy (Nasr, 2005, p. 15). Rather, it is driven by a pragmatic synthesis that is emerging in much of the Islamic world in response to the opportunities and demands produced by the ballot box. This situation has forced political parties to make compromises and propose down-to-earth political policies in order to appeal to as many constituents as possible. Under such a pragmatic ideal, Nasr describes Islamic democracy in the Indonesian context as “less a platform and more a space wherein a number of parties are struggling to strike the right balance between secular politics and Muslim values” (2005, p. 17).

Majority-Muslim democracies of this kind may push both religiously oriented and secular parties toward a middle ground of political compromise. Such a contest in principle rewards moderation, although it could conceivably reward a race toward more doctrinaire positions. In general, however, democratic competition requires Islamic parties to win the support of as many elements of the electorate as possible, not only those who vote on the basis of Islamic values, but also more secular-minded voters, unified under broader platforms and wider coalitions that are to a great extent pragmatic in nature. Nasr describes this condition as the “triumph of practice over theory and perhaps of the political over the Islamic” (2005, p. 26). Furthermore, he is convinced that the future of Islamic politics seems to belong to those who can address Islamic moral values within a framework of political platforms in democratic settings. Ultimately, Nasr believes, only Islamic democracy can provide the Islamic world with the promise of moderation.

In the Indonesian context, democracy is unquestionably not a fixed matter, but a contested concept. Nevertheless, the general responses of Muslims to the concept of democracy can be separated into three major groups (Hilmy, 2010, pp. 79–88). The first is a minority of Muslims who consider democracy un-Islamic, a revolt against God’s sovereignty that must for that reason be rejected. This viewpoint is supported by Islamist individuals and groups. For the second group, comprising the majority of Muslims, democracy is the best system of governance, in line with basic Islamic teachings. This stance is shared by many individuals and large organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. There are also a great many Muslims who stand between these positions, representing a third view. They perceive democracy critically as something that contains both good and bad elements. Although they believe that Muslims need to adopt the positive aspects of democracy, such as fair competition and elections, they may also be suspicious of typically Western values that can undermine Islamic identity, such as liberalism, pluralism, and secularism (Hilmy, 2010, p. 165).

The Democratization Process.

Indonesia in the post-Suharto era has witnessed the blossoming of the democratic seeds planted by Muslim intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid (Cak Nur), Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), and others during the New Order regime. The political situation following the collapse of the New Order regime has been uncertain, exacerbated by a series of violent acts perpetrated by those in power, presumably those who are unsatisfied with the changes in the power structure. The elite factionalism and communal conflicts in this era have complex origins, but they are rooted in Suharto’s mismanagement of the diversity and heterogeneity of Indonesian society. Instead of building a consensus on the terms of citizenship, “Soeharto’s New Order regime kept contenders for power off balance by playing rival ethnic, religious, and ideological groups against each other” (Hefner, 2005, p. 276). As a result, there was an enormous gap between the basic identities of the members of society, which later on stimulated tensions and conflicts among them (Bertrand, 2004).

Although the democratization process has been slow, there have been a number of positive developments in politics. There have been at least four significant changes in the political environment of Indonesia, especially since the 1999 election (Baswedan, 2004, p. 683). First, there is greater political awareness among Muslim voters that they should not cast their votes based on ideological preferences, but rather on a pragmatic basis. The second is the impact of the introduction of staggered elections, as new laws allow for the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held separately. Third, the comprehensive decentralization program, launched in 1999, has significantly reshaped local politics. Fourth, the attitudes of Muslim voters toward the general idea of an Islamic government and the introduction of sharīʿah have been changing.

The Contribution of Islam.

It has often been argued that Indonesia is an example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. This argument usually refers to the openness of Indonesia’s electoral politics. The three successful consecutive general elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009 are often depicted as a success story of democratic consolidation. The contribution of Islam to this process has several aspects.

One of the most frequently cited connections between Islam and Indonesia’s democratization is the country’s cosmopolitan nature; Islam, after all, arrived in Indonesia as a converting cultural force, not as a conquering political one, as has been the case in many Muslim-majority countries. In addition, Indonesian Islam has long enjoyed a reputation as pluralistic and tolerant—indeed, some would say heterodox (Ricklefs, 2001, p. 14). Heterodox versions of Islam can of course undermine the sense of authenticity. In the opinion of others, however, this heterodox nature serves as a perfect entry point of cultural assimilation and dialogue, the initial stage where concepts derived from various sources, including democracy, can be moderated and finally accepted as a living norm.

Despite some cultural tensions, this heterodox version of Islam has provided the country with a strong cultural basis for the development of Islamic democracy (Hefner, 2000, p. 14). The religion is flexible in accepting any new ideology at the cultural level, while not necessarily surrendering its basic tenets at the theological level. Indonesian Islam is an open religion that has long been involved in give-and-take dialectics that, in turn, tend to cultivate democratic values. This is so because Indonesia in general, and its Islamic society in particular, have been blessed with an abundance of civic resources such as a long tradition of religious tolerance and harmony, a tradition that, however, has sometimes been challenged in recent times with tragic results (Hefner, 2000, p. 25). More importantly, it may be argued that, despite endemic corruption, still-weak rule of law, and some religious conflicts, Indonesia does not seem to have any fundamental civilizational, economic, or political flaws that might prevent the further consolidation of democracy (Hefner, 2001).

