Endy M. Bayuni of the Jakarta Post offers a clear-eyed assessment of the future of radical Islam and democracy in Indonesia: “Political Islam has been making significant inroads ever since Indonesia embarked on democracy in 1998. To the casual observer, the specter of Islamist political forces overrunning secular parties in democratic elections seems all too real in a country where nearly 90 percent of its 220 million people are Muslims.
“If it happened in predominantly Muslim countries like Algeria and Turkey (where the military intervened and trampled democracy), then it could also happen in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, so the argument goes.”
However, Bayuni doesn’t believe that all is lost in Indonesia: “The reality on the ground portrays quite a different picture. As Islamist political parties discover their voice in a democratic Indonesia, they also find limitations of their influence in a nation that has had a long tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance. . . .
“Still, there are concerns that Islam is rapidly intruding into the political arena. These concerns are founded on indicators and trends that typically include the following:
“Bolder, open expressions that call for turning Indonesia into an Islamic state, or for the introduction of sharia (Islamic law).
“An aggressive campaign to have sharia written into the Constitution.
“Hamzah Haz’ election as vice president in 2001. Haz chairs the Islamist United Development Party (PPP), which came third in the 1999 elections.
“The emergence of new political parties, besides PPP, and of organizations that use Islamic attributes.
“The adoption of sharia at local levels, starting in Aceh and, more recently, in a number of regencies.
“The establishment of Islamic paramilitary groups like Laskar Jihad, which sent its volunteers to Maluku and Central Sulawesi to fight in wars between Christians and Muslims, and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), whose members vandalized bars and nightclubs.
“The bomb attacks, including the ones in Bali nightclubs that killed over 200, mostly Western tourists last year, perpetrated by radical Islamic groups.
“Most of these are phenomena that would have been hard to find during Soeharto’s rule between 1966 and 1998. Soeharto regarded political Islam the greatest threat to national security next to communism, and he used the Army effectively to decimate Islamic political forces, including moderate voices, from the outset of his rule.
“Today, with freedom of expression and of association guaranteed by the Constitution, Muslims and political Islam no longer need to suppress their aspirations. Now that the lid has been lifted, we find various kinds of political expression from Indonesian Muslims. And we also learn that political Islam comes in several voices. Some, unfortunately, use violence as a means to achieve their goals.”
Bayuni says that there are now over 10 radical Muslim political parties in Indonesia, but “Islamist parties learned of their limitations as early as 1999, when Indonesia held its first democratic elections in over 40 years. Only three Islamist parties out of the pack won seats in the legislature. PPP, PBB and PKS pooled barely 15 percent of the vote between them. . . . Islamist parties were repeatedly defeated in their campaign to write sharia into the Constitution, but they have had occasional victories in other areas. This year, for example, they succeeded in promoting the national education law, which requires Christian schools to hire Muslim teachers to teach Muslim students.”
Bayuni concludes on an optimistic note. Here’s hoping indeed that he and others will be able to tame this tiger in Indonesia. (Thanks to nicolei.)