, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 05/18/2007 7:56 AM | Opinion
Blake Respini and Herdi Sahrasad, Jakarta
There are hundreds moderate Muslim organizations in Indonesia today, many of them outgrowths of the democratically based reformasi movement in 1998.
The rising of these civic organizations may be as important to the future of Indonesia's democracy as is the curtailment of extremists. Furthermore, the political maturity, albeit simple, will help develop parties with accountability and those that stand for something beyond personality, as well as an educated and experienced electorate that protects and stabilizes Indonesia's democracy.
However, a critical component for Indonesia's democratic future involves recognition of the special role of Islam in the state. As most Indonesian Muslims want their government to respect Islamic customs, but do not want to see the creation of an Islamic state, the line between support for and opposition to sharia is often blurred.
Many Indonesians, including those who are only nominally Muslim, hold conservative values and support strict moral laws without necessarily seeing them as purely religious or sharia-based. It is easy to mistakenly interpret support for a conservative moral law as support for Islamism, although it is more simply a reflection of basic conservative values.
By the same token, many Muslims in Indonesia reject some social arrangements and norms that are commonly associated with democracy in the West, including pluralism and secularism.
While the political debate is often framed by pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, the lines are really much more subtle than this and democratic negotiation will require all parties to recognize this so that they can find a common ground.
In this regard, Ahmad Shboul (2005) reminds us that keeping religion out of politics is not the same as keeping it out of society in general and that aside from the communists, even the most secular governments of the Western world have not attempted to do this. Shboul suggests that the U.S. attempts to secularize Arab politics may have even resulted in a backlash that has contributed to the growth of political Islam.
In fact, we do well to remember that even in the West, notions over what elements democracy must have remain in flux and have changed over time. Whereas family was once seen as the central base of Western culture, today individual freedom is often elevated above family unity. Additionally, the very notion of family is being redefined as Americans consider a variety of arrangements including domestic partnerships, civil unions and gay marriage.
Despite our consensus on many central values there is constant stress in Western societies over the proper balance of individual rights and the needs of the community, equality and freedom, and even the proper role of religion and morality in politics. Just as various Western democratic societies define each of these somewhat differently, Muslim democracies are likely to have their own brand of pluralism.
The debate over the passage of sharia-based legislation reflects that Indonesia continues to map out the most central questions concerning the basic shape of its democracy. The debate is less a debate about whether sharia is good or bad, but more about the proper meaning of sharia and its relationship to the state and thus its relationship to the national ideology of Pancasila.
Ultimately, it reflects a deep debate over the very meaning of the Indonesian nation and what it means to be Indonesian. All of us have multiple identities. We may define ourselves as students, scholars, husbands, wives, athletes, musicians from an array of images that form our composite selves.
However, for a nation state to succeed it is essential that one of the embedded images that a country's inhabitants hold of themselves is that of their national identity. However, it is not enough to simply be an American, German, Indonesian or Turk, for a nation to function it is necessary that national identity represents some share sense of community, and thus shared values.
Most nations form out of a long history the creates a shared past. In most of Western Europe these shared histories have been bound together by common languages, religions and cultural norms.
Benedict Anderson (1983) explains that a nation is an imagined community whereby people who have never even met one another come to see themselves as connected and separate from others. However, religion, because it usually does not correspond with national borders, usually can not be the core of the nationalist vision. Anderson wrote that nationalism as an idea came ""to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions"".
Thus, while the Italians and French were both Catholic, the growing awareness of their differences became an expression of nationalism. Indonesians similarly may share Islam with others across the globe, but Islam can fulfill only part of the nationalist vision.
Of course this is especially true in light of the tens of millions of Indonesians who are not Muslim. The challenge for Indonesia is to find a place for sharia that neither subverts the uniqueness of Indonesia from the rest of Islam nor undermines Indonesia's non-Muslims.
Even if Indonesia becomes a model of a moderate and democratic Muslim society, it is not clear what this may imply for the rest of the Muslim world. Even though Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, many write off Indonesia as not being truly Islamic and thus not worthy of comparison with other Muslim nations. It is also typical to see Indonesia as more tolerant, gentler, and softer, than the ""real"" Islam of the Arab world and to emphasize the syncretic nature of Indonesian Islam as a way to separate it from the wider Muslim world (Johns and Lahoud, 2005).
Indeed, many Indonesians are only nominally Muslim and there is no doubt that Indonesian Islam is often layered with strains of Hinduism, Buddhism and mysticism.
Furthermore, as has been shown here, Indonesian Islamic scholarship has long and deep ties to the Middle East that form a strong bond with the rest of the Muslim world and recent decades have seen what is often called the Islamization or sometimes even the Arabization of Indonesia. It would thus be a mistake to dismiss Indonesia as a worthy example of the type of democratic society that Islam produces and it would be a mistake to assume that what can work in Indonesia could be exported to rest of the Islamic world.
Blake Respini, a graduate of Stanford University, the U.S., teaches at the Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University. Herdi Sahrasad is associate director at the Centre for Islam and State Studies, Paramadina University, Jakarta, and a PhD candidate at the State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta.