GLOBAL DIALOGUE Volume 6 ● Number 1–2 ● Winter/Spring 2004—Islam and Democracy

Even as militant Islamists from Europe to the Philippines command headlines and the Bush administration feeds extremist sentiment with its effort to reinvent the “Greater Middle East” in America’s image, proponents of South-East Asia’s pragmatic blend of religion and politics are quietly but effectively developing a template for democratic governance infused with Muslim values.

The landslide general election victory in March 2004 by Malaysia’s new prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and the free-wheeling campaign for Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections, are vivid reminders that not all Muslims are extremists and not all democracies need be “Made in America”.

Badawi vanquished the main Islamist political party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which ran on the promise that it would bring Islamic law to those states where it won control of the local government. In the two states where PAS was already in charge, and where shari’a was already in force, voters also rebelled. PAS garnered less than 16 per cent of the vote nationwide and gave up all but six of the twenty-seven seats it had held in the previous parliament. Even its top leader lost his seat.

Across the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, overtly Islamist parties won about 20 per cent of the vote in April parliamentary elections that served as a precursor to the country’s first direct presidential elections in July, but the tally had more to do with the anti-corruption image of the big winner, the Prosperous Justice Party, than its Islamist agenda.

Yet even as he was loudly proclaiming his “forward strategy of democracy” and circulating the draft of his administration’s plan for the “Greater Middle East Partnership”, a massive blueprint to promote “democracy and good government”, President Bush had not a word of congratulations for Malaysia’s new prime minister or the Indonesian electorate. In fact, a search of the White House archive in late April revealed no mention of Malaysian politics since the president chastised outgoing Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, for his advice to fellow Muslims that they should learn from the political influence of the Jews. The Bush comments reflected the deep gulf in perceptions between the United States and the Muslim world. Widely interpreted in the West as an anti-Semitic slur, Mahathir’s speech was seen by Muslims as a bold slap at ineffective Muslim leaders.

The fact that Mahathir was, at the same time, voluntarily relinquishing power in a manner that epitomised the very democratic change the White House was demanding went largely ignored in the din. Nor, by late April, had the president or his spokespersons used the words “Indonesia” and “democracy” in the same sentence since Bush left Bali the previous October.

But in a twisted way, this just might work in favour of the forces of democratic change in Malaysia and Indonesia—and ultimately for the rest of us. Being identified with the United States is the kiss of death. It is a key reason political leaders in the two countries have played politics with the terror issue. But the resulting short-term frustration on the part of US officials may well produce long-term gains for the world.

Engaging the Islamists

The power of the home-grown Muslim democracies of Malaysia and Indonesia as they are now evolving lies in the fact that they are inclusive, not exclusive. Islamist parties are a part of the political process, not sidelined from it, epitomised by the fact that most of the leading presidential contenders in Indonesia have chosen as running-mates politicians with strong Islamic credentials.

The world has learned the painful lesson of what happens when individuals and groups are barred from political engagement. It is in the face of hegemonic political systems that radical Islamism flourishes. That has been evidenced from Iran, where Washington’s belated push for democracy came long after the forces of Islamism had consolidated their role as primary voice of the opposition; from Lebanon, where the marginalisation of the Shi’ites created the conditions that led to the rise of Hizbollah; and from Algeria, where the country’s dramatic opening to democracy in 1989 followed three decades of autocracy, during which the Islamists established their position as the symbol of opposition.

Much the reverse is also true. This has been witnessed in those nations that foster an inclusive system in which Islamists are given a seat at the proverbial table. As Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown has observed, “States that promote competitive or dissonant politics will tend to feel surer that Islamist ambitions can be limited and so will be more willing to consider accommodating opposition.”1

Jordan is a case in point. Though King Abdullah holds ultimate power to dissolve parliament if it gets too far out of line—a prerogative exercised by his father—the fact that Islamist parties sit in parliament has helped the monarchy avoid the kind of violent opposition at which the Islamists of Hamas have proven themselves adept across the border a few dozen miles away.

Participatory politics thus provides a release valve through which the frustrations of those who might otherwise support violence are vented. In the emerging South-East Asian model, the values of conservative Muslims are safeguarded, the political goals of the Islamists are acknowledged, and the small fringe of violent radicals is marginalised, since its actions now threaten the good of the whole.

As Dale F. Eickelman has observed, “the proliferation of voices arguing in open debate about the role of Islam in the modern world and in contemporary society contributes significantly to defusing terrorist appeals.”2

In what have been called the “grey zone” regimes of the Arab world, liberalised autocracies clothed in pseudo-democratic garb exist in place of inclusive democratic systems. Under these regimes, Islamist parties are at best manipulated, and frequently subject to periodic rounds of repression. Even the more liberal elements of the Islamist movement are frequently shut out of the process. In Egypt, for example, El-Wasat, an Islamist party that advocates a pluralistic vision of Islam, has repeatedly been denied government certification to take part in elections, while opposition voices such as human rights advocate Saad Eddine Ibrahim have been jailed.

Meanwhile, in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, Islamist parties have been welcomed into the system and allowed to compete. This certainly has not eliminated terrorism—Jemaah Islamiyah and its offshoots remain among the world’s most dangerous terrorist organisations—but it has meant that what has been called “the cultural ground for violence”, in the form of broader public sympathies, is largely denied such groups as the energies of the majority of the public are funnelled into political expression.

As has become clear in the post–11 September era, the real threat posed by Osama bin Laden lies not in his personal ability to plan operations, but in his power to inspire others. Even as the United States has rounded up known leaders of al-Qaeda and local factions like Jemaah Islamiyah, the universe of terror cells has expanded. The result is a Hydra-like “swarming effect” that has produced a plethora of militant groups around the globe that subscribe to bin Laden’s philosophy and seek to emulate his lead.

“Just as Hercules needed the help of his nephew Iolaus to kill the Hydra,” wrote one terrorism expert, “the United States will not conquer the Islamic terror without the popular support of its allies.”3

Perhaps even more critical is the influence of conservative Muslims who oppose both US policy and the actions of the militant extremists. There is no better example of their importance than in the emerging democracies of South-East Asia.

The Democracy Debate

Barrels of ink and endless hours of broadcast airtime have been expended on the debate over whether Islam and democracy are even compatible. While some Islamic jurists argue that democracy usurps the sovereignty of God, many Western commentators adopt racist tones in asking whether Muslims are “ready” for democracy. “What is there about the culture and the people and so on where democracy just doesn’t seem to be something they strive for and work for?”, demanded Democratic Congressman Christopher Shays at a Capitol Hill hearing in October 2002 on relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

Others are broadly dismissive of existing political systems across the great crescent of Muslim societies from west Africa to South-East Asia:

In countries where Muslims are the dominant religious group, politics comes in two primary flavors: theocratic totalitarianism and klepto-authoritarianism, where rulers are enriched at the public expense and corruption trickles down.4

These stereotypes and clichés belie the reality that democracy is already an increasingly important form of government in the Muslim world.

Poll after poll reveals the same conclusion: Muslims favour democracy. The World Values Survey found that at 87 per cent, support for “democratic ideals” was marginally higher in Muslim countries surveyed (which did not include Saudi Arabia) than in the West, with some countries polling as high as 99 per cent, ten points above the United States. “The people of the Muslim world overwhelmingly want democracy,” concluded researchers Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart, after examining data from 100,000 individuals in 72 countries.5 The Pew Global Attitudes project and surveys by pollster John Zogby have found much the same thing.6

In fact, a majority of the world’s Muslims now live under governments that came to power through at least nominally democratic elections. This reflects the reality that only 15 per cent of Muslims live in the Arab world, with well over half concentrated in four countries—Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India—headed by elected leaders.

A study by Alfred Stepan and Graeme B. Robertson found that while a democracy gap prevails in the Arab world, the thirty-one non-Arab Muslim-majority countries “form the single largest bloc of all those countries that ‘greatly overachieve’ ” in terms of competitive elections versus other countries with similar GDP levels, with twelve of the thirty-one demonstrating “relatively high levels of political rights for at least three consecutive years” through 2002.7

That does not mean the majority of non-Arab Muslim countries are democracies. The Polity Project and Freedom House identify only eight non-Arab Muslim governments—led by Senegal, Indonesia and Turkey—as actually coming to power through a process that meets “the minimum standards of relatively free and fair elections”. The rest fall well down on Polity IV’s 21-point scale of democracy (only Saudi Arabia and Qatar score lower than non-Arab Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). What it does indicate is that a higher number of these countries perform better than other countries with similar economies.

Nor do the findings mean that those countries which did make the list represent paragons of democracy. Far from it. Nigeria’s 1999 elections were chaotic and deeply suspect, and the Albanian government has yet even to extend its writ to the entire country.

