The role of Islam in the democratization process of Indonesia in the post-Soeharto period

Essay, 2005

24 Seiten, Note: 68

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a Definition of democracy
b The lack of democracy in New Order Indonesia
c Transition to democracy

a Islam in Nation Building and New Order periods
b. Islam and post-Suharto politics
c Islamic extremism

a Islam and democracy
a.1. Incompatibility
a.2. Compatibility
b The role of Islam in the transition to democracy in Indonesia
b.1. The positive role
b.2. The negative role





In his controversial and often-cited book “The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order”, Harvard’s Samuel Huntington several times stated that Islamic culture and society, which is inhospitable to Western liberal principles, is in large part to blame for the failure of democracy in the Muslim world. In the end, the former upbeat spokesperson for democracy’s “third wave” concluded: “Democratic prospects in the Muslim republics are bleak.” (1996: 29, 114, 193)

The most populous Muslim republic of the world at a quick look seemed to be a telling proof of what Huntington said. Indonesia was ruled by the authoritarian regime of dictator Suharto in more than 30 years. After his fall, it was even more infamous for the human abuses in East Timor and Aceh, the Islamic opposition to a female president (1999), Bali bombings and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism.

However, in this essay, I argue that Indonesia is a vivid example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Contrary to being a conservative anti-democratic force, Islam in Indonesia has been “integral to democratization” (SAPC, 2004: 2) and become the single most important force for political change (Hefner, 2000: 18). My arguments will begin with a brief of the lack of democracy in the New Order (1967-1998) and the transition to democracy following it. Then I will provide another brief of an Indonesian Islam in different periods and its relationship with post-independence politics. Yet the core of my essay lies in the third section: the role of Islam in the transition to democracy in Indonesia, in which I will prove that Islam has played a critical part in the pro-democracy movement, in the research on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, in elections and in the building of a civil society in Indonesia… Finally, the conclusion sums up my points on the matter.


a Definition of democracy

Democracy, as an idea and as a political reality, is always contested (Held, 1996: x) as Samuel Huntington once said: “Definitions of democracy are legion” (1984: 195). Not only is the history of democracy marked by conflicting interpretations, but also ancient and modern notions intermingle to produce ambiguous and inconsistent accounts of its key terms, among them the proper meaning of “political participation”, the connotation of “representation”, the scope of citizens’ capacities to choose freely among political alternatives, and the nature of competition in a democratic community (Held, 1996: x).

Nevertheless, several democracy specialists managed to put forward well-cited definitions for this controversial term. Among the most representative ones, this essay follows the definition of Larry Diamond, Juan Linz and Seymour Lipset. It says that democracy “denotes a system of government that meets three essential conditions”: competition, participation and political liberties. The first one is meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups (especially political parties) for all effective positions of government power through regular, free and fair elections that exclude the use of force. The second is a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, such as no major (adult) social group is prevented from exercising the rights of citizenship. And last but not least is a level of civil and political liberties - freedom of thought and expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and demonstration, freedom to form and join organizations, freedom from terror and unjustified imprisonment - secured through political equality under a rule of law. (1995: 6-7)

However, it’s widely acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all democracy but a variety of forms linked by family resemblances. Democracy’s values of freedom, equality, and tolerance do not come with unbending instructions for all places and times. The general values take their practical cues from the particularities of the place in which they would work. (Hefner, 2000: 217)

b The lack of democracy in New Order Indonesia

In the case of Indonesia, following the establishment in 1967 of the New Order, for 32 years formal political and military power was highly centralized in the hands of one person - President Suharto, a master of the political manoeuvre (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 5). His New Order rested on a comprehensive surveillance and security network and a narrow and tightly controlled political system that had eliminated or completely reorganized the country’s political parties. This was complemented by a large and growing state bureaucracy, linked from top to bottom to the military and centred on Suharto himself. Pancasila (the five principles of belief in one God, humanitarianism, nationalism, consensus, democracy and social justice) was transformed from a doctrine aimed at the inclusion of diverse ideological, ethnic and religious groups in the national collective into a weapon to be used against dissenters of all kinds (Beeson, 2004: 48). Although Indonesia saw regular elections under Suharto, the governing regulations and implementation of the elections undermined the principles they stood for: people’s sovereignty and political accountability (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 5). Labour unions and other civil society’s associations were replaced by state-corporatist associations (Bouldreau, 1999: 6).

c Transition to democracy

The fall of President Soeharto in 1998 created the opportunity for democratic reform (International IDEA, 2000: 3). Within nearly 7 years, Indonesians witnessed the revival of genuine multi-party system, two competitive national parliamentary and provincial elections, and the inauguration of 4 presidents (Habibie, Wahid, Megawati and Yudhoyono - the last one was elected directly by the people). The constitution was amended 4 times; the power and functions of the executive, legislature and judiciary have been separated. Independence statutory bodies to oversee the activities of state machinery have mushroomed. Freedom of expression and organization has been restored, leading to the emergence of a vibrant press. The powerful armed forces (TNI) had to accept its reduced role and give up its policy of dwifungsi (dual function) which assured TNI’s independence from civilian control and its independent position in Indonesian politics (Ghosdal, 2004: 507-522; Boudreau, 1999: 9).

However, many are still unsatisfied with the process of reform and democratization of governance that has been limited and slow. The political competition between presidents and the parliament is intense. Strong central government control broke down as the provinces clamored to redress the historical legacy of overcentralization and demanded more autonomy and revenue sharing. Corruption in public life and arbitrariness on the part of the government are still rampant. There is no visible improvement in the economic conditions of ordinary people. Ethnic, religious and sectarian violence has not shown any signs of ebbing; on the contrary, political terrorism, centrifugal and violent forces are on the rise, the latest being the resumption of killings in Ambon. (Ghosdal, 2004: 507; Abuza, 2003: 140-141)

The spread of democracy in Indonesia has by no means erased all forms of political repression or conflict, but it has actually increased the number of people who enjoy freedom, and fostered hope that the old restrictive political practices would not be repeated. (Ghosdal, 2004: 506)


a Islam in Nation Building and New Order periods

Middle Eastern traders first brought Islam to Indonesia approximately 1.200 years ago and established the faith in different time periods and with differing intensity. It did not replace Javanese folk religions but became thoroughly synthesized with the vernacular animism, Hinduism and Buddism. Thus, Indonesia Islam, which developed autonomously from that in the Middle East and coexisted with preexisting structures and systems, are diverse and divided, but generally moderate and tolerant. (Abuza, 2003: 61; SAPC, 2004: 21; Smith, 2005: 99; Heryanto & Mandal, 2003: 3)

Yet the role of Islam in political life has been constrained for most of Indonesia’s post -independence history. From the beginning, Indonesia’s constitutional framers, including founding President Sukarno insisted that a pluralistic and secular state was the best way to create nationhood among the diverse peoples on the vast archipelago (Smith, 2005: 99). Suharto, in particular, viewed Islam as a discordant element in national affairs and a serious potential threat to his power (Beeson, 2004: 141). He supported “cultural Islam” but allowed no freedom of movement to the “political Islam” (International IDEA, 2000: 205) though Muslim religious leaders and parties supported him and led the witch hunt against the communists, which saw the killings of half a million to a million people in 1965. He ruthlessly manipulated the Muslim community, controlling them and ensuring that they were serving his political purposes. Although two large mass Muslim social organizations, namely the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah were allowed functional, their activities were circumscribed and political activities banned. In 1973, the four Islamic parties were forced to merge into the PPP (the United Development Party) (Abuza, 2003: 63, 64).

Although Suharto was successful in politically defanging Islam, as a social force it grew tremendously. It is seen as a safe alternative to the heavily circumscribed political structure. Islamic schools, mosques, and Muslim publications were the only fora for public policy debate - all the more so because the state was increasingly unwilling to crack down on them. Thus, Muslim social organizations were always more capable than the legal opposition party PPP, in pushing for policy changes. (Abuza, 2003: 64)

