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Democratization has given all in Indonesia’s society, including Muslims, the opportunity to have their voices heard. Not only moderate Muslims, but Islamist militant groups also rise to the surface and express their views, with the latter apparently overshadowing the former.
Foreign observers, therefore, may view the resurgence of Islam in Indonesia simply as the rise of militant Islam. Indeed, Islamist militant groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) often demonstrate their acts of intolerance and in the name of Islamic propagation, or da’wah, the FPI has often raided restaurants and nightclubs during Ramadhan.
It also has harassed intellectual forums it deems as threatening Islamic teachings as in the case of discussions featuring Muslim scholar Irshad Manji in Jakarta and Yogyakarta just a few months ago.
Sadly, the culture of violence has not only characterized Islamist radical groups but also moderate organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Dozens of NU followers attacked adherents of minority Shiites in the Madura town of Sampang during the Idul Fitri holiday recently.
Whatever the motives, the sequence of religious intolerance has damaged Indonesia’s image, domestically and internationally. For this reason, some say Indonesia is not a model of Muslim democracy despite news portraying the country’s tolerance and freedom of religion and expression.
This, indeed, runs counter to the aim of Indonesian foreign policy explicitly enunciated by President Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in 2005. The President envisioned Indonesian identity as the world’s largest Muslim population country and the world’s third largest democracy. Indonesia is said to be a country where Islam, democracy and modernity can develop hand in hand.
Indonesian officials have promoted this projected identity as a selling point in various international forums. Previously considered an enemy and a liability during the Sukarno and Soeharto eras, Islam, particularly moderate Islam, is regarded an invaluable asset for Indonesian diplomacy.
Utilizing moderate Islam, Indonesia sets its sight on bridging the West and the Muslim world. It foresees itself as a role model for other Muslim countries on current global discourse concerning Islam, democracy and modernity.
This projected image has been manifested in various initiatives. Indonesia facilitated a meeting between Iraqi Shiite and Sunni groups in Bogor in April 2007. The SBY administration has promoted regional interfaith dialogues and encouraged religious organizations such as the NU and Muhammadiyah to organize a series of meetings at the International Conference of Islamic Scholars and the World Peace Forum. Indonesia has got involved in the Middle East conflict.
Another involvement is Indonesia’s participation at the Annapolis conference in the US on Nov. 27, 2007. It has also taken part in the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon by sending a large contingent to assist. Many other similar diplomatic activities have been conducted in this regard.
These activities indicate the country’s efforts to play a pivotal role as a bridge between the West and Muslim countries and as a democratic Muslim model. The degree to which Indonesia has succeeded in this regard is subject to debate.
Indonesia’s projected international identity as the largest Muslim democracy has a strong basis. Historically, Muslims have been part of and have played a pivotal role in the country’s independence struggle as well as the nation’s building. Indonesian Muslims, who account for 88 percent of the population, have proved their moderate character in the country’s electoral history.
A study by Barton (2010) shows us that Indonesian Muslims have no objection to secular democracy. Barton’s study reinforces Mujani and Liddle’s study (2009) which convincingly elucidates this phenomenon. Secular political parties have dominated Indonesian politics for a decade of democratic era in the country.
The fears of being an illiberal democratic country — as can be seen with other Muslim majority countries — have proven fallacious. The results of legislative elections and two direct presidential elections since 1999 as well as hundreds of regional elections evidence the primacy of a secular democracy. The Islamist parties lost significant support from Muslims and the phenomenon looks to continue in the future.
Despite the existing religious intolerance and undemocratic practices affecting its diplomatic posture, Indonesia can still claim itself a homegrown country for a living in harmony of Islam, democracy and modernity. Therefore, Indonesia should reflect this distinctive identity in its international diplomacy.
A lot of effort is required to sustain Indonesia’s international identity. The government needs to reinforce the voice of Muslim moderates and settle the existing problem of religious intolerance and other cases that might dampen democracy and religious tolerance altogether.
Subsequently, it is necessary for the government, which is supported by other stakeholders, to establish a mechanism to prevent religious intolerance and the possibility of the emergence of radicalism. Although radicalism does not automatically lead to terrorism, it is common that terrorism starts from radicalism.
The government must strictly enforce the law against those involved in acts of religious intolerance as in the cases of persecution against the minorities like Ahmadiyah followers and Shiites as well as the notorious hard-line groups like the FPI.
International diplomacy should be sustained by domestic politics since foreign policy begins at home.
The writer is a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.