, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Thu, 12/08/2005 3:54 PM
Endy M. Bayuni, Jakarta
Because of their predominantly Malay Muslim populations, Indonesia and Malaysia are similar in many respects, but their paths to democracy could not be more dissimilar. While there are limitations and shortcomings in the democratization of both countries, they are already being touted as two different models as other majority Muslim countries, particularly those in the Middle East, seek to engage in democratic reforms.
Central to this, of course, is the role that Islam plays in politics. Indonesia and Malaysia interpret the religion, and therefore sharia (Islamic law), differently
Participants in a roundtable discussion on Islam and democratization in Asia in Jakarta this week politely refrained from passing judgment on which path -- the Indonesian or Malaysian way -- is the more desirable or even the more ""Islamic"".
The Malay culture of not blowing one's own horn may partly explain this reluctance, but a more plausible explanation is that democracy in these two countries is largely still a work in progress. Malaysia can claim that its approach has resulted in the economic well-being of its people, but Indonesia can claim that its approach is far more inclusive, and thus more accommodating of the interests of its non-Muslim minority population.
But that makes the study of these two countries and the model they have chosen all the more interesting. The jury is still out, and probably will remain so for many years, about which of the two is superior.
The roundtable, jointly hosted by the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) and the Asia Foundation office in Jakarta, is the second of its kind to be held in the region, following the one held in September in Manila.
Besides looking at democracy building in the two Muslim majority countries, the roundtable looked at developments in Muslim minority countries like the Philippines and Thailand. Muslims in these two countries differ on their leanings toward democracy: while they have lived in flourishing democracies for all these years, they continue to face persecution and even feel ""dispossessed"". Some participants from the two countries were skeptical as to whether democracy is really the answer to their problems.
Nevertheless, it is now widely accepted in most Muslim countries that the compatibility of Islam and democracy is not an issue, virtually writing off Samuel Huntington's ""Clash of Civilizations"" theory.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirajuda, in his keynote address to the roundtable, said it had now become clear that democracy was not an exclusively Western value, but a value that belonged to all major religions in the world.
""The debate on the merits of democracy and its compatibility with Islam is over,"" Hassan pronounced. ""The challenge in Indonesia today is how to make Islam and all other religions an even more effective force for reform and democratization.""
This is also essentially what makes the path toward democracy in Indonesia different from the path taken by Malaysia.
As one participant in the conference put it, Indonesia has taken the ""accommodationist"" approach while Malaysia has taken the ""hegemonistic"" way.
Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, and sharia is the law prescribed for the Muslim majority. Non-Muslims, therefore, are subject to different laws.
In Indonesia, Islam is one of the five religions recognized by the state. While there had been demands to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state and to impose sharia for Muslims, the debate ended -- for the time being at least -- when the issue was put to a vote during the debate on constitutional amendment in 2002. The pro-Islamic and pro-sharia proponents lost the cause through a democratic process.
But while Islam as a political ideology has been widely rejected by the majority Muslims in Indonesia, Islamic teachings and values continue to play a major role in the realm of politics in the country. It is indeed hard to state that Indonesia is a secular state in the same breath as when we describe secular European states. Indonesia's 1945 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and obliges the state to protect the rights and practices of devotees.
In his opening remarks, Douglas Rumage, head of the Asia Foundation office in Indonesia, underlined the role played by mass-based Islamic organizations in the two democratic general elections in the country since 1999 as the chief contribution of Islam to democracy building in Indonesia.
Islam as a political ideology is only one of many ideologies in this budding democracy. The larger share of the votes in the 1999 and 2004 elections went to nationalist political parties like Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.
The different paths taken by Indonesia and Malaysia are dictated by several factors.
Their colonial history is one: the Malaysian political system has a British Westminster feel to it, and its legal system is the legacy of centuries of British rule. Indonesia is a republic (against a kingdom in Malaysia), and its legal system was established in the Dutch colonial era.
But more recent history and politics also dictate their different paths.
Malaysian prime ministers, first Mahathir Muhammad and now Abdullah Badawi, have been veering more and more toward Islamic conservatism, partly to defuse the threat from the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). A Malaysian participant in the roundtable said, however, that the debate on the role of Islam and of the sharia in Malaysian democracy had been limited to the political elite, leaving little room for public participation.
In Indonesia, there is no longer any debate about sharia in the national legislature, but some regions, Aceh and several regencies, have adopted sharia in response to demands from Islamist parties and ulema at regional level.
Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai foreign minister, and always an eloquent speaker on Islam in Southeast Asia, approached the issue of democracy and Islam from a totally different perspective.
For him, it is not so much a question of the role Islam can play in democracy as an understanding of the importance of living in a democracy to be a good Muslim.
In a closed Islamic society, people must pray five times a day and fast during the holy month of Ramadhan, or face punishment. In an open society, people have choices, including to ignore those obligations, but also the option of being a good Muslim.
""I fervently believe that to be a good Muslim, you have to be in a democratic system,"" he said.