Suharto cultivated a more Islamic image during his last decade in office, which most interpret as his means of balancing the power of the military and neutralizing the pro-democracy movement. The strong man created the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) to co-opt Muslim intellectuals. He made political capital out of his pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca, the adoption of a Muslim name (Muhammad), and the revoking of a ban on veils for women in public schools. His greening (green being the symbol of Islam) even dangerously included an alignment with radical Islamic groups. (Smith, 2005: 100-101; Hefner, 2000: 122, 167)

b. Islam and post-Suharto politics

After the authoritarian regime came to an end, repression of political Islam was lifted, Indonesia witnessed a politicization of Islam. The number of Islamic-based parties proliferated though they are fraught with factionalism and contending egos, which makes cooperation on all but essential issues very difficult. Robert Hefner commented: “Post-Suharto Indonesia is unlikely to see a single, dominant Islamic grouping any time soon, it is even less likely to see a clear Muslim consensus on the role of Islam in the state.” (Abuza, 2003: 68, 193, quoting Hefner, 1999: 65-66)

Within three months following Suharto’s resignation, 42 Islamic parties were formed; however, most of them were short-lived (SAPC, 2004: 24). The public discourse was suddenly replete with discussions of “political” Islam in the print and electronic media as well as at public meetings and in intellectual circles. The debate over the sharia law (Islamic law based on the Quran, not on basic principles of democracy) and the Jakarta Charter, hardly heard at all since 1968, suddenly became a popular topic of discussion (International IDEA, 2000: 207).

In the 1999 elections, about 88 percent Indonesians are Muslims (SAPC, 2004: 21), but contrary to their high expectations, 21 Muslim parties only gained 38 percent of the total vote (International IDEA, 2000: 209), in which PKB (National Awakening Party) got the biggest share with 13 percent and came third in the elections. Its leader Abdurrahman Wahid managed to become the fourth President of the nation after a series of his manoeuvres despite the fact that the secular PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle) of Megawati Sukarnoputri won 34 percent (Smith, 2005: 102-103).

In the 2004 elections, these trends still remained. Muslim parties were not able to increase their vote total over the 1999 elections. Once again “Islamic” issues did not resonate with the public and the Islamic party candidate, Hamzah Haz, the current Vice President, received only 3.5% of the vote. The Prosperous Justice Party, which is the most Islamist of the lot got about 7.5% of the vote. (SAPC, 2004: 25-26)

c Islamic extremism

From the beginning, Indonesia is essentially a secular state not because of its religious diversity but because most Indonesian Muslims are moderates. They have no desire to live under the strictures of Islamic law or have the government regulate their religious life (Lowry, 2002: 16). Nevertheless, unavoidably a distinct minority of the Muslim community are antipluralist and a proportion of it have radicalized themselves due to long-standing local issues and grievances (Abuza, 2003: 10, 33).

According to Zachary Abuza, the best estimates are that radical Muslims make up only 5 percent of the population, but 5 percent of the country’s more than 200 million population is a significant number (2003: 76). The worst extremists have resorted to violence and terrorism which have become a big blight in the past few years. The bombings that killed 202 people in the Kuta resort of Bali in October 2002 was the deadliest terrorist act the world had seen since September 11, 2001 (McBride, 2004: 12; Smith, 2005: 98). It was followed in July 2003 by an attack on the Indonesian parliament, then with the blasts of the Jakarta Marriott Hotel the next month. Other targets around the same time included a McDonald’s restaurant, the Jakarta airport, and a bridge near the United Nations headquarters in Jakarta. They have fortunately claimed far fewer lives (SAPC, 2004: 11), but helped to cement Indonesia’s undeserved reputation as a hotbed of Islamic extremism (McBride, 2004: 4).

Further atrocities seem inevitable (McBride, 2004: 13) as radical Islamic forces have grown in strength and number and been able to capitalize on the breakdown of law, order as well as central government control. Militant groups such as Jemaah Islamiah and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Mederka, or GAM) still exist, whereas anti-terrorist measures reluctantly taken by Indonesian government have hitherto limited owing to their fear of political backlash from the Muslim community (Abuza, 2003: 65-190).


a Islam and democracy

a.1. Incompatibility

In his 1984 article titled “Will more countries become democratic?”, Huntington wrote that “among the Islamic countries, particularly those in the Middle East, the prospects for democratic development seem low”, because “no distinction exists between religion and politics or between the spiritual and the secular, and political participation was historically an alien concept”. According to the Harvard professor, the Islamic revival, particularly Shi’ah fundamentalism and poverty would seem to reduce even further the likelihood of democratic development since democracy is often identified with the very Western influence the revival strongly opposed. Those that are rich, on the other hand, are so because of oil, which is controlled by the state. However, the control of oil, the major source of national income “enhances the power of the state in general and of the bureaucracy in particular,” which also hinders the inauguration of democracy (1984: 203, 216). Nearly 10 years later, this view was reemphazied in his best seller book “The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order.”