Malaysia: A Model for Others?

Malaysia actually ranked below Nigeria on Polity IV’s democracy scale. But that position is based on a year 2000 assessment. Much has changed since. After twenty-two years at the helm of what could, at best, be described as a guided democracy characterised by a compliant media and the jailing of opposition figures, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last October retired from politics, handing over control of the ruling UMNO party to his hand-picked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The son of a respected Islamic scholar, Badawi immediately took on the Islamists, who had tripled their presence in parliament in the previous election and imposed shari’a law in the two states they controlled. The main Islamist party, PAS, ran on a platform that called for amputating the limbs of thieves and death by stoning for adultery. “Those who rally behind Islam are also those who want to live under divine laws laid down by Allah,” PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat proclaimed during a campaign appearance on 5 March this year. “And naturally, they will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support un-Islamic parties will logically go to hell.”

Badawi, flexing his Islamic credentials, quickly moved to deny the Islamists the moral high ground. “This is an issue that we have to face. We cannot put it aside,” the prime minister declared after a meeting with two thousand Muslim scholars. “We have to have answers, explanations for the people. Otherwise, there will be views and edicts that are unsuitable that will influence Muslims, if left unanswered.”8

When it was all over, the Islamists had been vanquished. And while there were charges that Badawi’s coalition (which grouped the ruling UMNO party with those representing the ethnic minority Chinese and Indians) had denied the Islamists equal access to the government-controlled media, there were—for the moment—no demands for revenge or denunciations from the ulema (religious scholars), and the Islamists took their remaining seats at the table of power.

That kind of direct engagement with the hard edge of Islamist politics demonstrates the power of a political process that involves all aspects of Muslim society and draws on the religious authority of conservative Muslim politicians. Some scholars, like Muqtedar Khan of the Brookings Institution, have argued that “democracy is an ally of Islamists” and “will lead to Islamization”.9 Malaysia and Indonesia would appear to prove otherwise.

Of course, definitions are crucial in this discussion. The proponents of political Islam—broadly defined for the purpose of this essay as those who seek to build political structures based on Muslim values—are very different from the strict Islamists, whose goal is the imposition of an Islamic state or implementation of all aspects of shari’a law.

Indonesia: Islamic, Not Islamist

Badawi carries strong Islamic credentials. So, too, do Indonesia’s Abdulrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, veteran leaders of two of the largest Muslim civil society organisations in the world, the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah. Both men were at the forefront of the movement to overthrow the former president, Suharto, bringing Islam back into the Indonesian political process after decades of its being excluded. Each is considered an “Islamist” by Western journalists and scholars, but each has voiced opposition to Islamic rule.

“Implementing Islamic teachings is more important than establishing an Islamic state,” Wahid, known locally as Gus Dur, told supporters at a pre-election rally on 18 March. The respected Islamic scholar, who served a brief term as compromise president before being impeached for what amounted to administrative incompetence, demonstrates that the most critical political struggle in Indonesia today is not between secular nationalists and Islamists, nor—importantly—is it between what Americans might call “radicals” and pro-Western “moderates”. Rather, it is a debate between the literalists—Islamists who seek implementation of shari’a in its most literal sense—and the vast majority of Muslim pragmatists who want their religion to inform their politics.

Amien Rais, a deeply conservative Muslim who, as speaker of the constitutional assembly, or MPR, successfully blocked efforts to make Indonesia an Islamic state or to impose shari’a law, says, “You can see on the surface and below the surface that mainstream Indonesian Muslims are not for shari’a.”10

In fact, on the surface, it would actually appear otherwise. A quick glance at Indonesia is likely to leave the casual observer with the impression that the country is being “radicalised”: a noticeable increase in the number of women wearing the traditional jilbab headscarf, increased programming about Islam on television, and frequent appearances by politicians at pesentren religious schools. Even the most secular politicians wear their religion on their sleeves.

This seeming radicalisation of Islam in Indonesia stems in part from the fact that after decades during which it was sidelined from politics, Islam, in the post-Suharto era, is again playing an active political and cultural role. But perceptions—particularly as reflected through a Western eye—can be misleading.

