Identity And Indonesia’s Democratization

in Program

By Antonia Kerle – Indonesia’s regional and international significance is again on the rise.  Despite two cancellations of planned visits by President Obama, which have fuelled doubts about where Indonesia fits in the Administration’s priorities, bilateral relations with the United States have been improving steadily.   In many ways Indonesia is a huge success story, managing a difficult transition to democracy and an impressive degree of economic stability in the face of the global financial crisis and the related contraction of international trade and investment.  

Divisions within Indonesian society remain and in some cases are growing.  Issues concerning the open media, expanded personal freedom, religion and the state have become increasingly divisive in recent months.   Some conservative Islamic groups have used perceived excesses of media and personal freedom as an opportunity to widen their social and political bases.  Indonesia’s aspirations for a more prominent position on the world stage and desire to re-establish its former influence in Southeast Asia could ultimately be threatened by these internal divisions.

The relationship between Islam and the state in Indonesia has always been complex, but both the Guided Democracy (1945-1965) of Sukarno and Suharto’s New Order (1967-1998) suppressed Islamist activists and co-opted moderate Muslims.  Suharto forcefully suppressed radical Islamic groups and made acceptance of the secularist state ideology of Pancasilsa — monotheism (but not Islamic), just and humane civil society, representative democracy, national unity, and justice for all — a requirement for both traditionalist and modernist Muslim participation in electoral politics.  Many Muslims viewed these principles as secularist and hostile to Islamic values.  Under the authoritarian Army-backed regime, Muslim organizations necessarily eschewed politics and focused on community and national social services.  Towards the end of his regime when widespread corruption became too much even for many of his closest political allies, Suharto wrapped himself in Islamic colors. 

Western-style social and political freedoms are new to Indonesian society, and although they are part and parcel of the country’s emerging democracy, they are opposed by some but by no means all Muslim groups as anti-Islamic and contributing to immorality.  The fact that Islamic parties have not done well in national elections since the establishment of democracy suggests that most Indonesians don’t see an inherent conflict between democratic values and Islam.  For example, Indonesia’s largest Muslim party – the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party – received only 7.88% of the vote in the 2009 national elections, while another party with an implicit Islamic connection garnered only 6 percent.  

The poor showing of Islamist parties seems to underscore the attractiveness of greater individual freedom and secular democracy in a society where religion has usually been more personal than political.  Still, Indonesia has hardly been immune from global currents, including the rise of Islam as a source of identity.   The government has been successful in coping with radical Islamic terrorism, but groups such as the Prosperous Justice Party are taking advantage of the debate over the limits of media and personal freedom in order to advance the cause of Shari’a and oppose secularist democracy.  Through a series of campaigns aimed at socially conservative Indonesians the Islamists’ promise to “save” Indonesia from the destabilizing immoral influence of the West to advance a radical agenda and garner political support for their goals. 

Case in point, the Indonesian press has been hailed as being one of the freest in the world.  Internet usage within Indonesia’s population of 234 million has skyrocketed, contributing the second largest number of Facebook users worldwide, after the United States, but most of its support comes from urbanites in Jakarta and other major cities.  Inevitably the new freedoms have led to excesses and caused a mainly Islamic counter-movement.  The most sensational example has been the circulation on the internet of sex tapes depicting three famous Indonesians that attracted the attention of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) himself and ignited heated debate within Indonesian society.

The fundamental Islamists are gaining some traction in this social arena, even if not at the polls.  Anti-pornography laws already adopted in 2008 explicitly forbid use of the internet for dissemination and/or consumption of a broad range of material from revealing dress to explicit sexual activity.  As a result of the recent internet sex scandal, the government is now considering policies for greater online censorship.   Comprehensive internet censorship could have many unintended consequences for Indonesia’s lively democracy and civil society.  Curbing media freedom could inadvertently suppress a wider and critically important national dialogue about the country’s institutions and future direction and put at risk the countries hard-won democratic institutions.  This in turn would likely have a negative impact on Indonesia’s relations with the United States and other democratic countries. 

The scandal thus far has stimulated a lively and healthy debate within Indonesian society on religion, the state and individual freedom of expression.  The resulting dialogue amongst activists, ordinary individuals and political leaders demonstrates the vitality of Indonesian civil society, but there are fears that it might also create an environment of increased government intrusion into personal affairs.  As Indonesian society experiences the growing pains of an emerging democracy, the struggle to maintain newly gained individual rights and freedoms takes on a more significant role.

Photo Credit: v i k z / Fiky Hatta, June 29, 2007:

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