Building U.S.-Indonesia Mutual Understanding Since 1994

Muslim Civil Society and Democracy

A robust nongovernmental sector is generally considered to be an essential ingredient in maintaining a successful democracy.  Three recent USINDO programs brought Indonesian civil society leaders or partners to the podium to describe the activities of their organizations.  This is one of three reports on these programs.

Dr. Robin Bush
Director, Islam and Civil Society Program in Indonesia, The Asia Foundation

Most international observers are skeptical of the compatibility between an Islamic society and democratization.  But Robin Bush of the Asia Foundation asserts that in Indonesia the democratic movement of recent years could not have been developed without Islam.  Mass-based Muslim organizations, she said, reaching 70 million voters, have been key to spreading democratic concepts among their members and played a prominent role in voter education and election monitoring during the elections in 1999 and 2004.  Moreover, she asserts, Islamic thought outside Indonesia has also been influenced by democratic trends in that country.

With an overwhelmingly Muslim population (87 percent), Indonesia’s democratization can only be within the context of a Muslim society, and the Asia Foundation’s approach in Indonesia has long been to recognize the central role of Islam, according to a Foundation publication.  Islam has played a crucial role in Indonesia’s national development – from emancipation from colonial rule, to the more recent role of Muslim intellectuals in the overthrow of the autocratic Suharto regime and, in the past ten years, in building a democratic, pluralistic society.

Indonesia has a rich tradition of cultural pluralism and its Islamic leaders have long espoused a tolerant approach to interpreting Islam, Bush said.  They respond to notions of fairness and equity but not if they are expressed in Western terms like “gender” and “human rights,” she said.  The process instead involves “mining” Islamic texts for passages that speak to these issues,a close analysis of those texts and then applying the principles to contemporary life.

Bush said the Asia Foundation has responded to requests from Muslim religious and lay leaders to provide organizational support for a myriad of nongovernmental organizations that have been established in the past ten years.  Among them:

  • The Indonesian Center for Civic Education and Institute of Research and Educational Development provides civic education curriculum to two Islamic educational systems nationwide, the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) system with 46 campuses and the private Muhammadiyah University system with 35 campuses.
  • Lakpesdam NU (Nahdlatul Ulama) and LKiS (Institute for the Study of Islam and Society) mobilize local religious leaders around important community issues and give them policy analysis and advocacy skills.
  • P3M (Association for the Development of Pesantren and Communities) provides religious leaders of Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) with similar skills in promoting good governance in their communities.
  • The International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) forges a network among pro-democracy Muslim groups throughout South and Southeast Asia to disseminate information on Indonesian Muslim thinking on Islam and democracy and to strengthen progressive Muslim thought within Indonesia.
  • Rahima, a Muslim NGO, and the Women’s Study Center at the State Islamic University promote gender equity within syari’ah (Islamic law).
  • People’s Voter Education Network (Jaringan Pendidikan Pemilih Rakyat or JPPR), a coalition of 30 Muslim mass-based organizations as well as church and interfaith groups established in 1998, mobilized a massive voter education and election observation program for the general elections of 1999 and 2004.  JPPR demonstrates “unprecedented cooperation,” according to Bush, between the NU and Muhammadiyah, the two largest and sometimes somewhat hostile Muslim organizations representing the two significant ideological divisions within Indonesian Islam.  “The significance of JPPR is in binding the Muslim majority to the basic democratic process,” Bush said.
  • Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal or JIL) and the Institute for Citizen’s Advocacy and Education (LAPAR) promote a media dialogue through weekly call-in radio talk shows on religion and tolerance.  In 2001-2002 the media was dominated by militant Muslim groups, Bush said, but now there is a “visible turn-around” in public dialogue.  The Islamist media has now been forced to adopt the terminology of moderates, Bush said.

As a result of these efforts, there now exists a network of “pesantren, ulama and intellectuals who are grounded in the rhetoric of democracy, justice and human rights; a corpus of literature on the cutting edges of Islamic thought that is in great demand internationally – a coherent Islamic democracy movement where male kiyai (religious teachers) campaign for women’s rights,” Bush said.

Q:  What about the ‘dark side’ is Islam in Indonesia?  Why are small groups of radicals attracted to militancy?

A:  We must differentiate among these groups.  Some trace to Darul Islam, the Islamic independence movement of the early Republic.  A factor there was desire for regional autonomy.  Now the regions are trying to develop regional identities.  Our approach should not be a blanket pan-Islamic one but focused on local identities.

As for the general public, some of whom might be attracted to radicalism, one reason might be curiosity.  Public discourse and the examination of different strains within Islam were forbidden by Suharto.  So there may be experimentation with ideas, a thin layer of interest but one that is exacerbated by Western policies.

Q: What are the lessons for U.S. public diplomacy?  What advice would you give Karen Hughes [President Bush’s nominee for the top public diplomacy post in the State Department]?

A:  Don’t lump Indonesia into the “Muslim world.”  Don’t assume pesantren are radical.  There should be a specific, culturally contextualized approach.