Reflections on the Post-Arab Spring Landscape by Sailing in Thoughts to Indonesia

By Giora Eliraz | Affiliate Instructor - Jackson School of International Studies - University of Washington | Oct 20, 2014
Reflections on the Post-Arab Spring Landscape by Sailing in Thoughts to Indonesia

The essays in this series deal with transregional linkages between the Middle East and Asia. As a whole, the series explores the "vectors" of religious transmission and the consequences of or implications of such interactions. More ...


About 16 years has elapsed since Indonesia, a home to the world’s largest Muslim community, began its transition to democracy. Although Indonesian democracy is not yet consolidated, the country has covered a considerable distance along the path of political reform. Thousands of miles to the west, and nearly four years ago, the Arab Spring raised hopes—since then, mostly dashed—that democracy would take root in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, a significant part of the Arab world suffers today from increasing political instability, insecurity and violence. Importantly, the presence and the power of fanatic, violent groups and militias have dramatically strengthened. While thick dust largely covers the political landscape of the Arab world, some insights for thinking about its future might be offered by examining the case of Indonesia, which surmounted deep political uncertainty and turmoil during the early years of the post-Suharto era.  

Pluralistic tradition

Whereas the Arab world is experiencing growing political fragmentation, sectarianism, and Islamist-secular polarization, Indonesia— inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups with diverse cultures and languages—enjoys strong state unity. There are various explanations for Indonesia’s ability to forge diverse communities into one nation-state. Salient among them is the country’s longstanding tradition of “pluralism” (to use the modern term), which is anchored in local Hindu-Buddhist cultures. This pluralist tradition also made an imprint on the “Islamic space” in Indonesia. Islam’s introduction to this archipelago, which started around the fourteenth century, was intimately connected with mystical, spiritual Sufi traditions, known for tolerance and inclusiveness. In addition, whereas the historical breakthrough of Islam was largely marked by the use of force, in Indonesia the process of Islamization was largely carried out peacefully. The local pluralistic tradition was even melded into the ideological basis of the Indonesian state; in the sharp debate between secular nationalists and Islamic activists that preceded Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945, the former won. Consequently, the new state, populated mainly by Muslims, adopted a secular-oriented ideology, the Pancasila (“The Five Principles”), which is often described as being religiously neutral. Its first principle, “Belief in the One and Only God,” treats equally all five recognized religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism; about six decades later, Confucianism was also recognized as an official religion. Accordingly, the constitution of 1945 avoided establishing Islam as the state religion. Even the short statement known as the “seven words”―requiring Muslims to observe Islamic law (shari‘a)―was removed at the last moment from the constitution’s preamble, known as the Jakarta Charter. Similarly, tolerance was emphasized from the outset of the then-new state. Although the modern egalitarian concept of religious pluralism was then rather new in global discourse, elements of it can be found in the foundations of the Indonesian state; Article 29 of the Indonesian constitution of 1945, for example, does not refer to any particular belief, but rather “deals with religious pluralism, autonomy and freedom of religion.”[1] In addition, the forefathers of the Indonesian state also coined the national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”), making it a national guiding principle for its highly diverse society.

The authoritarian regime, in particular during the Suharto era (1966-1998), intensively campaigned for the secular-oriented principles of the Pancasila in an effort to strengthen its hold on power and bolster its legitimacy, suppressed Islamist aspirations, and advanced programs of development. Thus, major Muslim organizations were required to recognize Pancaisla as their “sole foundation” (asastunggal). In fact, the Muslim mainstream internalized the secular-oriented axioms of the state, including the separation between state and religion. This was clearly manifested in the democratic era. For example, the majority of political parties successfully resisted strong efforts by Islamist groups during the early years of transition to democracy to revive their long-suppressed ambition to make the shari‘a the basis of the state (dasar negara) through amending the Constitution’s preamble. In 2002, the Parliament rejected attempts by pro-shari‘a groups to include the above-mentioned “seven words” in Article 29 of the constitution; significantly, the two largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiya NU, backed this decision. The Indonesian model of democracy also frustrated earlier hopes of Islamists to achieve a strong political position in the post-Suharto era. Although religion has great significance in the personal lives of Muslims in Indonesia, Islamic parties, in particular those which explicitly support the idea of an Islamic state, are in the minority; and the parties which have emerged as winners since the first democratic parliamentary elections of 1999, are those that espouse national, secular-oriented agendas. Moreover, whereas during the authoritarian period ethnic and sectarian tensions and separatist aspirations were largely suppressed by force, the democratic government has tried, with the cooperation of civil society actors—the NU and Muhammadiyah, in particular—to advance egalitarian pluralist values (including religious pluralism), encourage interfaith dialogue, and wage a war of ideas against advocates of extreme religious doctrines. This move seems to be motivated also by increasing understanding that pluralism is essential for true democracy and that religious zeal threatens the fabric of democratic societies. It was also the inner power of democracy that enabled Indonesia to surmount the religious and ethnic exclusive passions that had been unleashed during the early stage of the country’s transition to democracy, not just by a resolute campaign against violence and terror, but also by determined efforts to resolve local conflicts through peaceful means.  

Pluralistic Muslim Civil Society

Another striking feature of Indonesia’s democratic development are the activities of its vibrant Muslim civil society—inspired by progressive ideas including pluralism, human rights, democracy and gender equality. This element, which contributed greatly to Indonesia’s transition to democracy, is desperately missing in the Arab world. Robert W. Hefner refers to the Islamic resurgence in Indonesia as being spearheaded by “civil pluralist” Muslims, who “deny the necessity of a formally established Islamic state, emphasize that it is the spirit and not the letter of Islamic law (shari‘ah) to which Muslims must attend, stresses the need for programmes to elevate the status of women, and insist that the Muslim world's most urgent task is to develop moral tools to respond to the challenge of modern pluralism.”[2] This element has gradually taken shape in Indonesia since the 1970s, within the broader context of economic growth and a burgeoning new middle class. From the very beginning of the post-Suharto era, pluralist Muslim actors emerged as a significant in the building of democracy.

