Islam and democracy

What the Arab world can learn from Indonesia

Since 1945, Indonesia has pursued its own state ideology of Pancasila, characterised by religious tolerance and social justice. Following the failure of the Arabellion, it could serve as a role model for democratic re-birth in many Arab states, writes Abhishek Mohanty

Currently many Arab states are attempting to cement the links, by force if necessary, between the state, creed and civil society. This has been the top priority for rulers in the region ever since the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East in 2011. The mass uprisings altered the political landscape in the Arab majority world and sent dictatorial regimes a clear message: if they wanted to remain in power, they would need to discover a middle ground, reaching political decisions that benefit the common good.

Indonesia – an enormous archipelago of a country in Southeast Asia – is the world’s fourth most-populous state and the largest Muslim-majority nation. Yet many are unaware that, regardless of the size of its Muslim population, Indonesiaʹs state religion is not Islam. It may seem unbelievable, but Indonesia officially recognises five official religions: Islam, Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Since it achieved its independence from the Netherlands in 1945, Indonesia has become a democracy characterised by cultural diversity and a sensible interpretation of Islam.

In an attempt to legitimise their authoritarian regimes, rulers of the Arab world generally contend that their tradition of government was bequeathed by the Prophet Muhammad and that this convoluted blend of religion and the state is inseparable and unquestionable.

"Pancasila": for peaceful co-existence

While Islam is the state religion of most countries in the Arab world, with constitutions based on the Koran, Indonesia is based on a nationalist ideology – Pancasila – which advocates secular, democratic and nationalist principles.

Indonesian Muslim women at prayer (photo: Getty Images)
An injection of Indonesian religious diversity: "the Indonesian version of Islam is valued for its lively rational discourse. It is noticeably open to different opinions and religious diversity. If reformers in the Arab world want generate long-lasting positive change, then emulating some of what has actually worked in Indonesia would be a good place to start," writes Mohanty

Yet, how can Pancasila, a nationalist ideology, help promote social inclusion and integration? The five principles of Indonesian politics are, indeed, poles apart from Arab nationalism. While Arab nationalism is based on a shared ethnicity, language and culture, Indonesian nationalism is precisely the opposite. It is multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual – all indicators of progressive nationalism. Pancasila is based on the following:

belief in the one and only God (Article 29 of Indonesian Constitution mentions there is no specific god of any religion who holds superior status);

a just and civilised humanity (cultural and religious freedom twinned with mutual respect);

a unified Indonesia (multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual);

democracy, led by the wisdom of the peopleʹs representatives (Indonesia is democratic, in contrast to the sparsely populated Gulf states, which are still dominated by religious autocracies);

social justice for all Indonesians (irrespective of ethnicity and religion).

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Comments for this article: What the Arab world can learn from Indonesia

Nice! How did you manage to omit the biggest slaughter in Indonesia's 20th century? I assume that in your approach to Indonesia it did not have any role to play; it has been erased from memory and heritage! I guess because your peespective is the liberal truth and there is no other truth except from a liberal perspective. Thus, one need to find liberal trends in "Islam" and if they don't exist, one should invent them. Someone might help you question your one-sided way of thinking (Jospeh Massad in Islam in Liberalism). Also, when one deals with nationalism (in Indonesia and south east Asia in general) one should refer to the seminal work or at least the findings of Benedict Anderson.

Nadeem06.07.2018 | 12:39 Uhr