Beranda Opinion English Democracy and Islam in Indonesia

Democracy and Islam in Indonesia


Written by a group of specialists on Indonesian politics and Islam, the book Democracy and Islam in Indonesia (edited Mirjam Kunkler and Alfred Stepan) examines the successful story of Indonesia’s journey toward a democratic state.

More specifically, this edited volume (1) discusses the uneasy processes of political transition from an authoritarian rule to a consolidated democracy, (2) underscores key issues that provide a rationale for making democracy work, (3) analyzes factors that could jeopardize democracy (e.g., violations of state laws, religious intolerance and violence, etc.) and social groupings that could have the potential power to derail democratization or fragment the state such as the (anti-reform) military, violent Islamic groups, and regional separatists, and finally (4) offers insights that could possibly maintain—or even make a better attainment of—the qualities of “steady democracy” in the post-New Order Indonesia such as a well-functioning system of law enforcement and the political will and bravery of the government to protect the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion (21-23).

The bottom line of this fine volume, however, is to provide a theoretical framework for—and empirical data of—democratic transition and possible consolidation in a Muslim country. Editors of this volume argue that literature in political science on transition to, and consolidation of, democracy or varieties of possible democratizations in Muslim-majority countries remains less substantial if not impoverished; thereby, this volume is an academic endeavour to fill these gaps (3).

Based on the careful examination and thorough analyses of Indonesian experiences in handling political shift and in achieving democracy, the editors propose some theoretical foundations that underline (1) the compatibility of Islam and democracy, (2) the positive role of religion in global politics and public spheres, (3) the contribution of civil society in the democratization process, and (4) the possible collaboration of religious and secular forces as well as Muslim and non-Muslim elements in transforming a military dictatorial rule to a civilian democratic government.

Having been described by some observers as a democratization wonder, Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, undoubtedly offers a great example to examine a political passage from dictatorship to democracy in a Muslim society. When Suharto collapsed in 1998, which marked Indonesia’s political transition, many observers of Indonesian politics predicted this country would soon become the next Balkans.

What happened in Indonesia, surprisingly, was not a state disintegration but rather a solid democratic integration. Edward Aspinall in this volume (126-146) provides explanations of why and how Indonesia survived from separatism. The cornerstone of Indonesia’s success in implementing a state policy of decentralization, in quelling secession, and finally in boosting support for democracy, Aspinall argues, was the transfer of some political and financial authority from the central government to the sub-provincial of 495 county-like districts and municipalities across the nation. This policy—and strategy—aimed at preventing the rebirth of provincial pro-independence sentiments and political movements that historically, since the country declared its independence, has tested the integrity of the Indonesian unitary state.

Besides the peaceful decentralization, the book also analyzes other significant accomplishments of post-Suharto democratic Indonesia including, but not limited to, the transformation of the military and the demilitarization of governments (89-108), the rise of many independent political parties, the increasing participation of women in public affairs, the widespread presence of CSOs, the production of many “pro-people” laws, the increase of civilian regimes, the growth of free press, and the implementation of free elections. Muslims in the country are also more in favour of secular democracy than Islamic monarchy. Muslim parties of all kinds have lost support to fully national secular-based political parties (24-50).

The defeat of Islamic political parties does not mean that secular political actors have suppressed and isolated religious ones. Conversely, today’s Indonesia witnesses what Alfred Stepan calls “twin tolerations,” namely “toleration of democracy by religion and toleration of religion by democratic leaders” (7). The Indonesian case makes clear that the participation of religion in public, political domains does not necessarily defy or transgress secular, democratic practices, so that John Rawls’ warning to uproot religion from politics in order to establish a liberal democracy has lost empirical ground.

Despite highlighting some compelling arguments, data and analyses on contemporary Indonesian politics, the book has some weaknesses, including the portrayal of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, the country’s two largest Muslim institutions, which the editors describe as the backbone of Indonesian democracy, without examining anti-pluralist and anti-democracy factions within these organizations.

In fact, during the New Order, it was only NU, especially during the late Abdurrahman Wahid, that became the strongest Islamic advocate for democracy. Unlike his uncle, Yusuf Hasyim, Wahid worked closely with secular and non-Muslim democrats to resist the New Order and struggle for democratic government, human rights, and the state’s pluralist ideology and Constitution. Muhammadiyah, conversely, instead of supporting non-state civil society groupings and criticizing the New Order, enjoyed patronage with the ruling government.

As a result, this organization received advantages from the government such as funds to build its schools and other properties. Members of Muhammadiyah also enjoyed strategic positions in governments, educations, state companies, etc. The sharp, sometimes harsh, rivalry between NU and Muhammadiyah during the New Order was evident and prevalent. While NU, with Wahid as a main leader, referred its opposition to the New Order as a “cultural strategy,” Muhammadiyah, with Amin Rais as the primary figure, called its support for the government a “structural strategy.” Muhammadiyah transformed itself into a non-state vital force of democracy when this organization was led by Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, the country’s leading human rights advocate and intellectual, at the end of the New Order.

Furthermore, the book also seems to romanticize the positive role of civil society in democratizing the state without examining the rise of “uncivil” civil society such as ethno-religious sectarian groupings that mushroomed in the post-Suharto Indonesia as an unintended political reformation of 1998 that also could ruin democracy.

The book also tends to underestimate the role of the (retired) military in running government without mentioning their positive contributions for good governance. In fact, there were some high-quality popular military rulers who could successfully transform their territories into a stable region such as Governor Mardiyanto of Central Java and Governor Karel Albert Ralahalu of Maluku.

Despites these lacunae the book undoubtedly provides a plentiful essential resource for those interested in the study of post-authoritarian government, Muslim politics and, particularly, Indonesian Islam. This volume is a welcoming edition after the publication of Robert Hefner’s 2000 Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratizations in Indonesia.

Source: Pacific Affairs

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Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.


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