Agreeing with Huntington, a number of political commentators view Islam and democracy/democratization to be in conflict or contradictory to each other. The rise of Islamic resurgence movements are often seen to be traditionalizing, backward-looking, fearful of change and democracy itself. In their views, Islamic civilization 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; freedom of thought, freedom to differ and individualism were sacrificed to save unity of the religious group or the Islamic community. There was no better example of these than the Taliban brutalization in Afghanistan and the violence in Algeria. Social scientists have also added to this pessimistic view by emphasizing the adverse effects of social and economic stratification and especially the weaknesses of the middle classes. (Hefner, 2000: vii, 4; Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 122)

a.2. Compatibility

Many other Muslim intellectuals and activists, including Norani Othman, Fathi Osman and Mohammad Kamali, argue otherwise. According to them, although it may be a practice “foreign” to Muslims under many regimes, the notion or concept of democracy is really not foreign to Islamic thought. Various principles of democracy such as human rights, rule of law, justice, separation of religion and the state, religious tolerance, equal rights for women, etc. are inherent to the corpus of Islamic ideas. But they have to be substantiated and actively promoted through educational reform and the creation of social institutions that foster democratic consciousness and encourage greater participation of civil society in the political and religious realm. (Heryanto & Mandal, 2003: 123)

In reality, Muslims learned long ago to live with ethnic and regional diversity. Muslim politics is not monolithic but, like politics in all civilizations, plural. From a sociological perspective, the differentiation of religious and political authorities was inevitable as the Muslim community developed from a small, relatively homogeneous movement into a vast, multiethnic empire. From a religious perspective, too, the separation was necessary if the transcendent truth of Islam was not to be subordinated to the whims of all-too-human rulers (Hefner, 2000: 7, 25). Besides, contrary to the widespread belief that Islam does not allow the separation of state and religion, political power in most of Muslim history was not wielded by a theocratic class (SAPC, 2004: 31) and religious scholars developed the healthy habit of holding themselves at a distance from government (Hefner, 2000: 7).

The results of a comprehensive survey released by the Pew Research Center in June 2003 are another proof that citizens of Muslim countries place a high value on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, multi-party systems and equal treatment under law. This includes peoples living in kingdoms such as Jordan and Kuwait, as well as those in authoritarian states like Uzbekistan and Pakistan. In fact, many of the publics polled expressed a stronger desire for democratic reforms than the publics in some nations of eastern Europe, notably Russian and Bulgaria. (PEW, 2003: 7)

Nowadays, the major challenge for democratization in Muslim societies remains whether Muslim scholars and leaders themselves are able to create coherent theories and structures of Islamic democracy that are not simple reformulations of Western notions offered in Islamic idioms. What the social and political content of Islamic democracy consists of, and how it is to be justified and realized, was increasingly a central issue to the project of Islamic modernity throughout the Muslim world (Heryanto & Mandal, 2003: 123). For centuries, Muslim has been blessed with an abundance of civic resources (Hefner, 2000: 25), all elaborated in quite distinctive political and historical experiences. That heritage may provide the necessary resources and strong historical support for modern efforts to generate from within Islam itself the idea of a commitment, ethically driven life of active, participatory citizenship and a universal or global Islamic community (Heryanto & Mandal, 2003: 123).

b The role of Islam in the transition to democracy in Indonesia

b.1. The positive role

With 240 million people, 88% of whom are Muslim, Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world, and the fourth most populous of any faith (SAPC, 2004: 21). At the moment, “it is the best proof of the cherished belief that Islam and democracy can co-exist,” noted Edward McBride of the Economist (2004: 4). In fact, Islam in Indonesia, rather than being a conservative anti-democratic force, has been “civil” (Hefner, 2000), “integral to democratization” (SAPC, 2004: 2) and become the single most important force for political change and democracy (Hefner, 2000: 18).