A recent survey by political scientists Saiful Mujani and R. William Liddle found that although more than 70 per cent of Indonesians support the concept of shari’a “in the abstract”, when asked about specific aspects of Islamic law, support drops off dramatically. Thus, 67 per cent of Indonesians surveyed said they wanted a government led by Islamic authorities and based on the Qur’an and sunna (recorded doings of the Prophet), and 71 per cent thought shari’a should be obligatory. But only about a third of Indonesians supported a requirement that women wear headscarves or that the hands of thieves be cut off. Only 21 per cent thought Islamist parties alone should take part in elections, 26 per cent opposed a woman president, and just eight per cent believed women should be banned from serving in parliament.11

The findings are bolstered by a survey by the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) which reported that 41 per cent of Indonesians questioned said religion should not play a role in politics,12 while the Asia Foundation found that most Indonesian voters with an opinion of the Islamist political parties associated them with the promotion of religion and morality, not Islamic laws.13

“If we look at the popular understanding of shari’a among laymen, it means merely an instalment of Islamic morality in public life, especially the morality that relates to sexual conduct and the relationship between men and women,” explains Ulil Abshar Abdallah, a leader of Indonesia’s Liberal Muslim Network.14

That conclusion is in conformity with the relatively modest support Islamist parties received in the last two Indonesian elections—levels that mirror Malaysia—and would seem to indicate that while there is an increased sense of Muslim identity and politicisation, the historically moderate approach to Islam among Muslims of the Malay archipelago has not fundamentally changed.

This fact is not lost on the region’s politicians, such as Indonesia’s vice-president Hamzah Haz, the leader of his country’s largest Islamist political organisation, the United Development Party. Haz has a long track record of hard-line views—and of cynically exploiting what is locally known as “the Islam card”. He opposed the election of Megawati Sukarnoputri on the grounds that a woman should not serve as president, and prior to the Bali bombings (October 2002) publicly flirted with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. Yet in the weeks leading up to April’s parliamentary election, Haz went out of his way to promise that he would not try to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, declaring his support for the country’s inclusive Pancasila ideology, which enshrines religious freedom. “The first principle, belief in God the almighty, is enough evidence that Indonesia is a religious country,” he told a rally on 27 March.

But it is important not to be misled: Islam plays an important part in shaping the self-identify of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia, as across the Muslim world.

Identity Politics

Numerous surveys have found a dramatically heightened sense of Muslim identity among citizens of non-Arab Muslim nations in the post–11 September era. However, that does not mean the majority has been radicalised into supporting the Islamist goal of reviving the transnational darul islam, or Islamic civilisation of the caliphate. Muslim identity remains but a veneer on the structures of nationalism and ethnic identity that continue to shape nation-states. Nowhere is that truer than in South-East Asia, where Islam comes in many shades and includes a syncretic blend of Islamic teachings and indigenous mores.

The shaping of this uniquely localised Islamic identity forms the subtext to much of the work of Muslim thought-leaders in the Malay archipelago. For Indonesia’s Wahid, culture is a defining element of what it means to be an Indonesian Muslim. “The difference between Islam in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia is that the former does not know the difference between Islam and its culture,” says the former president.15

What is an Indonesian Muslim? Even the Indonesians themselves have always disagreed. Jalaluddin Rakhmat, a leading Muslim intellectual, insists there is no single definition: “Indonesia’s Islam is not an ummatan wahidah (united/one community)—as described by the Qur’an—but an ummat that ‘you think they are united while in fact their hearts are divided’.”16 With more than three hundred language groups scattered over some three thousand inhabited islands, there are, as another Indonesian commentator observed, “many ‘Islams’ in Indonesian politics”.17

Historically, there has been a host of readily identifiable dividing lines among Indonesian Muslims: between the so-called santri (“purists”) and abangan (“nominal” Muslims), between traditionalists and modernists, between Islamists and secularists. But as the nation, its religion and its politics have evolved, each of these internal dividing lines has become less relevant. Perhaps most germane to any current discussion of democratic versus Islamist impulses in modern Indonesia is Rakhmat’s differentiation between those who seek “the Islamisation of Indonesia” and those who practise “Indonesianised Islam”. In the political context, that might be further reduced to a distinction between Islamist literalists or revivalists and Indonesian Muslim nationalists, for whom religion and nationality together shape identity. (That said, there has yet to emerge a label that truly captures the spectrum of thought among Indonesian Muslim politicians who do not subscribe to the Islamist approach. “Liberals” is one suggestion, but like “progressive”, “modernist” and similar labels, it is a loaded term that carries Western baggage.)

