For Countries in Revolt, Look to Indonesia

By Didin Nurul Rosidin

Suffering from an increase in radicalisation and a certain level of religious exclusivity that has lead to vigilante attacks against specific religious minorities, Indonesia is not always held up as a model for others.

However, as a country that has had a relatively peaceful political transition and has successfully resolved tensions between Islamic principles of jurisprudence and constitutional democracy, lately Indonesia is being help up as an untapped resource for other Muslim-majority countries in transition.

With a population of over 200 million, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world and is unique in its political, social and cultural transformation from an authoritarian regime to a democracy in the late 1990s. Since the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime, brought to its knees by mass student protests, Indonesia has held three consecutive democratic general elections (in 1999, 2004 and 2009), proving the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

The post-Suharto government issued a variety of new laws and regulations aimed at ensuring that people are free to voice their long-oppressed views and have the right to form political parties, contribute to a free press and vote in general elections.

In an effort to learn from these events, earlier this year the Centre for the Study of Islam at the State Islamic University Syarief Hidayatullah in Jakarta, in cooperation with the Training Indonesia’s Young Leaders Program of Leiden University in The Netherlands, brought together scholars from around the world to look at Indonesian Islam from an international perspective, tackling the question: is Islam in Indonesia different?

Held right after the forced ousting of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which inspired citizens across the Middle East and North Africa to stand up against autocratic leadership and the failures of their government, the meeting was more timely than anyone predicted.

While Indonesia has seen radical Muslim groups grow increasingly militant, systematic and organised, mainstream Muslims remain unorganised, weak and unassertive when it comes to voicing their perspectives, noted one conference participant. Radical groups have leveraged popular approaches to express their view through books, radio and online media. They exploit every possible opportunity for public attention, including terrorist attacks.

Also, the “criminalisation” of religious freedom both in the form of fatwas (non- binding religious opinions) issued by Indonesia’s Muslim Religious Leaders’ Council and the arrest of a number of liberal thinkers have put certain liberal groups, and their activities, in jeopardy.

Indonesia still has work to do in these areas, and perhaps could stand to learn from countries in the Middle East that have had greater success dealing with similar challenges. However Indonesia’s success in implementing political reforms that have lead to greater freedom of the press, democratic elections and active civic association cannot be ignored.

Conference attendees noted that it is not only Indonesia’s political reforms that are an example for other Muslim countries. On the issue of gender awareness, for instance, Ann Kull, a participant from the Centre for East and Southeast Asian Studies of Sweden’s Lund University, noted that gender equality has been widespread in Indonesia, even among orthodox Muslim groups and religious institutions. In Islamic state universities, and madrasahs (Islamic religious schools) or pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), gender-sensitive issues like women’s role in society, reproductive rights and gender friendly interpretations of Islam have been included in the curriculum through civic education and other programmes.

Compared to neighbouring states in Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and even Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in South Asia, Kull’s research “shows that there is a much larger number of progressive and liberal types of Islamic education in Indonesia.” While the school systems in Muslim-majority nations differ vastly from one to another, the approach Indonesian schools take to introduce gender issues into different curricula could be replicated.

And despite its own challenges internally, when it comes to strengthening civic associations, advancing curriculum that has a role for gender issues and its widespread conviction of the compatibility of democracy with Islam, Indonesia stands as a model for other countries struggling with the tumultuous transition from authoritarian regimes.

Didin Nurul Rosidin is a lecturer of the History of Islamic Civilisation in the Department of Humanity and Arts at the State Institute for Islamic Studies Syekh Nurjati Cirebon.

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