In an essay titled “Islam and the Nation in the Post-Suharto Era”, Robert Hefner wrote: “Since the late-1980s, the largest audience for democratic and pluralist ideas in Indonesia has been, not secular nationalist, but reform-minded Muslim democrats. Nowhere in the Muslim world have Muslim intellectuals engaged the ideas of democracy, civil society, pluralism, and the rule of law with a vigor and confidence equal to that of Indonesia Muslims”. (Abuza, 2003: 68, quoting Hefner, 1999: 42)

His comments were based on the role that Islamic forces played in the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia. When the authoritarian regime still rested on their laurels, the world's two largest Muslim organizations, NU and the Muhammadiyah with their young and progressive leaders such as Abdurrahman Wahid - who later become President were already at the forefront of Muslim intellectual efforts to forge an understanding of democracy in an Islamic context. They argued that Islam should be the basis for the country’s democratic development and the building of civil society. Going further than simply talking about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, they pointed out the ways in which Islam supported human rights, pluralism, representation, gender equality, separation of religion and the state, as well as social justice. In their thesis which has cast much influence on more than 70 million followers, democratic values are inherently rooted within Islam. Apart from research, they also engaged in very practical ‘‘democracy education’’ for rural, poorly educated, and often marginalized populations who had very little knowledge or experience with what democracy means, and even less understanding of how to participate in democratic governance. (SAPC, 2004: 17-23)

When the time was right, Muslims were the single largest force in the pro-democracy movement that brought authoritarianism to an end in 1998 (Hefner, 2000: 18). It was Islamic organizations that provided the bulk of the demonstrations against Suharto (Abuza, 2003: 68). And it was well-known Muslim leaders such as Amien Rais, Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholish Madjid who emerged as the most prominent advocates of democracy at the time (Smith, 2005: 100). Later Douglas Ramage noted, “Indonesians are deeply proud of” this role (SAPC, 2004: 17).

In the fragile democratization process, it would be misleading to say that the emergence of political parties that represent either Muslim constituencies or advocate Islam policies are a threat. While democratization is far from complete in Indonesia, Islamic forces have not derailed it. Until now, the country’s largest Muslim organizations have seen no compatibility problems between democracy and Islamic practice, while Islamic parties in the Indonesian Parliament are content to work through the ballot process. (Smith, 2005: 100, 117)

Currently Indonesia has been witnessing increasing Muslim demands for greater political participation and competition (Hefner, 2000: vii). Muslim electorate and parties have played an important role in and strongly endorsed democratic elections, in which they actively took part and competed alongside secular or other religious one (SAPC, 2004: 6, 8).

In Indonesia, Muslims naturally account for more than 80 percent of voters. In the 1999 elections, those who belonged to Muslim organizations largely cast their votes to parties that sought to capture an Islamic constituency. Mass-based NU, the largest Muslim organization in the world with more than 35 million followers tended to remain behind their own leader, Abdurrahman Wahid; while Muhammadiyah votes were scattered between various Islamic political parties. However, the one who won the lion’s share was the PDI-P of Megawati Sukarnoputri - a secular nationalist candidate. Well over half of all her votes were cast by Muslims. The runner-up was secular Golkar, the former party of Sukarno (Smith, 2005: 101-102). It means Muslims in Indonesia care more about democracy and development than the political power of their religion.

Another interesting fact is that only moderate Islamist parties have achieved any political representation, whereas radical appeals enjoyed very limited support in the Muslim electorate. Wahid’s party, PKB, which has consistently promoted a secular state, was the Muslim party with the biggest share (13 percent) and came third in the elections. PAN (National Mandate Party), with 7 percent of the total vote, largely drawing from Muhammadiyah for support but actively recruiting non-Muslims as candidates, also remained behind a secular and democratic state. (Smith, 2005: 99-102)

The smaller Muslim parties have been more partisan in religious terms but are still far from promoting radical vision of a theocratic state, not least of all because they accept the supremacy of the ballot box and do not promote violence as a means to power. (Smith, 2005: 102)

