Indonesia's Democratic Miracle

JAKARTA – Modern miracles do happen. Ten years ago, as the Asian financial crisis savaged Indonesia’s economy, many experts predicted that the country would become unstable, if not splinter. Instead, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, has emerged as a beacon of freedom and democracy for the Muslim world. What happened? And why hasn’t the world taken note?

The story is as complex as Indonesia itself. One leading expert on Indonesia, Benedict Anderson, roots Indonesia’s nature in its core Javanese culture, particularly the wayang religious tradition. According to Anderson, “In contrast to the great religions of the Near East…the religion of wayang has no prophet, no message, no Bible, no Redeemer.…The endless variety and sharp individuality of its dramatis personae indicate that wayang reflects the variegation of human life as it is felt by the Javanese...” In short, Javanese culture helps Indonesia handle the many diverse voices that a new democracy throws up.

There is also a strong Indonesian tradition of resolving disagreements through “musyawarah dan mufakat” (consultation and consensus). Of course, this tradition has not always prevented violence, most notoriously in the killings that followed the 1966 coup against President Sukarno. And ten years ago, during the financial crisis, violent anti-Chinese riots erupted again, causing many Chinese to flee the country.

Today, however, many of those Chinese have returned. In a remarkable development, Chinese language and culture, which had been suppressed for decades, is allowed free expression. By contrast, imagine Turkey, a more advanced member state of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, allowing free expression of Kurdish language and culture.