Will Indonesia's breeze of democracy reach here?

The home of the world's largest Muslim community shows that pluralism, democracy and Islam can co-exist.

Indonesian woman 224.88  (photo credit: AP)
Indonesian woman 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
While strolling through bookstores in London years ago, I happened upon a book by Deliar Noer entitled Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1942 (Oxford University Press, 1978). Leafing through it, I was surprised to learn that the Islamic modernist stream of thought originating in the Middle East - Egypt in particular - found its way to Indonesia in the first decades of the 20th century, firing the imagination of Indonesian youth and challenging the traditional order. I wondered how had these ideas found their way to the remote eastern edge of the Islamic world? More importantly, why has the Indonesian archipelago proved itself to be a successful habitat for Islamic modernism - for both conceptual and organizational growth. The riddle propelled me years later to start my own intellectual journey to Indonesia Studies. There I was exposed to the centuries-old interaction, in an Islamic context, between Indonesia and the Middle East, which created widespread feeling of close bond among Indonesia's large Muslim population to the Middle East - where Indonesia itself, however, remains nearly unknown, as it does to most peoples around the globe. Yet as Indonesia engages in building the third largest democracy in the world, it's worthwhile asking if this process has caught any attention in the Arab Middle East. WHILE NOT evoking much interest in the Arab media, Indonesian democracy has not gone totally unnoticed by observers there. They see it as encouraging evidence for both the possibility of a country switching to democracy after a long period of authoritarian rule and for the compatibility of Islam and democracy - particularly as Indonesia is home to the world's largest Muslim community. Reports on Indonesia's democratic parliamentary elections and the first direct democratic presidential elections of 2004 made some headlines in the Arab Middle East, not only in countries conspicuous for political reform but also in countries where the political system differs strongly from the model suggested by liberal democracy. Indonesia demonstrates that the global process of democratization does not leave predominantly Muslim countries untouched and suggests that the current state of democracy in the Arab Middle East is not related to Islam. Still, the applicability of the Indonesian model of democracy to the Middle East is rarely debated there, perhaps due to the lack of in-depth analysis of Indonesia as a complex of polity, society and culture. The causal connection between democracy in Indonesia and both the pluralistic nature of its society and the moderate, tolerant type of religious belief that dominates the Muslim mainstream there are discussed only slightly in the Middle East media and then mainly in articles by foreign commentators and experts. But while Indonesian matters are not prominent in the Arab media, the country is mentioned in other contexts as the eastern border of the Islamic world and as the nation with the largest Muslim population. After my article "Democracy in Indonesia and Middle East countries" appeared in The Jakarta Post on November 30, 2007, a prominent Indonesian scholar wrote me that democracy in Indonesia has increasingly attracted attention in growing circles in the Middle East. He noted that over the last few years he has been invited to regional capitals to speak on both Islam and democracy in Indonesia. Ideas from the Middle East have traveled for centuries to Indonesia - much less so in the opposite direction. Perhaps now is the time for the breeze of democracy from "the lands below the winds" (that is, the Malay World or more generally, Southeast Asia) to blow towards the Middle East. The writer is associate researcher at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.