PPP, PBB and PK are minor parties that have urged an alteration to the Constitution, which states sharia law should apply to all Muslims in Indonesia - know as the Jakarta Charter. The Jakarta Charter itself is only a seven word clause, but one that would affect the fundamental nature of the Indonesian state. Such a change would alienate non-Muslims as well as many moderate Muslims since it would establish Islam as the state religion. To put this in context, these smaller Islam parties want to bring Indonesia in line with Malaysia, which does formally place Islam as the official state faith. However, in any event, the percentage of the Indonesian electorate who voted for candidates advocating the Jakarta Charter hovered somewhere between 10-16 percent. Therefore, they simply do not have enough political support to bring about a constitutional change that would turn Indonesia into a even a moderate version of an “Islamic state”. (Abuza, 2003: 1; Smith, 2005: 102-103; International IDEA, 2000: 19)

In the 2004 elections, these trends still remained. Islamic parties did not increase their vote total over the 1999 election. In fact, by far, the overwhelming share of votes remained with politically secular, mainstream, nationalist parties and candidates. Hamzah Haz, the then Vice President and the highest profile Islamic candidate received only 3.5% of the vote. Support for PJP, the most Islamist party of the lot took off only when it dropped its support for sharia and emphasized anti-corruption and clean government. In other words, in Indonesia, if a Muslim party wants votes, basically it needs to stop emphasizing Islam. And Douglas Ramage of the Asia Foundation concluded: “We can see that whenever Indonesians get a chance to use a democratic franchise, their vote, to participate in a free society, radical parties and militant views have always lost in Indonesia.” (SAPC, 2004: 18-26)

Also in the 2004 elections, Indonesia’s large, mainstream Muslim organizations effectively carried out a nationwide voter-education and election-monitoring campaign involving over 100,000 election day observers and reaching over 70 million voters, which showed “how eager Muslim organizations are to participate to guarantee a secular process”. (SAPC, 2004: 16-20)

The two largest ones, NU and Muhammadiyah have been out-spoken in their defense of the secular state and against the Jakarta Charter for long. Recently the two organizations have explicitly criticized terrorism and the narrow interpretation of Islam (Abuza, 2003: 76, 192). In spite of being theological and political rivals, they even issued a joint condemnation of terrorism after both the Bali and Marriott blasts (Smith, 2005: 115). More impressively, a younger group calling itself the Liberal Islam Network launched a nationwide media campaign for pluralism and tolerance in 2001. “Religion and tolerance”, the radio show they host has been so successful that it is the most widely listened-to talk show in Asia, according to Time Magazine (SAPC, 2004: 18, 24). It is actually undeniable that Muslim organizations have played a key part in establishing and developing civil society in Indonesia. Through such networks of civil engagement, citizens learns the habits of participation and initiative later generalized to the whole of political society (Hefner, 2000: 23).

As a conclusion for this section, I would quote Douglas Ramage’s speech before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on International Relations, U.S House of Representatives:

“We must understand that Indonesia’s mass-based Muslim organizations, Islamic leaders, and Islamic civil society NGOs played a critical role in Indonesia’s democratization process… We can see the vigorous support of Muslim leaders, community activists, media personalities and theologians for an Indonesia that is democratic, respectful of all religions, and which embraces pluralism and interfaith tolerance… Indonesia is, indeed, working hard to establish a vibrant democracy in this Islamic context.” (SAPC, 2004: 19-25)

b.2. The negative role

In the early 1990s, as cracks in the authoritarian regime became increasingly visible, and the democratization movement gained strength, some of Indonesia’s leading Muslim democratic activists began to warn that the biggest challenge Muslims would face in a democratizing Indonesia would be from an emergence of hardline Islamist militancy. These fears were based on an understanding that Islamist political expression was being held in check by an authoritarian regime and that in a democratic system which allowed for freedom of expression, it was very likely the heretofore marginalized militant minority would gain political stature. This is what happened in the last 6 years. It presents a formidable challenge to Indonesia’s democracy and to its civil society which had been weakened by four decades of suppression. (SAPC, 2004: 22)

The existence of radical groups themselves poses a threat to Indonesian half-fledged democracy. As Michael Davis said in his study of the Laskar Jihad in Indonesia, in order to exist, radical groups must be militant, confrontational and therefore destructive: “This derives from basic self-interest: No conflict, no Laskar Jihad - only the maintenance of hostilities legitimates the group’s position” (2002: 23). In reality, the Laskar Jihad’s operations and activities involved ethnic cleansing, waging sectarian and religious conflict and hence destabilizing the country.

