“It is fashionable these days for Western leaders to praise Indonesia as a model Muslim democracy,” writes Andreas Harsono, citing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement, “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”
The Obama administration has reportedly considered the country as an example for ‘Arab Spring’ transitions, studying the work of prominent scholars like Duke University’s Donald L. Horowitz who has written authoritatively in his latest book on Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia and in the Journal of Democracy on such politically delicate issues as the intersection of democratic constitutions with shari‘a (Islamic law).
But recent events are casting doubt on the country’s credentials as a paradigm for the Arab Spring transitions, prompting a Muslim democratic commentator to note that it is transitioning “from an authoritarian state to a state without authority.”
The influence of radical Islamist groups attracted worldwide media attention with last week’s police ban on pop superstar Lady Gaga, and radicals recently launched a violent attack on a lecture by the liberal Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji. But the militants’ growing political leverage presents a more serious threat to the country’s democratic culture than these high-profile incidents suggest, say analysts.
“While Indonesia has made great strides in consolidating a stable, democratic government after five decades of authoritarian rule, the country is by no means a bastion of tolerance,” says Harsono, a researcher for the Asia division at Human Rights Watch:
The rights of religious and ethnic minorities are routinely trampled. While Indonesia’s Constitution protects freedom of religion, regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyya faith — a Muslim sect declared to be deviant in many Islamic countries. By 2010, Indonesia had over 150 religiously motivated regulations restricting minorities’ rights.
“The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted,” Benedict Rogers, who works for the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, writes in the New York Times:
Violent attacks against this group, whose beliefs are considered heretical by many conservative Muslims, have increased significantly. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on Feb. 6, 2011, which left three people dead. One man described how he was stripped naked and beaten severely and a machete was held at his throat. He was dragged through the village and dumped in a truck like a corpse. Another man fled into a fast-flowing river, pursued by attackers throwing rocks and shouting “kill, kill, kill.”
He hid in a bush, dripping wet and extremely cold, for four hours. A third suffered a broken jaw, while a fourth, pursued by men armed with sickles, machetes and spears, was detained by the police for three days, treated as a suspect not a victim. Of the 1,500-strong mob that attacked 21 Ahmadis, only 12 people were arrested and prosecuted, according to The New York Times. Their sentences were between three and six months.
More disturbing is that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono “is not simply turning a blind eye; he has actively courted conservative Islamist elements and relies on them to maintain his majority in Parliament, even granting them key cabinet positions,” writes Harsono. “These appointments send a message to Indonesia’s population and embolden Islamist extremists to use violence against minorities.”
Lauded as a democratic beacon in a volatile region, Indonesia’s reform process was characterized by a “remarkable opening-up of political space [and] regeneration of civil society.” Its transition reportedly has a particular resonance for US President Obama, who lived there as a child and recently praised its shift from authoritarian rule in a speech in Jakarta.
But just as illiberal forces have moved to exploit the openings presented by the Arab awakening, militant groups are seeking to reverse Indonesia’s democratization.
Muslim democrats and civil society groups have demonstrated that radical Islamist groups and their toxic ideology can be confronted and defeated, says Rodgers.
“It is not too late. There are some excellent Indonesian Muslim organizations such as the Wahid Institute, founded by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, and the Maarif Institute, whose work should be supported,” he notes.
“If President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono acted, he would have the silent majority behind him. His government made progress in tackling terrorism, but it should not shirk its responsibility to fight the ideology that underpins terror.”
As the United Nations reviews Indonesia’s human rights record this week in Geneva, it should call on Yudhoyono “to crack down on extremists and protect minorities,” Harsono writes.
“Yudhoyono needs to take charge of this situation by revoking discriminatory regulations, demanding that his coalition partners respect the religious freedom of all minorities in word and in deed, and enforcing the constitutional protection of freedom of worship,” he argues. “He must also make it crystal clear that Islamist hard-liners who commit or incite violence and the police who fail to protect the victims will be punished.”
Indonesia has gone through a transition “from an authoritarian state to a state without authority,” says a moderate Islamic commentator.
“The stability and prosperity of the world’s biggest Muslim nation is of immense economic, security, and geopolitical importance,” analysts agree, so the country’s democratic backsliding and its “inward and backward’’ shift towards growing economic nationalism are causing concern:
President Yudhoyono’s own indecisiveness partly reflects his lack of authority under Indonesia’s multi-party Parliament. While still popular, he runs a minority government that is hostage to shifting allegiances. The democratic era has devolved power to regional governments. There is no clear successor for the 2014 presidential election. And Indonesia’s basic political cleavage between Islamism and secular nationalism drives personality, rather than policy, competition.