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26 Dec 2011
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Like other faith-inspired communities, the emerging Muslim middle classes in Indonesia would like Islam to have a place in the public domain. This would mean the freedom to practise the religious tenets in their daily lives and to have Islam frame their conduct in society. This does not translate into an embrace of Islamic ideology that will necessitate the imposition of Islamic law and the establishment of a theocracy.

Indonesia is a religious society. Some 86 per cent of its 238 million people identify themselves as Muslim. Religion, particularly Islam, was at the centre of the nation’s birth. Islamic movements shaped the nationalist struggle against the Dutch, and became quickly embroiled in the struggles to defi ne the nature of the nation-state. From the beginning, Indonesia’s political contests centred on whether the nation-state should be defi ned by religion – Islam – or whether it should remain starkly secular. At the point of independence, Indonesian nationalists compromised with religionists and officially acknowledged God in the nation. The Indonesian state ultimately enshrined God in its ideology of Pancasila.

Religion continues to play an important role in the political and social life of the country. In fact, there are strong arguments that the pace and extent of religiosity is intensifying in the aftermath of Indonesia’s democratisation. Certainly outward symbols of religiosity in the form of the Islamic head dress and attendance at mosques and churches have been on the rise. This is particularly evident among the growing middle classes in Indonesia’s major cities, including Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya.

Western scholarship remains wary of the impact of religion on democracy and development. The debate has ranged from an extreme view that religion is fundamentally incompatible with democratic development to a milder version that argues for some level of compatibility between certain versions of Christianity and democracy. This is somewhat understandable since the history of liberal democracy is traced to the Enlightenment, which involved the triumph of reason over religion.

So, what does this mean for Indonesia’s experiment with democracy? Will religion hinder the institutionalisation of a democratic order in Indonesia? Will Indonesia be under constant threat from religionists who want to see the establishment of a theocracy, much like that of the Islamic Republic of Iran or Saudi Arabia? Would religion, and particularly Islam, hinder Indonesia’s progress?

These are valid questions but they point to inherent biases in how Western scholarship views the linkage between religion and politics. Indonesia’s religious landscape is complex and some of the worries are real. We cannot deny the rise of extremist ideology with several terrorist bombings linked to Islamic terrorist cells operating in the region. The Bali and Jakarta bombings in 2005 and 2009, respectively, are a reminder of the dangers that religion can pose to the nation-state. There have also been reports of violence targeted at religious groups not aligned to the mainstream, suggesting perhaps a growing intolerance in Indonesian society resulting from a deepening attachment to religious beliefs. These include reports of church attacks in residential areas in the greater Jakarta area, as well as the violent clashes over the Ahmadiyah sect, a brand of Islam that is not recognised by mainstream Muslims.

But these incidents mask the complex picture of religion in Indonesia. Indonesia remains one of the more diverse societies in the world. There is a dizzying array of ethnic, cultural and religious identities that cut across each other and intertwine. Where Indonesian Islam is concerned, what we are seeing is increased heterogeneity among the different streams and schools of thought. At independence, Indonesian Islam was roughly divided into the traditionalist and modernist streams, the latter calling for greater purity in the religion vis-à-vis the synchronistic tendencies of the former. Today there is a far wider range of interpretations of Islam among Muslims in Indonesia. Some brands of Islam are more hardline in their orientation, but they jostle for adherents among groups that are more liberal as well as those that advocate a middle ground, including more popular, modern and middle-class brands of Islam.

These moderate, middle-class versions of Islam are no different from the aspirations of the middle class everywhere that have been central to democratic development. They want greater political and economic participation in the nation-state’s development. They are against corruption and for the rule of law so that they can benefit from the economic pie. These communities do not challenge the fundamental basis of Indonesian society as one that is tolerant and diverse. There is no conflict with Pancasila, and they do centre values in the framework of the nation-state.

Like other faith-inspired communities, the emerging Muslim middle classes in Indonesia would like Islam to have a place in the public domain. This would mean the freedom to practise the religious tenets in their daily lives and to have Islam frame their conduct in society. This does not translate into an embrace of Islamic ideology that will necessitate the imposition of Islamic law and the establishment of a theocracy.

An excellent illustration of this is the growing popularity of International Islamic schools in and around big cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya. These schools offer a modern, integrated curriculum that strives to find accommodation between religious and secular content. Several schools proudly proclaim that they teach science and math infused with religious values. At least one school offers Mandarin as a core language for business. These schools appeal to the Muslim middle class, many of whom are wary of their children growing up without an appropriate value system but who are unlikely to enrol their children in traditional Islamic boarding schools that focus exclusively on Islamic subjects.

The performance of Islamist political parties in the newly established democratic space also does not indicate the movement of Indonesian society to the far right. Instead, the last two general elections showed that while Indonesians generally supported a more openly religious society, they were unwilling to lend their support to overtly Islamic political parties. Parties that campaigned for Shariah law did not do well during the elections. Between 2004 and 2009, the overall percentages for Islamic political parties fell across the board. Instead, the majority of Indonesians voted for secular parties that displayed their positive associations with popular, moderate Islam.

Another interesting example is the case of the Prosperous Justice Party, which failed to appeal when it campaigned for Shariah law in 1999 and then suffered a setback when it opted to de-emphasise its Islamic credentials in its entirety some 10 years later. It performed well in 2004 when it emphasised values for better governance without overt reference to Islam. If the electoral results are a trend, it appears that Indonesian Muslims want legitimate space for religious values in the public domain but the place for religion remains very much within the ambit of a Pancasila state.

If Islam is to find accommodation with democracy, it is quite likely to occur in Indonesia. This is because of the diversity and tolerance that has been built into the culture and psyche of the Indonesian people. More importantly, religion’s role is acknowledged to have space and importance in the public domain. It is at the heart of the state ideology, and understood as an important partner in the country’s progress. Religious organisations and institutions are important stakeholders in the nation. These organisations now have legitimate space, and are acknowledged contributors to development.

With the rising Muslim middle class, Islam is now normalised in a democratic Indonesia, and with this normalisation, comes moderation.


Suzaina Kadir () is Assistant Dean (Student Affairs) and Senior Lecturer at the LKY School.

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