The political lines of these groups are all against the sake of Indonesian democracy. Jamar Umar Thalib, the No.1 leader of Laskar Jihad publicly objected to Pancasila and democracy, which he considers “incompatible” with Islam. He claimed any state should be governed by sharia, and democracy should be replaced by a council of Islamic scholars. The council would have the power to appoint the president and have control over government policy (Abuza, 2003: 69-73). Several organizations share the same view with the Laskar Jihad. They include the pan-Southeast Asia Jemaah Islamiya, Darul Islam - a radical movement founded in the 1940s, Islamic Youth Movement, the Defenders of Islam, the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the Islamic World, the Anti-Zionist Movement, the Indonesian Muslim Students Action Front, and the Muhammadiyah Students Association. All of them have challenged the elected authority (Basri&Eng, 2004: 6), destabilized the country, waged sectarian and religious conflict and violated human rights, etc. in the name of Islam. Their activities are “inimical to the development of Indonesian democracy… Democracy is about the rule of law, not mob violence”, wrote Zachary Abuza (2003: 62-196).

Among them, the most notorious of all is Jemaah Islamiya - the underground terrorist group carrying out the Bali and Marriott bombings, which shook Indonesia and claimed the lives of more than 200 people. And they did leave repercussions in the country’s transition to democracy. The International Crisis Group (ICG), right after the Bali blast, suggested that those acts might undermine the reformasi process itself and play into the hands of the military. In reality, the army used the post-Bali climate to push for a strengthening of its own intelligence capacity down to the village level, in a way that would serve only to reinforce the existing territorial command structure - the gradual dismantling of which had generally been seen as an essential step towards moving the army out of daily political life. The continuing threat of terrorism could become a useful tool to justify an increased military role in internal security. This would be a grave blow to political reform and the notion of civilian supremacy in a democratizing government. (Smith, 2005: 114; ICG, 2002: 4; Basri&Eng, 2004: 26-27)

Terrorist acts caused by Islamic extremists have also led to the backing and introduction of laws and regulations which compromise human rights and civil liberties. The Anti-Terrorism Regulation was adopted in less than a week after the Bali bombings (ICG, 2002: 3). In the aftermath of the Marriott explosion (August 2003), a debate emerged about restoration of the old Suharto era antisubversion law in order to target terrorist groups. Such a law, used in the past by Suharto to imprison political activists and radical Muslim leaders, is still quite unpopular with the public and raises the ghost of authoritarianism. Yet key Indonesian officials have drawn a strict dichotomy between freedom and stability (Smith, 2005: 115-116). The now Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who was the coordinating minister of security at the time, foreshadowed that some of the country’s recently hard-won civil liberties might have to be wound back in the interests of community safety. He also said the new anti-terrorism laws passed after Bali would be reviewed urgently. The national intelligence chief, Hendropriyono, advocated that powers of arrest be given to the intelligence services. The defense minister, Matori Abdul Djalil, stated: “Several times Indonesia has been attacked by an act of terrorism which causes a loss of life. Therefore it's an emergency. That's why I am brave to say this nation actually needs an Internal Security Act which provides authority to the security apparatus to take preventative measures before terrorist attacks take place" (Moore, 2003). The message of this discussion is obvious - Indonesia cannot escape from the tension between the exigencies of national security and the preservation of civil liberties. This tension seems real and perhaps inevitable in times of political crisis as the two sets of considerations pull in opposite directions (Smelser& Mitchell, 2002: 46). After a flurry protests from both human rights groups and Muslim organizations, the government moved its efforts to fortify the existing terrorism legislation, keeping the police in charge but with a provision that would allow the military a greater role in special circumstances (Basri&Eng, 2004: 26).

