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The Struggle for Islam

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Progressive Muslims and liberal democracy in Indonesia

By Greg Barton


What public role should Islam play in the modern state? This is the central issue that dominates the struggle of ideas in the Muslim world today and Indonesia is no exception.

Progressive Muslims such as the late Nurcholish Madjid, a much-loved writer and scholar, and his friend Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president, reject the notion that Islam’s role in the modern state should be institutionalised. Rather, they believe that Islam’s role in modern society should be played out in the cultural sphere. Referring to the Koranic principle that "there should be no coercion in the matter of faith" (2:256) they argue that it has never been appropriate for political authorities to interfere in matters of freedom of conscience and belief and it is certainly not something that should now be accepted in a modern democracies.

Nurcholish succumbed to liver failure after a long struggle with hepatitis and cancer on August 29. His passing at the relatively young age of 66 comes at a time when his country, and the world, has great need of him. As a student leader in the 1970s he achieved sudden and unwanted fame when he declared that most Muslims wanted to say no to narrowly sectarian political parties and yes to authentic religion. Not surprisingly Nurcholish’s pithy phrase: "Islam yes, Islamic parties no" earned him the enmity of his erstwhile Islamist mentors. He compounded his new reputation as a young renegade by calling for the "desacralisation" of dogmatically held human traditions and attitudes that claimed Islamic authority but were themselves either at odds with Islamic principles or were at least outdated and inappropriate.

Nurcholish went on develop a comprehensive and coherent platform of ideas for a progressive understanding of Islam and gained respect and broad support in mainstream communities. Working with friends such as Abdurrahman Wahid, Djohan Effendi and Dawam Rahardjo, Nurcholish succeeded in turning his reformist ideas into a social movement. Today many of the younger people in Indonesia’s two mass-based Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, have internalised these ideas and made them their own. And in recent years a new generation of young intellectuals such as Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and Syafi’i Anwar and their friends in the Liberal Islamic Network (JIL) and the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) and in dozens of other NGOs have successfully built on the foundation laid by Nurcholish.

It is ironic that one of the key reasons that Nurcholish and his fellow intellectuals and activists were successful in establishing Indonesia’s progressive Islamic movement in the 1970s was the modest degree of ‘shelter’ that they received from the Suharto regime. Throughout the Muslim world the actions of authoritarian military-back regimes have tended to forment radical Islamist and jihadi social movements and suppress progressive thinkers. The reasons for Indonesia being different have to do with cultural and historical factors too complex to go into here but also have to do with the fact that the Suharto regime was not monolithic and not without some relatively benign aspects, especially when it came to education. It was in elite Islamic tertiary institutions, under the authority of several particularly wise ministers of religious affairs, that progressive Islamic thought flourished and developed.

Islamists reject the progressive position of separating ‘church and state’ believing instead that Islam’s moral authority should be enshrined in state legislation and that the state must police personal morality. Political Islamists, such as members of Indonesia’s Prosperous Welfare Party (PKS) believe that democratic processes are a proper and effective way of reshaping the state to meet these convictions.

Jihadi Islamists, generally active in underground groups such as Jemaah Islamiah, on the other hand, reject the moral authority of the secular state and democratic processes and argue that the ends of achieving an ‘Islamic state’ justify violent means. They believe that theirs is a Manichean struggle of good versus evil, of the ‘abode of peace’ against the ‘abode of war’, and one that must necessarily be played out in a Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilisations.’

Islamists, both political and jihadi, believe that the ‘application of Shari’ah’, or Islamic law is a practical and effective panacea for a vast range of the ills that plague modern society. Progressive Islamic intellectuals argue that the essential principles of Shari’ah are already found in modern secular legal systems and that what countries like Indonesia need is not moral police but effective rule of law. Moreover, they argue that the best way to achieve this in the modern age is through governments and state institutions held accountable through democratic processes and an internalised culture of democracy expressed collectively through a vibrant civil society.

