Developments, Problems, and Opportunities

In the wake of Islamic resurgence and the growing democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East, it is relevant to see Indonesia as a model of Muslim democracy. The country has shown a stable democratic government, civil liberties, and tremendous economic growth. By Luthfi Assyaukanie

By Luthfi Assyaukanie

Prior to 1998, Turkey was often considered a model of Muslim democracy. Not only was it the sole majority Muslim country that rigorously applied secular principles, it also tried to maintain a democratic government. Although there were some criticisms against military dominance in Turkish politics, many people at the time still considered Turkey to be the only democratic Muslim country in the world. In the absence of a democratic government in the Muslim world, the presence of Turkish democracy, however minimal it was, was a relief.

This view began to change when Indonesia moved from an authoritarian regime to democracy in 1998. Eight years later the country was crowned by US based think tank, Freedom House, as a free country: the only large Muslim majority country to have attained such a status. Among countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Israel is the only country to be regarded as free.

Since then, many world leaders lauded the rise of democracy in Indonesia. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called Indonesia a role model of democracy for the Muslim world. She believed that "Indonesia's own recent history provides an example for a transition to civilian rule and building strong democratic institutions". Likewise, President Obama pointed out that Indonesia's democracy can be Egypt's model. Indeed, Obama has often praised Indonesian democracy as a good example for the world. In the wake of democratic movements spreading through large parts of the Arab world, it is necessary to explore Muslim models of democracy. There are at least four reasons why Indonesia is a good model.

Four reasons

First, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world that has undergone political transition from authoritarian regime to democracy.

Second, the country has maintained political stability despite the ethnic conflicts and religious riots in the first years of its political transition.

Third, Indonesia has demonstrated stable economic performance. Over the last five years, economic growth in Indonesia has been around 6%. During the global financial crisis in 2009, together with China and India, Indonesia was the only country that could maintain economic growth above 4%.

Fourth, Indonesia is the only Muslim majority country where Islamic political parties have failed to win the general election. In North African and the Middle Eastern countries, democracy always gives Islamic political parties victory.

"In the wake of democratic movements spreading through large parts of the Arab world, it is necessary to explore Muslim models of democracy," says Luthfi Assyaukanie. One of the reasons why Indonesia is a good model is its stable economic performance, he argues

​​Indonesia is an interesting case for anyone to study the interplay between Islam and democracy. In the wake of Islamic resurgence and the growing democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East, the question whether Muslim countries are going to be more Islamized or secularized becomes increasingly important. Let me explain first the historical background of Indonesia's road to democracy.

The current process of democratization in Indonesia started in 1998, particularly on 21 May, when President Soeharto publicly announced his resignation from his 32 year rule of the country. The announcement was quite surprising as he was just elected for the seventh time and had committed to rule the country for another five years. The public pressure from students seemed to be Suharto's main reason for resignation.

Student movements had occupied the parliament for three days and riots a week earlier (14-15 May) had brought the capital city to a standstill. Indonesia was on the brink of financial and political collapse. Soeharto's resignation was the right response in a dire situation .

The struggle for democracy

Like in many other countries, political transition is never easy, particularly with a country that has been ruled by an authoritarian-military regime. Soeharto handed down his government to Burhanuddin Jusuf Habibie, his deputy, but he was perceived as a part of the same regime. Worsened by economic crisis, Indonesian politics in the first three years of its transition was filled by tension, conflict, and demonstrations.

People felt free to express what they think. Democracy allowed them to form organizations where they could recruit and mobilize people. Hundreds of organizations and political parties were formed. Groups with various ideological inclinations filled the public sphere. Indonesian democracy in its early years was chaotic and people started to speak about the disintegration of the Republic and the potential for 'Balkanization'.

People were dissatisfied with the new government and they perceived it as a sequel to the old one. The economic crisis brought the country to its most difficult times in three decades. Inflation reached 77%, interest rates jumped to 68%, gross domestic product went down to minus 13%, and unemployment rose to 24%. From the beginning, Habibie's power was always considered to be short term.

People wanted a fair general election where they could choose their own leaders. Various laws regarding the political transition were drafted and enacted. The general election was scheduled for June 1999. It was a parliamentary election where people voted for legislative members. According to the constitution then, the president was not directly elected by the people but by the legislative members.

Democratic awakening: After Soeharto's resignation in 1998, hundreds of political organizations were formed in Indonesia

​​The 1999 general election was not only about the election of a new leader and the hope for a better economic future, but Indonesian democracy and the trajectory of the country was also at stake. Soon after the general election was scheduled, hundreds of political parties were formed and registered themselves to the General Election Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, KPU).

Islamic political parties were among them. Out of 160 parties that enrolled in the KPU, only 48 parties met the basic conditions and were entitled to join the election. Among these parties, 11 were Islamic parties whose mission was to struggle for the implementation of Sharia (Islamic Law) in the country. All parties were so optimistic that their leaders confidently predicted that they would win the election.

Before the result of the election was announced no one knew what was going to happen with Indonesian democracy. Some people were anxious about the rise of political Islam and the possibility of Islamists winning the election. The agenda of Islamic political parties was quite clear: returning the "seven words" back to the constitution. The seven words are the wording that contains the implementation of Sharia for Muslims in Indonesia.

The words were originally in the constitution of the country, but following the protests by a Christian delegation, on 18 August 1945, the Preparatory Committee of Independence removed them. Throughout recent Indonesian history, Muslims have been struggling to return the words back to the constitution. They tried during the Soekarno times, but failed. They had also tried in the Soeharto times, but it was just impossible to do so as the regime did not allow any talk about political Islam. The opportunity had just come when Indonesia became a democratic country. They put their hope in the 1999 general election.

Eventually, the general election result defied many expectations. The winner was the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP), a secular party led by the daughter of Soekarno, the first president of the Republic. In second place was Golkar, another secular party, the ruling party throughout the Soeharto era. Out of 11 Islamic parties, only one party gained significant votes, namely Development and Unity Party (PPP) that obtained 10.7%. The rest only obtained less than 3%. All votes for the Islamic parties combined were no more than 20%, not enough to dominate the parliament.

This result disappointed many Muslim leaders who wished for victory. Something that has been happening recently in the Middle East did not happen in Indonesia. Democracy does not side with Islamic parties to win the race for political power.

The question we should address here is, why did the majority of Indonesian Muslims not vote for Islamic parties, but rather to secular (or non-religious) parties? Has not there been an Islamization process in the country? Why is the resurgence of Islam in Indonesia not followed by the success in gaining political power?

There are many answers to these questions. But, the most striking one is that there has been a radical change in the political mindset of Indonesian Muslims. Partly due to the external factors that were boosted by secular-militaristic regime under Soeharto and partly due to internal ones which were pushed by liberal Muslims. These two factors played a crucial role in changing Muslims' political mindset and the way Muslims perceived democracy. Let me elaborate more on this aspect.

Islam and democracy

Along with nationalism and communism, democracy is one of the most debated concepts among Indonesian Muslims. During 1930s, there was a debate on nationalism between two young intellectuals who then became important leaders of the country: Soekarno (1901-70) and Mohammad Natsir (1908-93). Representing the secular group, Soekarno believed that nationalism is the glue for Indonesian unity.

Meanwhile, speaking on behalf of Islamic groups, Natsir considered nationalism as an ideology that could dilute Muslims' religious belief. The debate between Soekarno and Natsir was the classic example of the disagreement between secularists and Islamists over various issues regarding religion and politics.

Treading a Muslim, secular path? Since 1998, Indonesia has undergone three general elections, which were consecutively won by secular, i.e. non-religious parties. Pictured: Indonesian women after having voted in the 2009 election

​​The Islamists were generally reluctant to embrace modern concepts such as nationalism, socialism, and democracy. While their counterpart, the secularists, unhesitatingly promoted those modern ideas, the Islamists criticized and often condemned them on the basis of Islamic arguments. Their objection to these concepts was mostly based on their particular understanding of Islamic doctrines that they believed to be superior to secular ideas.

Natsir, for example, prefered to embrace an Islamic version of democracy: that is, a combination between Western democracy and the Islamic model known as "Shura". Natsir's reluctance to accept democracy was due to his understanding that democracy could harm Islamic principles. He believed that there are certain things in Islam that are considered to be final (qat'i), thus giving no room for people to discuss them. He gave the examples of gambling and pornography as being beyond discussion. Parliament has no right to discuss such things.

During the early time of independence (mid 1940s), Muslim leaders found themselves to be more comfortable to embrace the concept of "Islamic democracy" than just "democracy". Theoretically, the concept was widely promoted by Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Zainal Abidin Ahmad (1911-83), another proponent of Islamic democracy, argued that Islamic political system is not a theocracy as some people might think, but rather democracy.

The roots of Islamic democracy, according to Ahmad, are the Qur'an and the political life in early generation of Islam under "the rightly guided caliphs" (al-khulafa al-rashidun). In the verses 159 of the Sura Ali Imran and 59 of al-Nisa, the Qur'an clearly advises Muslims to maintain the deliberative method approved in the decision making process. For Ahmad, this is a strong argument for Muslims to embrace democracy. Likewise, Ahmad believes that "the early caliphate system was democratic, since it had sufficiently maintained democratic requirements. Democratic instruments such as a people's assembly, succession, deliberation, and social institutions, had all existed during that time," he wrote.

Muslim leaders like Natsir and Ahmad believed in democracy not only because it was theologically justifiable, but also because they believed that with democracy they could win the race to political power. As Muslims are the biggest population in the country, there is a possibility to win the democratic contest. It is for this reason that they formed an Islamic party and then joined the general election in 1955.

The early generation of Indonesian Muslims generally understood democracy as majority rule and mostly ignored its substance. They belived, that as Muslims are the majority, they could rule the country according to their taste, ignoring the rights of minorities. They enthusiastically accepted democracy because it could help them to gain political power through general elections. If they won the election, they could dominate the parliament and thus change the constitution. This was the main reason why Islamic political parties were so ready to participate in the election.

Indonesian history would have been different had the Islamic parties won the 1955 general election. In that election, all Islamic parties obtained 43%; enough to take over the government, but not enough to steer the parliament. The Law requires two thirds of parliamant's members as a minimal requirement for changing the constitution. Certainly, Muslim leaders were disappointed by the result, but they fully realized the consequence of democracy.

With this failure, they accepted the rules of the game: enjoying their position according to what they got in the election. Thus, Muslim representatives were in the parliament and some of their leaders were involved in the government. Burhanuddin Harahap (1917-1987), a Masyumi leader, was appointed prime minister from August 1955 to March 1956. As a chairman, he had to deal with other people and had to participate lawfully. He fully realized that he could not impose his party's vision of Islamic democracy.

The role of liberal Muslims

What is good about democracy is that it teaches people patience and tolerance. If one loses an election, one has to wait for four or five more years to put another bet. And if one won the election by a small majority vote, the most powerful party still has to deal with the other winners. One has to share the "electoral cake" with others to form a government. Indonesian Muslims had learnt so much about politics and how to deal with it.

Soeharto's New Order regime had played a crucial role in changing Muslim political attitudes. "But the shift is not only due to Soeharto who ruled the country repressively," Assyaukanie writes, "but also due to the long and passionate role played by Muslim intellectuals"

​​Many things happened during Soeharto's New Order regime. Muslims were barred from forming Islamic parties. They were forced to join one of the three parties approved by the regime, namely Golkar, Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), and Development and Unity Party (PPP). Some scholars argue that the change of Muslim political mindset was greatly due to the way Soeharto treated them. Indonesian Muslims have been politically secularized, their attitude towards politics has no longer been the same.

It is true that Soeharto's New Order regime had played a crucial role in changing Muslim political attitudes. The shift, however, is not only due to Soeharto who ruled the country repressively, but also due to the long and passionate role played by Muslim intellectuals. What is happening in Indonesia is not happening in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Indonesian intellectuals have always played an important role in changing Muslims political mindset and attitude.

Through lectures, writings, and actions, they advocated democracy and delegitimized Islamic parties. Unlike in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, the Indonesian reform movement has always been doing their work through organizations. Intellectuals such as Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), Ahmad Syafii Maarif (born 1935) and Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) are Muslim leaders who chaired big organizations.

They spread their liberal ideas to Muslim society through these organizations. Wahid did it through Nahdlatul Ulama (40 million members), Maarif through Muhammadiyah (30 million members), and Madjid through the Islamic Student Association and its alumnae (over 10 million members).