Tracing the genealogy of democracy in Indonesia, therefore, means tracing its lineage of civic culture. In this sense, the process of democratization depends not just on the role of the state in providing formal elections and constitutions, but also on cultures and organizations in society as a whole. From the cultural point of view, the development of democracy is determined by the degree of voluntarism, the involvement of independent associations, and the balance of power between state and society as well as among civil organizations themselves (Hefner, 2000, p. 215). These activities, however, are still insufficient if they remain the work of isolated groups. Democracy eventually requires a public culture that draws on separate experiences to promote universal habits of participation and tolerance.

It is within the complex interaction between the state and society that Islam has intervened as a significant factor in the long-term process of cultural dialogue. As opposed to Western European democracies, where religion is pushed into private life, the trajectory of Indonesian democracy will be characterized by the involvement of religion in public life (as is also now common in the United States). The Pancasila (”five pillars”) and Undang-undang Dasar 1945 (1945 Constitution) are the major buttresses of this religion-based democracy. Drawing from a popular maxim that “there is no one-size-fits-all democracy,” Hefner believes that Indonesia’s democratization will have to be inseparable from Islam’s involvement as a predominant cultural force in the public sphere (Hefner, 2000, pp. 216–217). Despite thirty years of authoritarian rule, he goes on to argue, Indonesia today is witnessing a remarkable effort to recover and amplify an Islamic and Indonesian culture of tolerance, equality, and civility. The proponents of civil Islam are a key part of this renaissance. Civil Muslims renounce the mythology of an Islamic state. Rather than relegating Islam to the realm of the private, however, they insist that there is a middle path between liberalism’s privatization and conservative Islam’s bully state. The path passes by way of public religion that makes itself heard through independent associations, spirited public dialogue, and the demonstrated decency of believers (Hefner, 2000, p. 18).

In other words, while secular democracy assumes the retreat of religion from the public stage to the privacy of personal belief, Indonesia’s democracy is characterized by the integrality of religion and public life. This integrative mode must nonetheless be understood differently from the popular notion of Islam as “three Ds”—dīn (religion), dunyā (worldly matters), and dawlah (state)—as promulgated by some Islamists such as Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī, Hasan al-Bannā, Sayyid Qutb, and others. Whereas the notion of Islam as “three Ds” signifies the total implementation of Islam in public life in its literal sense, the integrative mode of Indonesian Islamic democracy assumes the integration, rather than complete imposition, of Islamic values into public life. Therefore, the political discourse that liberal Muslims typically deploy is not identical to that of Western liberalism. Muslim democrats like those in Indonesia, following Hefner, tend to be more civil-democratic or Tocquevillian than liberal in spirit. Even though they deny the need for an Islamic state, they would allow the involvement of Islamic values in the public sphere (Hefner, 2000, pp. 11–13). In this sense, Casanova shares Hefner’s optimism on Indonesia’s democracy:

"Democracy is unlikely to grow and thrive in Islamic countries until political actors who are striving for it are also able to “frame” their discourse in a publicly recognizable Islamic idiom. Calls for the privatization of Islam as a condition for modern democracy in Islamic countries will only produce antidemocratic Islamist responses. By contrast, the public reflexive elaboration of Islam’s normative traditions in response to modern challenges, political learning experiences, and global discourse has a chance to generate various forms of public civil Islam which may be conducive to democratization (2001, pp. 1075–1076)."

The Future of Indonesian Democracy.

With regard to the future of democracy in Indonesia, Casanova predicts the achievement of democracy among Islamic societies based on the parallels he draws from the route to democracy experienced by those basically Catholic societies that were at first considered undemocratic but evolved to be democratic. According to Casanova, Catholicism has been able to come to terms with democracy because it was able to change the direction of its official reformulation (aggiornamento), as manifested in the Second Vatican Council, to be more favorable to democracy. The transformation of Catholic-majority countries like Spain, Italy, and Brazil from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones was inextricably associated with the willingness of the Catholic Church to change its tradition (pp. 1042–1043). Based on this argument, there is no reason that Islamic democracy in Indonesia should be unable to develop and cultivate its own shape in the future.


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  • Bertrand, Jacques. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia. Port Melbourne and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Casanova, José. “Civil Society and Religion: Retrospective Reflections on Catholicism and Prospective Reflections on Islam.” Social Research 68, no. 4 (2001): 1041–1080.
  • Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • ———. “Muslim Democrats and Islamist Violence in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.” In Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization, edited by Robert W. Hefner, pp. 273–301. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • ———. “Public Islam and the Problem of Democratization.” Sociology of Religion 62, no. 4 (2001): 491–514.
  • Hilmy, Masdar. Islamism and Democracy in Indonesia: Piety and Pragmatism. Singapore: ISEAS, 2010.
  • Nasr, Vali. “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy.’” Journal of Democracy 16, no. 2 (2005): 13–27.
  • Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Ricklefs, M. C. 2001. History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001
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