Some, like Muhammad Qodari of the Indonesian Survey Institute, go so far as to claim that radical Islamists, such as the military leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group responsible for the Bali bombings, are no longer truly part of the imagined community of Indonesian Muslims:

Hambali was born an Indonesian, lived in Malaysia, fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and was captured in Thailand while holding a Spanish passport … Hambali is stateless. If he believes in the ummah, he may have decided not to “subscribe” to any citizenship … To him, his main and foremost identity is not as an Indonesian born from a Sundanese mother in West Java; his identity is not “national” but “universal”, a “citizen” of the ummah … It is likely that only very few Muslims hold such beliefs.18

Underlining this Othering is the fact that many of the leaders of the most hard-line Islamist organisations are of Arab descent.

Muslim Pragmatists

It is in this struggle for the political soul of South-East Asian Islam that conservative Muslim politicians like Malaysia’s Badawi, Indonesia’s Wahid and Rais, and a variety of others play a critical role, offering mainstream Muslims a powerful alternative to the Islamists who favour the strict imposition of shari’a, and to their violent offshoots. Their support, along with that of a variety of influential Muslim organisations that share their views, also provided religious cover to the government when, in the wake of the Bali bombings, the centres of power recognised that they, too, were threatened by the rise of the militants and moved to crush them.

The commitment of these politicians—and the majority of the ulema—to secular government, is informed by an equally deep commitment to protecting the conservative Muslim values they share with most of their countrymen, and by a pragmatic recognition that their societies also include significant numbers of non-Muslims whose rights must be protected. In other words, they evince a dedication to a set of intersecting “shared values”—just a different set of values from that which George W. Bush had in mind.

For like the literalists, these politicians, who might best be called Muslim pragmatists or religiously devout nationalists, share with South-East Asia’s Muslim body politic a growing disdain for US policy. Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims may not have been “radicalised” in the manner alleged by some in the West, but that does not mean the region has seen any softening of the anti-Americanism that has swept across the Muslim world in the post–11 September era. Poll after poll shows that in South-East Asia as elsewhere, the United States is viewed as an arrogant nation bent on an imperialistic crusade against Islam.

Among the many tragedies of the US approach towards the Muslim world, none is greater than the fact that even as the Bush administration correctly identifies the lack of democracy as an underlying cause of terrorism, its policies are turning against the United States the very Muslims who strive to build democratic structures.

In Indonesia, according to the Pew survey (see footnote 6), America’s favourability rating has dropped from 65 per cent in 2002 to just 15 per cent in 2003. Central to that antipathy is US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. “There is no greater symbol or stronger self-identification for Muslims worldwide than the plight of the Palestinians,” according to Jusuf Wanandi of Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies.19

In February 2004, the United States launched a $62 million satellite channel, al-Hurra (the Free One), designed to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. The futility of that effort was underlined the next month when, in the wake of the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Bush administration declared that “Israel has the right to defend itself”, thus unleashing a torrent of anti-American vitriol across the Muslim world that included condemnations in the Indonesian media.

The US-led invasion of Iraq, meanwhile, has left many Indonesians convinced the Bush administration is paying only lip service to the concept of democracy. “The United States is not a good friend in democracy,” Wahid said on the popular Lativi television channel in April 2003. “It will push you aside, threaten you, and harm you if you don’t follow its line.”

It should thus come as no surprise that the Pew survey found that Indonesia was one of only two non-Arab Muslim countries where those polled rejected the notion that Western-style democracy “can work well here”.

But it is crucial to differentiate between form and substance. Indonesians may say they don’t want “Western-style” democracy, but the IFES survey found they are almost universally aware of their newly acquired rights to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom to vote. A clear majority said they believed the 2004 elections would be free and fair.

Equally telling are their areas of concern—all indicators of a vibrant and open political system. IFES reported that

In all issues except one, more Indonesians are dissatisfied with the government’s reform efforts than are satisfied: democracy (47% satisfied, 39% dissatisfied); autonomy and decentralisation (34%, 43%); law enforcement (30%, 57%); clean governance (25%, 62%); economy (20%, 72%); and eradication of KKN (19%, 70%).

KKN is the Indonesian acronym for Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotisme, the legacy of thirty years of crony capitalism under Suharto, who, with an estimated family fortune of $15 billion to $35 billion, was recently named by Transparency International as the most corrupt world leader in recent history, beating Ferdinand Marcos and Mobuto Sese Seko, who stashed away mere tens of millions.