In Egypt, the Islamic reform movement has developed in a more solitary manner. Great intellectuals such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1837-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) did not have any organization where they could spread their ideas. This trend continues until today's generation of reformers. Intellectuals such as Hassan Hanafi (born 1935) and Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd (1943-2010) are solitary thinkers who do not have big followers. They disseminated their ideas in academic classes, seminars, and scholarly journals. No matter how sophisticated their ideas are, they remained limited and never reached to the grass roots.

Promotion through organisations

In Indonesia, Muslim intellectuals have been very active in promoting democracy and pluralism to Muslim societies. Abdurrahman Wahid was one of the most influential leaders among the Nahdlatul Ulama members. Born in a strong family background and educated in Baghdad and Cairo, Wahid was highly respected by both Muslims and non-Muslims in the country. He read Western literatures and tried to synthesize them with Islamic intellectual tradition.

Effective mediation of faith: Indonesia's reform-minded Muslim intellectuals have always been able to organize Islam via major organizations. Pictured: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, left, prays with former President Abdurrahman Wahid, center

​​One of Wahid's most significant contributions to Indonesia is his untiring campaign for democracy and Pancasila (five principles) as the only basis of the state. Ever since the 1980s, many Muslims believed that adopting Pancasila – not Islam – could dilute their Islamic creed. Wahid argued that Pancasila did not contradict Islam. Throughout his career as an intellectual, Wahid publicly criticized and delegitimized Islamic political parties. He denounced the idea of Islamic state and refused the formal implementation of Sharia.

Nurcholish Madjid was another intellectual who is remembered for his daring ideas that challenged Muslim minds. Since early 1970s, he consistently campaigned for secularization and appealed Muslims to separate their religious interests from politics. Like Wahid, Madjid also campaigned against the idea of Islamic state and Islamic party. He believed that Muslims could channel their political aspirations in non-religious (secular) parties. He also believed that what is more important for Muslims is not to struggle for a formalistic agenda of Islam such as the implementation of Sharia, but the substantial ones such as healthcare, security, and education.

During 1980s, there were quite a number of Muslim intellectuals coming from a religious background but who nevertheless campaigned for liberal Islam, that is Islam that supports liberal values such as freedom, democracy, pluralism, and tolerance. Most of them were affiliated with major Islamic organization such as NU and Muhammadiyah. They played a crucial role in enlightening Indonesian Muslims. Through mass media, discussion forums, public lectures, and social actions, they spread their flexible interpretations of Islam and appealed to Muslims to fully engage with modern challenges.


Indonesian democracy is still young but it is growing dynamically. Despite many problems that the Indonesian government is facing, the country can successfully sustain its economic growth, curbing the unemployment rate, reforming the legal system, and building infrastructure. Since 1998, Indonesia has undergone three general elections, which were consecutively won by secular (non-religious) parties, namely Indonesian Democratic Party (1999), Golkar (2004), and Democratic Party (2009).

These three parties have a great commitment for democracy and Indonesian pluralism. On the other hand, Islamic political parties are declining. According to the recent survey released by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), Indonesian Muslims keep their preference to secular parties for the next general election (2014).

In spite of such an optimist view, there are two big challenges that Indonesian democracy is facing: corruption and intolerance. Over the past ten years, the Indonesian government has been fighting against corruption. An independent institute called Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, KPK) was founded and is working hard to bring corruptors to justice. Hundreds of corruptors have been detained and hundreds more are in waiting.

Meanwhile, intolerant actions have threatened the unity of the country. Radical Islamic groups have been the biggest threat for pluralism and harmony in the country. Indonesian governments have worked hard to curb the terrorist groups and approached the moderate Muslims to fight against Islamic radicalism. If the Indonesian people and government can overcome these two challenges, the country is very likely to become an internationally respected role model for Muslim democracy.

Luthfi Assyaukanie

© Fikrun wa Fann 2012

Luthfi Assyaukanie is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at Paramadina University and a Research Fellow at the Freedom Institute; both are based in Jakarta. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne, Australia. He has been engaged in the civil society movement, advocating freedom and human rights issues. His latest book is Islam and the Secular State in Indonesia (Iseas 2009). editor: Lewis Gropp