Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ, Jakarta
Defying many pessimistic predictions, Indonesia, fourth biggest country and the country with the biggest number of Muslims in the world, is a thriving democracy.
But why is it that the deserved “hurrah!” doesn’t easily cross our lips? Probably because we realize only too well that more than nine year after the fall of the New Order, Indonesia’s democracy still faces big problems. Let me name some of the most obvious ones:
• Political parties are very weak. They have no programs, most are focused on certain people or have a purely ideological identity; they all live only on primordial solidarity.
• Indonesia lacks a culture of democratic dissent; this endangers the stability of political parties and makes stable political alliances difficult.
• The system of elections, especially the so-called electoral threshold, is absolutely irrational.
• After several amendments our constitutional system has become an unhappy mixture between a presidential and a parliamentarian one.
• In contrast to national general elections, regional and local elections are prone to manipulation and ensuing conflicts.
• Most dangerously: Our present democratic system is threatened by corruption of its political class, by what people call “money politics”.
This list also demonstrates something: Namely that, contrary to “popular wisdom” in some Western media, Islam is not the problem. All the mentioned problems have nothing to do with religion. They stem from the still uncertain social, political and economic conditions of Indonesia.
No doubt, there are religious fundamentalists totally opposed to democracy. Such as the writer of an SMS published in this newspaper (Nov. 6, 2007): “Why does the MUI remain silent when our country is now under the satanic system — democracy?”
And there are groups like Hizbuth Tahrir which explicitly reject democracy as something alien and not in correspondence with Islam (HT is said to be winning a growing number of followers among the students of the big secular state universities like University of Indonesia, Bandung Institute of Technology and Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, a distinctly worrying development).
But how representative are these voices? Not only has the overwhelming majority of Indonesian Muslim intellectuals consistently and uninterruptedly supported democracy since independence, but 80 years ago the founding fathers already voiced the opinion that a free Indonesia would have to be democratic and that Indonesians could develop democratic attitudes from their traditional values.
After independence it was the modernistic Islamic party Masyumi which was the strongest supporter of Western democracy (opposition to “Western democracy” came then from the Java-based parties, the nationalists, the Nahdlatul Ulama and the communists).
Now Indonesia has a national consensus on democracy such as it never had before. There is, now, not a single politically relevant group opposing democracy. Even the Salafist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) credibly insists that it embraces our democratic system.
Thus there is no empirical base for seeing in Indonesian Islam a potential threat to democracy. But this does not mean that everything is okay. There are some worrying developments. One is the creeping introduction of sharia ordinances at local and district levels, obviously with considerable grassroots support. By forcing uniform, religiously legitimated behavior on people they foster fanaticism, intolerance and unrest. Not at all good for democracy.
Then there are these attacks by extremist mobs on so-called deviant or sectarian Islamic groups such as Achmadiah or, not long ago, al-Qiyadah. Especially worrying is that the police do not protect their followers from violence. Worrying is also that police can use the fatwa of a religious body as legitimation for taking people into custody. And it is unsettling when a president seems to regard this as a normal thing.
And of course, acts of intolerance against religious minorities go on almost unabated. Threats and attacks on Christian churches go on unremittingly up to this day. Worrying in this connection is a clear correlation between intensity of religious identification and intolerance.
In general, Indonesian people, Muslims and others, are very tolerant. This also shows in the fact that up to now religiously affiliated political parties have never received the majority in democratic elections. And there are certainly many clerics and theologians of all religions that demonstrate tolerance, pluralism and friendliness toward other religious faiths. But they are the minority.
In general, in my observation, the more intensively people publicly display their religious identity, the more they will speak about other religions, or deviant branches of their own religion, in an aggressive and threatening, even hateful way. As if, the more religious people become, the more they become intolerant, anti-pluralistic and violence prone.
These attitudes are sins against the democratic spirit. Violence is always against the democratic spirit and all groups legitimizing the use of violence are inherently anti-democratic. Violence, threats, intimidation also represent a sin against the principle of the rule of law, which is one of the basic principles of democracy.
If the state continues to take a cavalier attitude toward intimidation and violence against minorities, it undermines its own authority and endangers democracy. Democracy can only flourish on the basis of the rule of law, namely a law that is internally legitimate because it respects and safeguards human rights; including freedom of religion and religious worship.
So where will Indonesia go? Will her young democracy be slowly eaten up from the inside by growing intolerance and violence?
There are signs that the big mainstream Muslim organizations in Indonesia are beginning to regard extremism and fundamentalism as a danger. Since last year Pancasila talk is again on the agenda.
The real challenge is whether Indonesia can provide every Indonesian with an economic and human perspective for the future. And this depends on, among other factors, whether Indonesia will rein in its corruption, which has run wild.
But it also depends on whether the Indonesian state has the political will to enforce its own constitution and laws, thus whether Indonesian leaders have the guts to enforce the rule of law.
The prevailing wimpy attitude of the government if confronted by religiously motivated masses that threaten citizens of other religious convictions is undermining both the rule of law and the endeavor to create a general climate of civilized behavior. Not in vain Pancasila proclaims “just and civilized humanism” as its second principle.
Thus the greatest threat to the future of democracy in Indonesia lies in the weak, compromising attitude of the government toward certain types of violence in the country. And this, again, points to the biggest problem of this country: the growing moral corruption of its political class.
The writer, a Jesuit priest, teaches philosophy at Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta.