Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Islam and Democratization in Southeast Asia: Challenges and Opportunities

By. Dr. Hassan Wirajuda

First [- red] Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population—90 percent of a total of 220 million or some 198 million. It is a Muslim population that is by and large moderate. Most of the Muslims of Southeast Asia are, of course, moderate and there are moderate Muslims everywhere else. It just happens that international observers take a special view of this huge concentration of moderate Muslims in Indonesia. Perhaps it reassures them that the largest part of Islam is not a threat but a friend and contributor to civilization. At any rate, we are happy and proud that our country is considered the home of moderate Islam.

The second of the two dominant realities in our national life is the fact that Indonesia today is considered the world’s third largest democracy.It is important to note that following last year’s successful direct elections for president and vice president, the first in our history, local direct elections have started to take place for governors, regents and mayors this year.We are very much aware of the fact that democracy in Indonesia is still very much in need of further consolidation. We are further enhancing our political institutions and processes, amending laws and passing new ones in order to release the creative energies of our people and to make our system of governance more attractive to our foreign economic partners.

In sum, we have achieved a large measure of stability and we are poised for growth—socially, economically and politically. In this process of transition, Islam, as a moral force in support of reform, played a strong and positive role although it must also be said that there were times when Muslim militants and extremists loomed as part of the problem we were grappling with. This is not a new role for Islam. Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders have always participated in the political dynamics of Indonesia since our struggle for freedom and sovereignty. The debate about the relationship between Islam and the State already took place before we became an independent country, especially when our Founding Fathers drafted our constitution. However, when we finally won our independence in August 1945, our Founding Fathers reached a consensus that Indonesia should not be an Islamic state based on Shariah, and Islam should not become the religion of the state.But this is not the secularism that the West is well known for, in the sense of a constitutional separation between the state and religion. Instead, by constitutional mandate, the state has the obligation to promote the religious life of the people. Hence, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was established in the early years of the Republic.

The state treats the five recognised religions as on an equal footing with one another. One simple but important and unique feature of Indonesian life is the inclusion of the most important holidays of the recognized religions among our national public holidays. Human history has taught us that religious intolerance often comes from ignorance, either of our own religion or those of others. Here, another important feature of the Indonesian system is the inclusion of religious studies as a compulsory subject in our national education system. Early in their education process, our children are obliged to learn about their own religion as well as some basic knowledge about other religions. The idea is to build a tolerant, civilized and harmonious society.

On the ideological front, our Founding Fathers introduced Pancasila. It is an affirmation of Indonesia as a pluralist society, which accommodates diversities in religion, ethnicity, customs and traditions. As an ideology, it served as basis for the cultivation of the habit of consultation and consensus building as well as harmony among a widely diversified population. Pancasila helped in the building of a sense of national identity during the time of our first President, Sukarno. Under the “New Order” regime of our second President, Soeharto, this state ideology was elaborated and used in ways that were not anticipated by the Founding Fathers. Its connotation became so broad that it covered and justified just about every act of government. With Pancasila unchallengeable, advocacy on the adoption of Shariah was muted during the three decades of the New Order. The dynamics between Islamic organizations and the Government kept shifting on the basis of political developments and President Soeharto’s personal calculations.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the New Order became more accommodating to the aspirations of Muslim organizations, including the institutionalization of political Islam through the establishment of the ICMI. With the fall of President Soeharto in the crisis of 1998, a new era of reform was launched and fresh democratic space was created for all—including Islamic politicians. Some 100 political parties, 40 of them with an Islamic character, blossomed during that period.

It is important to note, however, that there has also been a convergence between “Islamist” and “Nationalist” political orientations. On the one hand, a good number of significant Muslim leaders formed political parties with nationalist attributes and platforms—such as Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa and Partai Amanat Nasional. While, on the other hand, nationalist parties have embraced the influx of noted Muslim leaders, intellectuals, and activists. Thus, the classical dichotomy between Islamist and Nationalist is getting more and more blurred. This will help strengthening our national integration process. Political Islam by itself did not make any headway in the country’s transition to a more fully democratic system. In the 1999 general elections, all the 40 Islamic parties could get no more than 17.8 percent of the votes cast. Subsequently, the proposal for the adoption of the Shariah, initially planned to be tabled by two parties, was graciously withdrawn in the Parliament.

Over the years, Muslim intellectuals who advocate reinterpretation of Islamic teachings in the context of contemporary realities, although they seldom make headlines, have always been a real moral force in Indonesian society. It is to these intellectuals that the mass of Indonesian Muslims gravitated at the turn of the century.

In the elections last year, one Islamic party performed well i.e. the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS). But it brought up no religious issue. It campaigned on the issue of corruption and governance, the same reformist issue that catapulted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono into power. Once again, moderate Islam in Indonesia spoke through the ballot.

Not every Indonesian Muslim is a moderate. There are a small number of extremists in Indonesian society—and they are not all Muslims—who have resorted to violence to advance their respective agenda. Thus, for many years, Indonesia grappled with terrorist activities—some of which were motivated by religious intolerance, others by separatist ambitions. These terrorist activities were at the outset purely homegrown but eventually acquired regional and international linkages in the early 1990s. At that time, Indonesia was already advocating within ASEAN a strengthening of regional cooperation to fight terrorism. When terrorists struck in the United States on 9-11, Indonesia, naturally, was among the first countries to condemn the carnage in the strongest terms. Immediately after 9-11, Indonesia urged the international community to form a global coalition involving all civilizations and religions to wage a struggle against terrorism.

In October 2002, Indonesia itself suffered a massive terrorist bombing attack in Bali, which killed 202 persons. Since then, terrorists have struck with murderous effect, twice in Jakarta—at the Marriott Hotel in August 2003 and at the vicinity of the Australian Embassy in September 2004—and once again in Bali last October. In the wake of each of these attacks, Indonesia responded in the way a democracy should: balancing security needs, democratic process, and respect for human rights. Our police authorities brought the perpetrators to justice through patient investigation and without any violation of human rights. We could not have done less than that, as it was demanded by our people. Because of our recent past experience, the Indonesian people are very sensitive to the way our police or and the rest of the security apparatus works.

At the same time, we stepped up cooperation with other governments within ASEAN and in the Asia-Pacific region, to deny terrorists the financial and other kinds of support that makes them so effective. But in the long run, our success in the fight against terrorism would depend on our efforts to empower the moderates—the overwhelming majority of our people. There is a need to strengthen their voice of moderation. Hence, Indonesia has been very active in sponsoring dialogues on interfaith cooperation at the regional, inter-regional and global level. The Government is working closely with such Islamic organizations as the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah in promoting these dialogues.

Indonesia has convened the first ever International Conference of Islamic Scholars in February 2004, the Asia-Pacific Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation in December 2004, and the Asia-Europe Intefaith Dialogue in July 2005. We opened up avenues for dialogue so that we can effectively fight the terrorists on ideological grounds for the hearts and minds of the people. In fact, Muslim clerics and intellectuals are today leading the ideological war against terrorism, having formed a task force to rebut extremist ideas being propagated by terrorists and their supporters. While the police are bringing terrorists to justice—or killing them if they resist lawful arrest—the government and Muslim leaders are working together to kill terrorist ideas through peaceful and democratic debate.

This, then, is the sum of Indonesia’s experience with Islam and democracy: true Islam is moderate and enlightened. Not only can it flourish side by side with democracy, it can also work together with a democratic government to defend society from its attackers, and to reform society. There is no debate about that any more—not in Indonesia and not in various other Muslim countries.

The Indonesian experience confirms the fact that democracy is not an exclusively Western value that may sometimes be transplanted to the Orient—it is universal. It belongs to all civilizations. It belongs as much to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as to Christians. For there is a pattern in history that wherever human beings begin to take a passionate view of their own dignity and the equal dignity of all their fellowmen, they will find no other acceptable form of governance than democracy. That is why the number of democracies in the world today is inexorably increasing—in Asia, in Africa and even in the Middle East.

It was Winston Churchill who told the British House of Commons, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Jawaharlal Nehru of India meant the same thing when he said, “Democracy is good. I say this because all other systems are worse.” The debate on the merits of democracy and its compatibility with Islam is over. The challenge in Indonesia today is how to make Islam and all other religions an even more effective force for reform and democratization. It is a pragmatic challenge that demands a pragmatic response. Democracy, too, has its pragmatic challenge: how can we make our democracy an effective one? To my mind, the answer to that challenge lies in an earnest effort at capacity building—such as the capacity for free and fair elections, the capacity to pass just and wise laws, the capacity to mete out justice. In sum, we have to make democracy work for the welfare of our people.

I also believe that this national capacity building for democracy becomes more effective when complemented with a parallel effort at the regional level. That is why political development, especially the promotion of a just, democratic and harmonious environment, is one of the most important activities in realizing the concept of an ASEAN Security Community—as proposed and championed by Indonesia. It is an important part of our efforts to transform ASEAN into a community of nations, working together for peace, progress, and prosperity. The democratic impulse is alive and vigorous in many countries of the Asia-Pacific and there is much that we can learn from their experiences and best practices. There is also much from our own experiences and the insights derived from these experiences that we can share with them.

Each democracy is the product of a country’s unique history, culture, geography and other realities—as well as universal values. It is said, and I agree, that democracies never look alike, but there is always a family resemblance. But even after such capacity building, there are no guarantees that a country’s attempt at democracy will succeed. The infrastructures of democracy are not unlike physical infrastructures: they are useful and indispensable but they do not work by themselves. It takes human beings to make them work. In the final analysis, it takes good citizens—good men and women—to make democracy work. Decent men and women who are imbued with civic discipline and high values—such as the discipline and values of Islam.

Jakarta, 6 December 2005

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