By Endy Bayuni
June 14 2014
The aspirations for an Islamic state and Sharia clearly exist in Indonesia. They are legitimate voices that should be accommodated in the country’s political processes. Barring them would only send them underground and possibly make them more dangerous and difficult to monitor as we have learned from the Sukarno and Soeharto dictatorships.
But while these Islamist aspirations exist, the four democratic elections held, in 1999, 2004, 2009 and in April this year showed that they don’t enjoy widespread support, not even among the majority of Muslim voters. The combined votes of the Islamist parties (and not all of them want an Islamic state) in the last four elections never exceeded 25 percent. They could never repeat their best performance in 1955, the first democratic election in Indonesia, when they won a combined 40 percent of the vote.
But even in the position of a minority, the Islamist parties like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP) have been able to advance some of their Islamist agenda, through the seats they control in the House of Representatives and through the coalition governments that they have been part of in the last 16 years.
These parties could claim victory in some of the national debates, for example, over the deliberation of the national education and anti-pornography laws. They are a legitimate part of Indonesia’s political scene, contributing to the development and progress of the nation, and no doubt they will continue to do so. They have much more clout now than they could ever have dreamed of 16 years ago.
This leads to the conclusion as stated in the title: That for a multicultural and multi-faith nation like Indonesia with a large Muslim population, the question of the relations between religion and the state is best resolved through the democratic political process. Let the people decide.
We should make a distinction between “liberal democracy”, as the term is used by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 book The rise of illiberal democracy, and Liberal Democracy (with upper cases L and D) that is part and parcel of the capitalist economic system of the West, which is now on the verge of bankruptcy.
In fact, religion could prevent Indonesia from degenerating into the moral decadence we see in countries that have dropped religion altogether.
Indonesia has had 16 years of experience of struggling to build the nation on the basis of Zakaria’s liberal democratic principles. The periodic elections now come with the guarantees of all kinds of individual freedoms (including speech, association and religion), the protection of basic human rights, the establishment of an accountable and transparent government, and credible judiciary and law enforcement. Governments are elected on the basis of how they can deliver all of the above.
While Indonesia cannot claim to have fulfilled Zakaria’s entire criteria, we can see that in the last 16 years, Indonesia has reaped the benefits of the liberal democratic system, from the relative political stability it has created, the orderly and peaceful succession of leaders and governments and the better protection of freedom and basic rights of its people.
And there is the bonus too: Indonesia has had steady and unprecedented sustainable economic growth and development that has lifted millions and millions out of poverty and seen the rise of a burgeoning and critical middle class. A more developed Indonesia is now in a much better position to promote social justice for all.
It is not a perfect picture by any means. Indonesia has had its share of problems, including religious tensions and conflicts, but many of these have been resolved through the democratic process rather than then through the iron fist of the law.
The sectarian conflicts in Maluku and Central Sulawesi pitting Christians and Muslims have been resolved through negotiations. The threat of terrorism in the name of Islam has been defused through a huge investment to improve the capacity and resources of the police force, critical for strong law enforcement necessary in any democratic society.
One pending task for the next president is containing the rise of religious intolerance, the increasing cases of persecution of religious minorities, and the menace of violent vigilante groups proclaiming to act in the name of Islam. These are issues of law enforcement, not religion, and should be resolved as such.
Indonesia’s achievement of experiencing 16 years of liberal democracy cannot be understated.
For one, it proves that the dual goals of democracy and development are not mutually exclusive, and that both can be and should be achieved simultaneously.
Second, Indonesia has proven Islam and democracy are not only compatible, but they are mutually reinforcing.
With this year’s elections and change of government and president in October, there is no doubt that the trajectory of the liberal democracy will continue and, God willing, will deliver the goods.
Endy Bayuni is senior editor of The Jakarta Post. He took part in the recent series of lectures, co-organized by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad and the Heinrich Boll Foundation Pakistan, entitled “Governance, Community and Religion” at universities in Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.