Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia

Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia

Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia

Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia


"Civil Islam" tells the story of Islam and democratization in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation. Challenging stereotypes of Islam as antagonistic to democracy, this study of courage and reformation in the face of state terror suggests possibilities for democracy in the Muslim world and beyond.

Democratic in the early 1950s and with rich precedents for tolerance and civility, Indonesia succumbed to violence. In 1965, Muslim parties were drawn into the slaughter of half a million communists. In the aftermath of this bloodshed, a "New Order" regime came to power, suppressing democratic forces and instituting dictatorial controls that held for decades. Yet from this maelstrom of violence, repressed by the state and denounced by conservative Muslims, an Islamic democracy movement emerged, strengthened, and played a central role in the 1998 overthrow of the Soeharto regime. In 1999, Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid was elected President of a reformist, civilian government.

In explaining how this achievement was possible, Robert Hefner emphasizes the importance of civil institutions and public civility, but argues that neither


Few subjects in the Muslim world in the late 1990s commanded the attention of analysts and policy makers as much as Islam's compatibility with democracy, and few countries aroused more interest than Indonesia. Revolutionary developments engulfed the world's largest “Muslim” state, from the popular unrest that led to the overthrow of President Soeharto after thirty-two years in power to the holding of the first relatively free, multiparty elections since the 1950s to the bloody events in East Timor that brought an unprecedented foreign military intervention to an independent Indonesia. These startling events, along with the unexpected regional economic malaise, excited concern that Indonesia had become the sick man of Asia and even prompted some to wonder whether this archipelago of thousands of islands could survive as an integrated state. Robert Hefner's singular contribution is to put this roiling tableau into perspective and to explain the long-term trend, barely visible at times to the international public, of an evolving Muslim politics of pluralism.

The received wisdom that Muslim societies are democracy-resistant owes much, of course, to a revival of nineteenth-century formulations that civilizations and cultures are all-encompassing and determining. Islamic civilization, it is often argued, does not value intermediary institutions between the government and the people, thus precluding the emergence of civil society, and is based on a legal culture of rigidity, thus placing a premium on obedience and social conformity rather than on critical inquiry and individual initiative. Social scientists have added to this pessimistic view by emphasizing the adverse effects of social and economic stratification and especially the weaknesses of the middle classes. While sensitive to the myriad social trends at work, Hefner places the search for democratization in its shifting cultural contexts and stresses that the “rhythm” of democratic development varies according to specific milieu. More than elections, wealth, and constitutional arrangements, democracy depends, in his view, on “a virtuous circle of values and associations that varies in its cultural expressions.” Debates over the meaning of Islamic traditions and contestation over Islamic symbols are fully covered in the discussion that follows, but Hefner does not assume that Indonesians inevitably live according to a fixed normative code or that Islamic influences are invariable.

Highlighting the role of Islamic groups like the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Masjumi, and the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), this work argues that current Muslim demands for greater political participation must be seen against a historical background of cultural and social pluralism as well as state violence. Soeharto's New Order regime came into existence in 1965–66 on a wave of civil unrest and killings of an unprecedented scale, and went out . . .

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