Substantial Reconciliation between Religious Belief and Modernity

The case of Indonesia is also marked by substantial efforts to reconcile Islamic doctrine and belief with modern progressive ideas. Especially salient in this context is the role played by the liberal Islamic neo-modernist movement during the Suharto era. The neo-modernist movement emerged in Indonesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its advocates sought to connect Islamic doctrine and thought with basic liberal themes, thereby hoping to bridge the gap between the national, secular-oriented world-view of ruling elites, including their agenda of modernization and development, and the Islamic world-view. The neo-modernists believed that reconciliation between state and Islam also requires the reforming of theology; as an alternative to traditional blind imitation, taqlid, they suggested the ijtihad (independent theological reasoning), stressing that the latter would enable theological interpretation that suits modern circumstances and Indonesia’s  particularities. They also argued that the holistic nature of Islam neither requires the mixing of divine values with profane state matters nor the regulation of every aspect of life by religion; rather, Islam should provide moral values that serve as guidelines for human life, and its implementation should be done culturally, not politically. Hence, they called for replacing the idea of “political Islam” with “cultural Islam”. The statement by Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005), one of the most prominent forefathers of the neo-modernist movement in Indonesia, “Islam Yes Partai Islam No” (“Islam yes, Islamic party no”) became a significant motto. The movement described the Pancasila as the best political formula for Indonesia since it supplies the ideal blueprint for the non-sectarian identity of the country and assures harmonious relations among faiths. It also played a pioneering role in promoting the concept of religious pluralism per se by encouraging its acceptance within the Muslim mainstream.


Indonesia’s democratic development has been greatly aided by the country’s strong tradition of pluralism, the influence of a massive, moderate Muslim civil society, and the reconciliation between religious beliefs and modernity. To be sure, many chapters of Indonesia’s history have been stained by serious violations of the distinctive local tradition of pluralism. Moreover, the formative motto of the Indonesian state, Unity in Diversity, is still far from being fully realized. In addition, Indonesia is not yet a full-fledged democracy, including challenging of democratic-pluralistic values by certain intolerant exclusive trends. For example, pro-shari'a groups have succeeded in advancing Islamic by-laws (e.g., Islamic dress codes and bans on alcohol and other practices considered deviations from Islam) at local levels, partly by using the decentralization policy initiated by the democratic government. Many Indonesians have criticized such by-laws as constituting threats to the state's neutrality on religious matters, to the idea of a unitary state, and to democracy, pluralism, and the rights of non-Muslims. Furthermore, though the government has fought effectively against terror, inspired by an hatred towards the “other”, it has faced criticism for not being sufficiently committed to suppressing manifestations of religious intolerance by hard-line Islamists, mainly against Christians, the Ahmadi community (whose beliefs are considered heretical by many Indonesian Muslims), and Shiites. Additionally, Indonesia's huge middle class has seemed to avoid taking concrete actions against acts of religious intolerance.

Yet, one cannot deny that the pluralistic tradition and values of the huge Indonesian archipelago have been sufficiently strong and resilient to bind together diverse ethnic groups, cultures, religions and communities. Nor can one deny the country’s significant democratic achievements since the dramatic political shift that occurred in 1998. Therefore, it is not surprising that many view Indonesia’s political system as an enlightened model for Muslim countries, those in the Arab world in particular. Here, however, a cautionary remark is in order: The Indonesian context is strikingly different from that of the Arab world context. In addition, whereas Indonesia has strong bonds to the Middle East that were largely established over centuries of transmission of Islamic knowledge and ideas from Islamic centers through varied cross-regional conduits, the Indonesian archipelago is a complex society, polity and culture has remained almost a closed box for Muslim societies in the Middle East. And last but not least, as long as the prospects of democracy in the entire Arab world appear bleak, talks about making Indonesia’s democracy an inspiring model for the Arab world are likely to be less relevant, except perhaps in the case of Tunisia.

Nevertheless, those Middle Eastern societies that still have not abandoned the idea of achieving genuine political reform can benefit from some significant lessons derived from the Indonesian case; for example, the importance of a large, influential and organized Muslim civil society, inspired by progressive ideas and agenda, in leading the transition to democratic reforms, as well as the importance of a pluralist polity and society. The Indonesian case may also teach Middle Eastern proponents of political reform about the significance of reconciliation between Islamic belief and doctrine and liberal, modern progressive values; otherwise, the Middle East will continue to be mired in and torn by a growing rift between zealous Islamists and secularists. 

Nearly twenty years ago, Robert W. Hefner recounted the following insightful observation made by an Iraqi intellectual: “When I travel to Syria and Iraq I feel that I see Islam’s past, but when I travel to Indonesia, I feel that I see its future.”[3]  Today, as the Indonesian democratic project moves forward while major parts of Iraq and Syria have become battlefields, these words loudly resonate.  

[1] Nadirsyah Hosen, Shari'a and Constitutional Reform in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007), p. 194. See also Anis Malik Thoha. "Discourse of religious pluralism in Indonesia,” Journal of  Islam in Asia, Vol. 2, No. 2 (December 2005), pp. 111-130.

[2] Robert W. Hefner, “Secularization and Citizenship in Muslim Indonesia,” in  David Martin, Paul Heelas and Paul Morris (eds.), Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p. 148.

[3] Robert W. Hefner, “Modernity and the Challenge of Pluralism: Some Indonesian Lessons,” Studia Islamika, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1995), p. 41.