Indonesia: Democracy Wins, but Danger Remains

This week's inauguration of a new Indonesian president, elected with a strong mandate, has again shown that Islam is compatible with democracy. Coming shortly after the second anniversary of the Bali club bombings, the peaceful change in leadership provides some comfort to those concerned about the fate of the world's largest Muslim nation. However, as Indonesia-based journalist and author Sadanand Dhume argues, the question about the compatibility of Islam with development remains unresolved. In recent years, Indonesia's open and syncretic faith has become increasingly radicalized under the Saudi-inspired Islam. Amidst visible symbols of Westernization, radicals continue to gather strength. In the resulting battle, Dhume says, either Indonesia will transform from within or it will spend more and more energy fighting the radical challenge. - YaleGlobal

Indonesia: Democracy Wins, but Danger Remains

Political Islam is still on the march, stirring fears about the country's economic future
Sadanand Dhume
Friday, October 22, 2004
Is the nightmare over? The Site of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing has since been cleaned up, but fear remains. Enlarged image

BALI: At midnight on Saturday, the dance floor at the Hard Rock Café in Bali was heaving. Apart from a careful pat down at the door for guests, the scene was no different from two years ago, before Islamist bombers killed 202 people at two nearby clubs and quickly emptied the HRC, and the rest of the island, of tourists.

Indonesians are optimistic these days, and not merely because Japanese salary men and Australians in beach wear are once again swaying to the beat of Filipino cover bands in Bali. The country has held two remarkably peaceful elections this year and this week witnessed the inauguration of a new president, elected with a strong mandate – about 60 percent of the vote. The orderly election has given a firm "yes" to the oft-repeated question: Is Islam compatible with democracy? But the compatibility of Islam with economic development remains at issue, as does the answer to another critical query: Will Islam be the main global influence on Indonesia?

In some ways, omens look good. New president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a well-spoken former general with a doctorate in agricultural economics. On the campaign trail, he wooed voters in part by crooning treacly ballads. As outgoing President Megawati Sukarnoputri's top security minister, he led the country's crackdown on the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. In him, Indonesians seek strong leadership, their version of Vladimir Putin or Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra.

Can the new president steady a ship that has been adrift since the end of General Suharto's 32-year reign in 1998? It won't be easy. Yudhoyono is Indonesia's fifth president in a little over six years. In that time, the country has gone from being one of Asia's tiger economies – mentioned in the same breath as Korea or Thailand – to a byword for ethnic conflict and corruption in the company of Bangladesh and Nigeria. Foreign investors are skittish. Per capita incomes hover near 1997 levels. The relationship between the presidency and a fractured parliament remains a work in progress.

Yet it's a longer-term issue that raises the most serious doubts about Indonesia ever regaining its former luster. While China, India, and Vietnam reap the benefits of global flows of capital, technology, and managerial expertise, Indonesia must wrestle with another trend: the globalization of political Islam.

Islam is relatively new in this part of the world. It took root only in the 1400s, after the glories of Islamic civilization – Moorish Spain and pre-Mongol Baghdad – had faded, and barely a century before the first European gunships slipped into Southeast Asian waters. What's more, the faith was spread largely by trade rather than by conquest, by Indian dhow rather than Arab charger.

Distance from Islam's Arab heartland gave Indonesia's version of the religion an eclecticism absent in converted lands that faced the brunt of early Arab power. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, "In Indonesia, Islam did not construct a civilization, it appropriated one."

Preceded by nearly a millennium and a half of Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam evolved here as a mix of core Islamic beliefs and older Animist-Hindu-Buddhist customs that bore little resemblance to the faith of Yemenis, Saudis, or Moroccans.

Over the past three decades, however, old truisms about the world's most populous Muslim country and the resilience of its culture have been challenged. Among the strongest global currents shaping Indonesia have been those from the Islam of the desert. Onion domes has replaced traditional Javanese sloping roofs on mosques. Headscarves are becoming a common sight on college campuses. In offices, the Arab greeting assalam aleikum now vies with the religiously neutral selamat pagi, or "good morning."

Some of the impetus for these changes has been domestic: uniform religious education enforced by the Suharto regime after the anti-Communist bloodbath of the 1960s, and a turn to faith by millions seeking to cope with dislocations caused by a rapidly modernizing economy.

At the same time, petrodollars from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have financed mosques and preachers demanding a "purer" reading of the faith. Rising incomes have allowed more Indonesians to study in religious schools in the Middle East and Pakistan. And the explosion of the Internet and desktop publishing has brought the discourse of political Islam from Cairo and Tehran to the cities and towns of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi.

The consequences are already visible. The new speaker of Indonesia's parliament belongs to the Prosperous Justice Party, a highly disciplined cadre-based organization whose roots can be traced to the banned Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. In recent years, a demand that Indonesian Muslims follow shariah law has resurfaced, despite having been dismissed by the country's founding fathers at independence in 1945. In universities throughout the archipelago, students congregate in mosques to study the writings of the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb or enroll in Hizbut Tahrir, another organization banned in many countries for its calls to unite all Muslims in a single superstate harking back to the Caliphate in Turkey.

Only a tiny percentage of Indonesian Islamists espouse violence, but that has been enough to make the last six years the bloodiest in Indonesian history since the pogroms of the 1960s. It's the terrorist attacks – Bali, the Marriott hotel bombing in 2003, and the recent attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta – that make headlines. Much more goes on under the international radar screen. In the Moluccas, the once fabled Spice Islands, Muslims and Christians have clashed in a bloody civil war that has effectively segregated the island of Ambon on religious lines. Much the same is true of Central Sulawesi. Across Java, Christians complain of church burnings and intimidation by homegrown local militias.

Indonesia appears to have proved the compatibility of Islam and democracy, but that proof is not final. How do you respond when freedom of the press is interpreted as the freedom to idolize Osama bin Laden and the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev? Does democracy include the right to organize in secret cells and continue agitating for the implementation of shariah?

The second question is even trickier. Thanks to its Islamist movement – and unlike its competitors in China, Vietnam, and India – Indonesia faces external factors beyond its control. In short, events in Baghdad or Gaza can bring thousands to the streets and paralyze Jakarta's Central Business District while leaving Shanghai, Hanoi, or Mumbai unaffected. To make matters more complicated, much of Indonesia's business elite is ethnic Chinese and non-Muslim. Moreover, the views of Islamist on a range of issues – from banking interest to birth control – are at odds with what the rest of the world has learned about economic development.

For now, it's too early to say which way Indonesia will go. Miniskirts in the malls and beer on the supermarket shelves show that Indonesia is light years away from becoming a Saudi Arabia. Yet it's hard to see Indonesia's struggle with radical Islam simply melting away in the night. Instead, as the movement continues to gather strength, it will either change the nature of the Indonesian state from within or force it to consume an ever greater portion of its energies in fighting it. It may be too early to predict a winner. It's not too early to predict the contours of the battle.

Sadanand Dhume, a former Indonesia correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal, is writing a book about Indonesia. He can be reached at

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization