Islam and Democracy in Indonesia

Article excerpt

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Home to approximately 230 million people of which more than 85% follow Islam, there are almost as many Muslims living in Indonesia as in the entire Arab-speaking world combined. (1) Sunni Islam is the predominant branch of Islam, with only around one million Indonesians being Shia. There is a wide array of other forms of Islam, including significant numbers of Sufi communities. (2) The major fault line, however, lies between santri who adhere to orthodox forms of Islam while the abangan practice more syncretic versions of Islam. (3)

Indonesia is also the world's third largest democracy after India and the United States of America. Since the authoritarian regime of President Suharto collapsed in 1998, the most immediately visible change in Indonesian politics has been the implementation of an extensive regulatory framework that directs both executive and legislative elections. In April 2009 Indonesia conducted the third legislative election of the post-Suharto era. As in 1999 and 2004, the recent election featured a nationwide legislative election for the national parliament, the senate-like Regional Representatives Assembly, and for the parliaments at the provincial, district and municipal level. Furthermore, direct elections for regents and mayors were held in 486 out of 510 regencies and municipalities and governor elections in 15 out of 33 provinces throughout the last few years. By the end of 2008, all the leaders of sub-national executive governments had been directly elected by the Indonesian people. (4) Finally, presidential election took place in 1999, 2004, and 2009.

In addition to the introduction of elections, which were all regarded as reasonably free and fair, the independence of the media was restored while various reform initiatives strengthened human rights and increased opportunities for the political participation of civil society. In short, overall developments throughout the last decade point towards ever expanding democratic freedom for Indonesian citizens. (5)

These developments are reflected in the position Indonesia currently holds in democracy ratings where it was given the highest ranking of all Southeast Asian countries in the latest reports from both Freedom House and Polity IV. (6) In fact, Indonesia is an 'electoral overachiever' in the Muslim world overall, as is shown in Table 1. (7)

Against this backdrop, Indonesia presents itself as an interesting case study in a broader debate about the relationship between Islam and democracy. The two are said to rarely go together, due to a theological lack of state-religion separation, as Ahmet T. Kuru shows in his discussion of the recent literature on this topic in this volume. (8)

The ease with which democracy is thriving in Muslim-majority Indonesia is usually ascribed to the moderate forms of Islam Indonesians have adopted. "Much of the literature during the twentieth century portrayed the [Indonesian] Muslim community in largely benign terms. There were several interlinked aspects to this approving commentary. The first remarked on the myriad ways in which local Muslim communities had 'indigenised' Islam, blending it with pre-existing religious practices to produce richly distinctive variants. Moreover, this Indonesianized form of Islam bore none of the severity and rigidity attributed to Middle Eastern forms, earning it praise for its moderation and tolerance. Some scholars even approvingly observed that large numbers of Muslims appeared lax in their devotions and heedless of all but the most basic requirements of Islamic law," Greg Fealy and Sally White note. (10)

The perception that it is mainly the peculiarities of Indonesian Islam that make it compatible with democracy is reflected in a growing number of surveys and studies conducted since 1998 that set out to show that Indonesian Muslim are against the implementation of shari'a laws, (11) dislike parties with an Islamist platform, (12) and embrace the ecumenical Pancasila ideology of the Indonesian state. …