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Indonesian People in a Political Rally (Photo: Lysdqzx.com)

Indonesia as a Model of Muslim Democracy

Islamic political parties were among them. Out of 160 parties that enrolled in the KPU, only 48 parties met the the basic conditions and were entitled to join the election. Among these parties, 11 were Islamic parties whose mission was to struggle for the implementation of Sharia (Islamic Law) in the country. All parties were so optimistic that their leaders confidently predicted that they would win the election.

Before the result of the election was announced no one knew what was going to happen with Indonesian democracy. Some people were cautious about the rise of political Islam and the possibility of Islamists winning the election. The agenda of Islamic political parties was quite clear: returning the “seven words” back to the constitution. The seven words are the wording that contains the implementation of Sharia for Muslims in Indonesia.

The words were originally in the constitution, but following the protests by a Christian delegation, on 18 August 1945, the Preparatory Committee of Independence removed them. Throughout recent Indonesian history, Muslims have been struggling to return the words back to the constitution. They tried during the Soekarno times, but failed.

They had also tried in the Soeharto times, but it was just impossible to do so as the regime did not allow any talk about political Islam. The opportunity had just come when Indonesia became a democratic country. They put their hope in the 1999 general election.

Eventually, the general election result defied many expectations. The winner was the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP), a secular party led by the daughter of Soekarno, the first president of the Republic. In second place was Golkar, another secular party, the ruling party throughout the Soeharto era.

Out of 11 Islamic parties, only one party gained significant votes, namely Development and Unity Party (PPP) that obtained 10.7%. The rest only obtained less than 3%. The whole votes of Islamic parties combined were no more than 20%, not enough to dominate the parliament.

This result disappointed many Muslim leaders who wished for victory. Something that has been happening recently in the Middle East did not happen in Indonesia. Democracy does not side with Islamic parties to win the race for political power.

The question we should address here is, why did the majority of Indonesian Muslims not vote for Islamic parties, but rather to secular (or non-religious) parties? Has not there been an Islamization process in the country? Why is the resurgence of Islam in Indonesia is not followed by the success in gaining political power?

There are many answers to these questions. But, the most striking one is that there has been a radical change in the political mindset of Indonesian Muslims. Partly due to the external factors that were boosted by secular-militaristic regime under Soeharto and partly due to internal ones which were pushed by liberal Muslims. These two factors played a crucial role in changing Muslims’ political mindset and the way Muslims perceived democracy. Let me elaborate more on this aspect.

Islam and Democracy

Along with nationalism and communism, democracy is one of the most debated concepts among Indonesian Muslims. During 1930s, there was a debate on nationalism between two young intellectuals who then became important leaders of the country: Soekarno (1901-70) and Muhammad Natsir (1908-93). Representing the secular group, Soekarno believed that nationalism is the glue for Indonesian unity.

Meanwhile, speaking on behalf Islamic group, Natsir considered nationalism as an ideology that could dilute Muslims’ religious belief. The debate between Soekarno and Natsir was the classic example of the disagreement between secularists and Islamists over various issues regarding religion and politics.

The Islamists were generally reluctant to embrace modern concepts such as nationalism, socialism, and democracy. While their counterpart, the secularists, unhesitatingly promoted those modern ideas, the Islamists criticized and often condemned them on the basis of Islamic arguments. Their objection to these concepts was mostly based on their particular understanding of Islamic doctrines that they believed to be superior to secular ideas.

Natsir, for example, prefered to embrace an Islamic version of democracy: that is, a combination between Western democracy and the Islamic model known as “Shura.” Natsir’s reluctance to accept democracy was due to his understanding that democracy could harm Islamic principles.

He believed that there are certain things in Islam that are considered to be final (qat’i), thus giving no room for people to discuss them. He gave the examples of gambling and pornography as being beyond discussion. Parliament has no right to discuss such things.

During the early time of independence (mid 1940s), Muslim leaders found themselves to be more comfortable to embrace the concept of “Islamic democracy” than just “democracy.” Theoretically, the concept was widely promoted by Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Zainal Abidin Ahmad (1911-83), another proponent of Islamic democracy, argued that Islamic political system is not a theocracy as some people might think, but rather democracy.

The roots of Islamic democracy, according to Ahmad, are the Qur’an and the political life in early generation of Islam under “the rightly guided caliphs” (al-khulafa al-rashidun). In the verses 159 of the Sura Ali Imran and 59 of al-Nisa, the Qur’an clearly advises Muslims to maintain the deliberative method approved in the decision making process. For Ahmad, this is a strong argument for Muslims to embrace democracy.

Likewise, Ahmad believes that “the early caliphate system was democratic, since it had sufficiently maintained democratic requirements. Democratic instruments such as a people’s assembly, succession, deliberation, and social institutions, had all existed during that time”.

Muslim leaders like Natsir and Ahmad believed in democracy not only because it was theologically justifiable, but also because they believed that with democracy they could win the race to political power. As Muslims are the biggest population in the country, there is a possibility to win the democratic contest. It is for this reason that they formed an Islamic party and then joined the general election in 1955.

The early generation of Indonesian Muslims generally understood democracy as majority rule and mostly ignored its substance. They belived, that as Muslims are the majority, they could rule the country according to their taste, ignoring the rights of minorities.

They enthusiastically accepted democracy because it could help them to gain political power through general elections. If they won the election, they could dominate the parliament and thus change the constitution. This was the main reason why Islamic political parties were so ready to participate in the election.

Indonesian history would have been different had the Islamic parties won the 1955 general election. In that election, all Islamic parties obtained 43%; enough to take over the government, but not enough to steer the parliament. The Law requires two third of the parliamant members as a minimal requirement for changing the constitution. Certainly, Muslims leaders were disappointed by the result, but they fully realized the consequence of democracy.

With this failure, they accepted the rules of the game: enjoying their position according to what they got in the election. Thus, Muslim representatives were in the parliament and some of their leaders were involved in the government. Burhanuddin Harahap (1917-1987), a Masyumi leader, was appointed prime minister from August 1955 to March 1956. As a chairman, he had to deal with other people and had to participate lawfully. He fully realized that he could not impose his party’s vision of Islamic democracy.

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