At the same time, anti-democratic elements in Indonesian have also begun to pursue their agendas by working through democratic institutions and processes. For example, while sharia law has been rejected several times at national level, there is increasing incidence of it being implemented at the regional level through powers accorded to the district heads as a result of Indonesia’s decentralization of political and financial authorities to district and city governments since 2001. Many non-pluralist groups have penetrated educational institutions from primary to tertiary levels as part of a far-reaching and long-term effort to influence the attitudes of Indonesia’s younger generation. They are a potential threat to Indonesia’s long-term democratic development. (SAPC, 2004: 26)

Another negative fact is that even moderate Muslim parties are still conservative in gender issues. In 1999, Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president, but only after a coalition of Muslim parties called the Central Axis threw their support behind him to bar the secular leader and woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose new PDI-P party won the most number of seats. (Abuza, 2003: 68)

Last but not least, the discontent of the Muslim community with the Sino-Indonesian domination of the economy remains intact. For the Chinese minority, among whom the majority are Buddists or Christians, the past 7 years have been both the best of times and the worst of times. Many of the harshest restrictions on public display of Chineseness imposed by the New Order regime have been abrogated. The dragon dance is now seen on television and Taiwanese soap operas rule the airwaves. Yet the same period has seen gross political violence against Chinese, attempts to reduce their control of the economy and uncertainty about the future. This resentment limits the participation as well as competition of ethnic Chinese in public political activities and can be “forces that may be simmering beneath the volcano” as Pierre Van Der Eng predicted. (Basri&Eng, 2004: 6, 69)


Where do you have Muslim leaders, scholars and clerics arguing that you can only be a good Muslim if you have a pluralist democratic society? That kind of discourse is nonexistent in the Arab world, but it did exist and do exist in Indonesia. (SAPC, 2004: 55; Wahid, 2001)

Under the authoritarian regime, it was Islamic progressive forces who were at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement. To prepare for the transition period, they laid for themselves and for Indonesia as well a theoretical foundation of building democracy in the country in an Islamic context. At the same time, they deliberately tried to build a civil society by promoting community development and fostering a critical democratic awareness among grassroots populations (SAPC, 2004: 22). When democratic forces had grown in number and strength and the time was just right, they provided the leaders and the bulk of the demonstrations that brought dictatorship to an end in 1998 (Abuza, 2003: 68; Smith, 2005: 100).

While the democratization process is far from complete in Indonesia, Muslim forces have not derailed it (Smith, 2004: 100). On the contrary, they have demonstrated how eager Muslims population is to participate and compete to guarantee a democratic process and strengthen a civil society (SAPC, 2004: 22). The results of the last two competitive elections is the telling proof of how secular and moderate Indonesian Muslims are. Obviously they have put the country’s development and democracy much higher than the political power of their faith.

On the other hand, Indonesia is not immune to Islamic extremism which has challenged the elected authority, destabilized the country, waged sectarian and religious conflict and violated human rights. Indeed, it has posed a tenacious threat in the name of Islam to the long and winding road to a genuine Indonesian democracy. However, the extremists do not represent the mainstream of public opinion, nor the government. To limit the harmfulness and eventually uproot that radical fringe, along with solving long-standing local grievances in Aceh, Maluku, etc., a very effective, safe but time-consuming measure Indonesia should take is to make the best of the progressiveness of mainstream Islamic forces to guide the population and enhance their democratic awareness.

Until now, all the major achievements of the transition to democracy in Indonesia have born the stamp of a civil Islam: from the fall of Suharto, the free and competitive elections, to the restoration of freedom of speech and expression… I believe if Indonesia’s mass-based Muslim organizations, Islamic leaders, and Islamic civil society NGOs continue to play their critical role, Indonesians’ dream and hope for democracy will be fulfilled. I also share Antlov’s optimism when he said about Indonesian democracy: “Yet somewhere deep inside I am optimistic, especially since most people that I talk to in Indonesia see the opportunities” (Heryanto & Mandal, 2003: 22, quoting Antlov, 2000: 221).

These achievements are also vivid proof of the compatibility of Islam, especially of the civil Islam in Indonesia and democracy. Among the firm believer in this fact is former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who observed the Indonesian presidential elections in 2004 (SAPC, 2004: Appendix). If the Nobel laureate now met Samuel P. Huntington, perhaps he would have something to advise his former adviser.


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The role of Islam in the democratization process of Indonesia in the post-Soeharto period
University of Leeds
International Studies
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Islam, Indonesia, International, Studies
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Thi Thu Huong Dang (Autor:in), 2005, The role of Islam in the democratization process of Indonesia in the post-Soeharto period, München, GRIN Verlag,


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