Fortunately, the struggle to contain jihadi terrorism in Indonesia has, so far, gone remarkably well. The region’s troubles with jihadi Islamism are hardly over but things are looking very much better in October 2005 than they did in the wake of the Bali bombing in October 2002. The professionalism of key investigators in the Indonesian police and their support from foreign colleagues, most notably member of the Australian Federal Police, lead to the crippling of Jemaah Islamiah before it could carry out further catastrophic bombings. Ongoing jihadi-linked violence in Sulawesi and, it would appear, Southern Thailand, are reminders, if any were needed, that this struggle is certainly not over, but it is clear that things could easily have become very much worse.

The political situation is more difficult to assess. The surprising success of PKS in last year’s parliamentary elections, where the party garnered more than seven percent of the national vote, alarmed many observers but the jury is still out on what PKS’s contribution will be in the longer term. Part of the party’s appeal to voters in 2004 came from its focus on basic law-and-order and reform issues. PKS has been quite open about the fact that it initially found inspiration in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood but it has lately begun to distance itself from these radical Islamist connections. And, if it is to achieve anything approaching the 20% share of the vote in the 2009 elections that it has set as its goal, it will have to move much closer to the centre and repudiate more radical Islamist positions.

One of the reasons that many fear the potential of political Islamism to erode liberal democratic laws in Indonesia is the example of what has happened in other Islamic countries. Political Islamists generally poll poorly in Pakistan (the high-water mark of support for Pakistani Islamists in the 2002 election was easily matched by Islamist parties in Indonesia in 2004) but that has not stopped successive governments attempting to buy-off Islamist criticism with a series of illiberal and sectarian legislative concessions. A similar Islamist erosion of civil liberties has occurred even in culturally tolerant, laid-back, Malaysia. And if former justice minister, now state secretary, Yusril Izha Mahendra, from the radical Islamist Crescent Moon Party (PBB), gets his way a raft of pernicious legislative changes will mean that the Malaysian legal environment is replicated in Indonesia.

It is a mistake to conflate political Islamism and jihadi Islamism but it is also wrong not to recognise that radical social activism sometimes bridges these two otherwise very separate movements. For political Islamism to thrive it must find support in the civil sphere. The surprising growth of PKS as a party is in large measure due to the effective development of its social movement support base on secular university campuses across Indonesia. At the same time, jihadi terrorists are not the only activists using ‘uncivil’ means in the civil sphere to leverage their social and political influence; a number of radical Islamist militia, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Jemaah Islamiah-linked Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI) regularly engage in violent confrontations intended to intimidate, and often with the explicit support of Islamist politicians.

Indonesia, along with the entire Muslim world, is in the midst of a vigorous struggle of ideas. The great majority of practising Muslims are moderate social conservatives for whom violence in the name of Islam is anathema. Radical Islamists and progressive Islamic thinkers represent small minorities at either end of a vast, variegated, but moderate majority.

A disturbing recent manifestation of this struggle is the way in which statements by quasi-official bodies such as the small and non-representative Indonesia Council of Ulama (MUI — a product of Suharto’s endeavours in the early 1990s to coopt his Islamist critics) have ratcheted up the level of ‘uncivil’ intimidation against progressive Islamic thinkers and minority groups.

In early August MUI issued a fatwa against Ulil and his friends in JIL and aginst Ahmadiyah (a small minority Muslim sect) saying that it was determined to confront deviant teachings and "win the war of ideas against liberal Islam", echoing, in more respectable tones, a fatwa two years earlier by a previously unknown group calling for Ulil’s death. An immediate consequence of the MUI fatwa has been a series of intimidating protests against JIL, Ahmadiyah communities and Christian churches.

The influence of progressive Islamic thought is difficult to quantify but there can be no doubting that its presence has helped counter the influence of radical Islamism. The majority of Muslims living in traditional communities find little need to seek out new articulations of Islam’s message, whether Islamist or progressive. But for others, young men in particular, living in large cities, rootless and seeking purpose and meaning in their lives, radical Islamism and the tight community networks that go with it have deep appeal. For them, traditional expressions of Islam have little drawing power alongside exciting new ideologies of purpose and action. But the ideas articulated by Nurcholish Madjid provide a robust and intellectually credible alternative to radical Islamism that speak powerfully to those struggling to make sense of the modern world.

Dr Greg Barton is associate professor in Politics at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and is author of Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2002; and Indonesia’s Struggle: Jemaah Islamiah and the soul of Islam, UNSW Press, 2004.

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