The Muslim world, especially countries in the Gulf, are struggling to define the relationship between the state, religion and civil society. Since the Arab Spring movement swept across the Middle East, this has become the biggest issue for rulers in the region.

The movements that changed the political landscapes of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen have sent a warning signal to authoritarian regimes in the region that they must reach some kind of compromise and accept democratic practices if they wish to survive.

The Arab world is confused about this. Governments, religious institutions and community leaders have so far failed to come up with the right answer about whether the authority of the state should be separated from that of religion, and how to ensure the rights of civil society are fulfilled.

There are no reliable precedents in Arab countries for the separation of state and religion. This is why they were so confused during a US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, earlier this year, that was organized by the Washington-based Brookings Institution in cooperation with the Qatari government.

In a closed-door session at the forum which I attended, participants from the Arab world asked why there should be any attempt to separate religion from the state. They pointed to the Arab tradition of government that was handed down from the Prophet Muhammad, that authority of religion and of the state were inseparable and indisputable.

One sheikh rejected such attempts as “aimlessly disturbing.” He cautioned the West against disturbing religious traditions and practices in the Arab world. But experts in the audience rejected his ideas.

Asian leaders at the forum – chairman of the Indonesian Senate Irman Gusman, Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin, Paramadina University rector Anies Baswedan and senior journalist Endy M. Bayuni – offered a different perspective.

They surprised Muslim world participants who assumed that Islam was the official religion of Indonesia because the majority of its population is Muslim.

Irman said that Indonesia was “not an Islamic state, even though almost 90 percent of the population is Muslim, because Indonesia is based on a state ideology that advocates a pluralist national harmony.”

He stressed that in Indonesian history, the state had not interfered in the formulation or enforcement of religious laws but facilitated freedom of worship for all.

He said religious institutions did not interfere in or influence government policy because they existed in their respective domains.

Muslims, he said, do not force the adoption of Islam as the state religion, just like ethnic Javanese do not fight to make Javanese the official language of Indonesia.

That was a lesson for the Muslim governments in the Gulf that do not know what to do with the Arab Spring. Perhaps Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia have had the opportunity to enjoy few fruits of freedom and democracy, but others are too reluctant to open their doors.

The forum in Doha made me think that Indonesia is better off than Arab countries because as the world’s third-largest democracy, the government does not interfere in its citizens’ religious freedom.

I began to think that in terms of religiosity, Indonesia is better because every citizen is required to have a religion on his or her identification card.

I was proud of my homeland being a religious nation, with its millions of mosques, churches, temples and other places of worship, though I am not a Muslim.

That was, until I read a report that turned my perception of Indonesia’s religiosity upside down.

EVEN THOUGH Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, in reality Israel, which Indonesia seems to hate so much for being Jewish, is “far more Islamic” than Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and many Arab countries.

In the context of a globalized world where democracy is flourishing and rising interdependence among nations is a common feature, Indonesia’s biggest mistake has been its primordial reluctance to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel; a mistake which has cost it all the benefits that other nations are reaping in maintaining close ties with America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

But despite being home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia is not an Islamic nation. Even Muslim political parties are losing ground and charm in Indonesia today.

According to a survey by Scheherazade S. Rehman and Hossein Askari of George Washington University in the United States, Islamic values have been implemented more successfully in the economies of non-Muslim countries than in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim.

The survey rated 208 countries on an Economic Islamicity Index, and the top 37 spots were occupied by non-Muslim countries.

The shameful reality for Muslim nations is that Israel, hated and cursed so much by these nations, ranked 61st, above Bahrain (64th), Brunei (65th), Jordan (77th), Oman (99th), Qatar (112th), Saudi Arabia (131st), Indonesia (140th), Egypt (153rd) and Iran (163rd).

I assumed the George Washington University scholars were wrong, but Irman explained it.

“All those involved in crimes are people who understand religious teachings and are seemingly devoted,” he said. “Those who break the law are people who know the law. Some people are very diligent in donating to places of worship but they are also diligent in embezzling state funds. Some are good at giving alms but are as good at extorting others.”

Now, how to fix the damage? Nobody knows.

As long as education neglects the urgency of holistic character-building, Indonesia will be inhabited by law breakers who do not believe they have made mistakes, and hypocrites who act like role models to deceive the public.

Therefore, Irman said, the next Indonesian president must be a man of integrity, a role model with a flawless track record, approved by people from all walks of life, and not a transactional politician whose main goal is to satisfy his selfish interests.

The writer is a senior political correspondent at BeritaSatu Media Holdings in Jakarta. He can be reached at: pitandaslani@gmail.com. This analysis was previously published by The Jakarta Globe newspaper.

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