Indonesia’s Democratic Islam

NEW YORK – The visit by “Barry Obama,” the Indonesian nickname for the former resident and current United States president, to Jakarta is intended, as much as anything, to celebrate the achievements of the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. In the 12 years since its transition to democracy, Indonesia has regularly held local and national elections, developed a functioning free market, and strengthened its culture of tolerance towards the country’s Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese minorities.

Of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, only Indonesia has a “free” rating from Freedom House. The largely Catholic Philippines, Buddhist Thailand, and Confucian Singapore lag behind Indonesia in providing basic democratic rights to their people. American policymakers have therefore looked to Indonesia as a model for the rest of the Muslim world. But what lessons are to be learned from Indonesian democracy?

The most important lesson is that Islamic organizations can provide the backbone of a tolerant civil society. Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), mass Islamic institutions with more than 30 million and 40 million members, respectively, operate more than 10,000 schools and hundreds of hospitals, as well as run youth organizations and support women’s movements. Both have connections to political parties, most of which have consistently spoken out for democracy and against an Islamic state.

Indeed, Syafi’i Ma’arif, the former chair of Muhammadiyah, has made pluralist arguments, grounded in the Koran, against blind obedience to Islamic classical jurisprudence. Abdurrahman Wahid, the former chair of NU, for decades advocated respect for religious pluralism, and was pivotal in mobilizing democratic opposition to the authoritarian leader Suharto. A third Islamic intellectual, Nurcholish Madjid, called for the “de-sacralizing” of politics in the 1970’s, advocated genuine multi-party democracy in the 1990’s, and personally urged Suharto to step down in 1998.