Opposition to korupsi was a key battle cry of reformasi, the reform movement that forced Suharto’s resignation and was led by the very Muslim politicians who are today keeping the radical Islamists in check. However, in the wake of corruption allegations against Wahid’s regime, the issue has, to a large degree, been usurped by the Islamists.

Democratic Shortcomings

By any measure, Indonesia’s democracy is deeply flawed. Crony capitalism still dominates the economy. The country still ranks near the top of Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries. And in many ways it is still business as usual. One of the leading presidential contenders crisscrossing the country this spring was Akbar Tanjung, the speaker of parliament (known as the DPR), who remained free while appealing his three-year prison sentence for corruption.

There is a strong argument to be made that the current appeal of the Islamists lies less in their views on the role of Islam in government than in their criticism of this endemic corruption that continues to characterise the Indonesian state. “Their representatives in parliament are clean, they are well organised and they are idealistic,” Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesia’s most respected newspaper editor, says of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which made impressive gains in the recent election.20

That image is precisely what the Islamists hope to build on. In late April, as other parties jockeyed for position in the future government, the PKS announced it would not join any coalition. “The party will be in opposition and will act as a constructive opposition party in the Indonesian Parliament,” PKS president Hidayat Nur Wahid told a press conference in Jakarta. An earlier attempt to form a coalition of Islamist parties failed when the others joined forces with the large mainstream parties.

The move could put the PKS—and the Islamists—in a strong position for the 2009 election, making them the only real alternative if the new government continues the pattern of corruption, collusion and nepotism.

As in other countries in the developing world where a few dynasties have held power since independence, such as the Philippines and India, regime change in Indonesia has meant little more than a rearrangement of the chairs. President Megawati Sukarnoputri is the daughter of the country’s first president, Sukarno. Suharto’s daughter Tutut is among her rivals. The former strongman’s own Golkar organisation remains the dominant political party.

“Indonesia’s democracy serves powerful interest groups, many of them gathered around President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar,” observed the Far Eastern Economic Review, which quoted former attorney-general Maruki Darusman as saying, “It’s the elite looking after its own.”21

Muslim–Christian clashes in Ambon and Poso have claimed scores of lives, the army left behind a bloodbath as it withdrew from East Timor, and secession movements continue to simmer at either end of the vast archipelago as Jakarta’s writ wears thin. Then there is a crumbling economy that has yet to recover from the Asian economic collapse of 1997, largely because foreign investors have little confidence in the country’s long-term stability.

The combination has left some Indonesians feeling nostalgia for the days when there was a strong hand at the helm. That is reflected in the fact that two of the leading presidential candidates, the controversial former military chief and Suharto protégé General Wiranto, who is under indictment for war crimes in East Timor, and former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a four-star general, carry with them echoes of the authoritarian past.

“It is not the hope of the Indonesian people to put human rights as absolute,” says Yudhoyono, who quit Sukarnoputri’s cabinet to throw his hat into the presidential ring. “There must be a balance between liberty and security, between freedom and order, between rights and responsibility.”22

All this led some commentators to dismiss the 2004 elections as “much ado about nothing”. Such a view badly misses the central point. Indonesians are organising politically; they are engaged in raucous debates about the country’s future; they are voting. Democracies do not rise overnight. It was almost two hundred years before the United States had universal suffrage. Democratic transitions among Indonesia’s Asian neighbours have taken decades. It could easily be argued that America’s former colony, the Philippines, is only marginally further down the road than Indonesia, even though strongman Marcos was overthrown in 1986.

The very fact that the April parliamentary elections represented what Ian Wall of IFES called “the largest, most complex single-day election held anywhere in the world”23 speaks volumes about the import of the event. The figures alone tell the story: 450,000 candidates for 15,276 seats in the National Legislature, the new Provincial Legislature (similar to the US Senate), and the Local Councils.

A massive voter education effort helped the average Indonesian understand this highly complex process, and the turnout—some 120 million people—eclipsed anything the United States has ever managed.

“A lot of people take a snapshot and say ‘this country doesn’t fit my ideal of democracy’,” the Asia Foundation’s director of democratisation and election programmes, Tim Meisburger, told the Washington Post. In fact, he says, Indonesia “is the most democratic Muslim country in the world”.24

An Indigenous Roadmap

“There is an Islamic term,” democracy scholar Abdelwahab El-Affendi has written, “that can be regarded as a precise equivalent of the Western term ‘citizen’ (in the sense of being a full member of the political community with both a right and an obligation to participate in public affairs).” That term, he says, is “Muslim”.25

The citizens of Indonesia, and their Malaysian cousins, are today experiencing that term in the fullest spectrum of its meaning, developing, in the words of Nurcholish Madjid, one of Indonesia’s leading Islamic thinkers, “a new vocabulary and mode of politics which is universal and yet allows us to maintain our specific group and collective identities”.26

It is a difficult undertaking fraught with confusion and peril, but it is a path the citizens of South-East Asia are blazing for themselves. In the process, they are creating a roadmap not to some idealised future charted in Washington, but to a true blending of faith, values and participatory governance that just might one day help their co-religionists elsewhere in the Great Crescent to find their own way.


1. Daniel Brumberg, “Democratization in the Arab World? The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy”, Journal of Democracy 13, no. 4 (October 2002).

2. Dale F. Eickelman, “The Public Sphere, the Arab ‘Street’ and the Middle East’s Democracy Deficit” (paper presented at the “Media and Public Debate”, New Delhi, 11–12 March 2002).

3. Scott Atran, “A Leaner, Meaner Jihad”, New York Times, 16 March 2004.

4. Miles Benson, “To Grow Muslim Democracies Requires Putting Strategy behind Vision”, Newhouse News Service, 21 November 2003.

5. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “The True Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Policy, no. 135 (March/April 2003).

6. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Views of a Changing World, June 2003”, Washington, D.C., 2003; James Zogby, What Arabs Think: Values, Beliefs and Concerns (New York: Zogby International, 2002).

7. Alfred Stepan and Graeme B Robertson, “An ‘Arab’ More Than a ‘Muslim’ Democracy Gap”, Journal of Democracy 14, no. 3 (July 2003).

8. Jahabar Sadiq, “Role of Islam Dominates Malaysian Election”, Reuters, 7 March 2004.

9. Muqtedar Khan, “Prospects for Muslim Democracy: The Role of United States Policy”, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., 2001.

10. “Aceh Introduces Islamic Law”,, 2 January 2002 [].

11. Saiful Mujani and R. William Liddle, “Politics, Islam, and Public Opinion”, Journal of Democracy 15, no. 1 (January 2004).

12. International Foundation for Election Systems, “National Public Opinion Survey 2003: Republic of Indonesia”, Washington, D.C., 2004.

13. Tim Meisburger, ed., “Democracy in Indonesia: A Survey of the Indonesian Electorate in 2003”, Asia Foundation, San Francisco, 2004.

14. Ulil Abshar Abdallah, “In Search of ‘New’ Islam: The Islamic Discourse of Authenticity in Indonesia” (paper presented at the Center for South-East Asian Studies, Ann Arbor, Mich., 10 October 2003).

15. Phar Kim Beng, “Indonesia: Radicals Steal the Spotlight”, Asia Times Online, 28 May 2003 [].

16. Rizal Sukma, “Islam and Foreign Policy in Indonesia: Internal Weaknesses and the Dilemma of Dual Identity”, Working Paper 11, Asia Foundation, San Francisco, September 1999.

17. Jusuf Wanandi, “Curbing Radical Muslims”, New Straits Times, 5 December 2002.

18. Muhammad Qodari, “Islam, National Identity and Democracy”, Jakarta Post, 8 September 2003.

19. Jusuf Wanandi, “Part 2 of 2: How Bush Could Recover Muslims’ Support”, Jakarta Post, 15 December 2003.

20. Goenawan Mohamad, interview by author, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2 April 2004.

21. John McBeth, “The Betrayal of Indonesia”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 26 June 2003.

22. Dini Djalal, “Looking for a New President”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 6 November 2003.

23. “Issues and Challenges Facing the 2004 Elections”, Van Zorge Report on Indonesia 6, no. 4 (2004).

24. Jackson Diehl, “Indonesia’s Partway Democracy”, Washington Post, 19 January 2004.

25. Abdelwahab El-Affendi, “Muslim or Citizen?”, CSD Bulletin 8, no. 1 (winter 2000–1) [].

26. Cited in Farish A. Noor, “Democracy and the Universalism of Islam: An Interview with Nurcholish Madjid”, in New Voices of Islam (Leiden: International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, 2002), p. 39.

By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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