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The Relationship between Democracy and Islam in Indonesia Essay

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Updated: Jan 25th, 2020

The role of Islam in the transition to democracy in Indonesia

This paper will discuss how Islam and democracy interact in Indonesia. The paper will look at the role of Islam in the transition to democracy, in which Islam has played a critical part in the pro-democracy movement.

Islam has played a crucial role in the research on the compatibility in Islam and democracy, in elections and in the building of a civil society in Indonesia. During the past decades, democracy and Islam have been a debatable topic and continues to be a major issue in political discussions. In the western world, Islam and democracy are viewed as fundamentally irreconcilable.

Samuel Huntington argued that collapse of democratic system in the Islamic world is owed to the fact that the Islamic customs and society being unwelcoming to Western freethinking principles. According to some Muslim conservatives, the democracy values are contradicted with the concept of fundamental Islam.

On the other hand, Indonesia has been considered as one of the Muslim countries that have been able to incorporate and consolidate democratic values into its political system.

Robert Hefner points out that in countries such as Indonesia, Islam has became vital to democratization and has turn out to be the single most vital force for political transformation and democracy. This paper will argue the concept of Islam and Democracy can be compatible by looking at Indonesia as the majority Muslim country in the world.

Throughout the history, the concept of democracy is marked by conflicting interpretation. The idea of democracy is always contested and vague where it is tricky to apply into practices. Huntington (1984, p.195) argues that the definition of democracy are legion where the term has been far from political area such the term has just been apply to institution.

This is where citizens have the capacities to choose freely among political alternatives by making their own decisions that have a direct effect on their lives. Jillani (2006, p.728) states that such values of freedom, tolerance and equality are the principle of democracy that form government in a sovereignty state.

However, in the western perspective, democracy and Islam are view as fundamentally incompatible. Huntington (1984, p.208) states that Islam are seen to be inhospitable to democracy.

This is because Islamic revival especially the Shish fundamentalist in Middle East are strongly oppose and against the development of democracy as it is identified with Western liberal principles and such principle will denies the Islamic concept of the sovereignty of God. The Islamic fundamentalist is seen to be anti-democratic in the view of religious resurgence (Heryanto & Mandal 2003, p.122).

According to Effendy (2008, p.41) the concept of democracy is not foreign to Islamic thought. The values of democracy such as justice, consultation, egalitarian, trust and freedom are inherent to the corpus of Islamic ideas.

As a result Islam is seen to be compatible with democracy through this perception where these values are obliged implemented in Muslim’s social culture, economic and political activities.

Heryanto and Mandal (2003, p.123) argues that values have to be substantiate through educational reform and the creation of social institutions that encourage participation of society in the political and religious realm.

On the other hand, the most important confront for democratization in the Muslim world are rely on Muslim leaders and intellectuals themselves to come up with rational systems of Islamic democracy that are not easy reformulations of Western philosophy offered in Islamic expression.

The diversity of Islam in Indonesia

Among other Islamic country, democracy has been able to thrive among the largest number of the Muslims in Indonesia due to the moderate forms of Islam the citizens has been able to adopt (Azra & Hudson 2008, p.47). There has been a blend between the myriad ways and the pre-existing religious practices.

This has resulted to a richly distinctive variant. The form of Islam originally from Indonesia does not have the attribute of severity and rigidity. This has enabled it to get praise due to its moderation and tolerance.

Hefner (2000, p.18) argues that democracy in Indonesia has become the single most important force for political change and democracy in the Muslim world in regards to the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

According to Carnegie, (2006, p.3), Indonesia is the country with the largest population of Muslims. Michael Buehler also states that the country is the third biggest democracy in the world, only after the U.S. and India (2009, p.51).

Islam has a prominent sway in the Indonesia’s political landscape and offers an array of political and conceptual potentials for the nation. For instance, home-grown Abangan Islam is highly practiced in the Central and Eastern Java while Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)-the conventional Sunni Islam- is common in East Java.

The current Islamic tenets of Muhammadiyah are prominent outside Java and synonymous with contemporary welfare services and education in Indonesia. Muhammadiyah is also popular among the young population who are more intellectual and autonomous in Indonesia (Carnegie, 2006, p.3).

One of principal reasons that explain the cordial rapport between democracy and Islam in Indonesia is the disintegration of Islamic power in the country’s social society (Buehler, 2009, p.53). The diversity of Islam in Indonesia is attributed to manner in which the Islamic alteration took place in the previous eras.

The conversion of Indonesians to Islam was influenced by a number of factors such as accommodating prior Islamic tenets and observances that were common in various parts of Indonesia. The colonial rulers also contributed to Islamic diversity in Indonesia when they denied indigenous rulers authority to set up unified institutions of Islamic education, worship and pilgrimage.

The absence of a unified Islam structure has led to tectonic movements in the democratization of Islam in Indonesia. The country has thus witnessed the elimination of official constraints on the spiritual life of its population. Moreover, new types of religious practices have emerged thereby reducing the control of Islamic leaders in the whole country (Buehler, 2009, p.54).

The role of Islam during election period in Indonesia

The diffusion of Islamic authority and the vulnerability of social structure are more visible during voting periods. For example, during the gubernatorial vote in 2005, the authority of religious leader- the Tuan guru- was trivial as a result of a large number of Islamic leaders in South Kalimantan province.

The candidates involved in the election knew that political support from religious figures was not adequate to augment their chances since all contestants had a Tuan guru in their campaign teams. Some resorted to use other strategies such as providing financial support to social amenities such as schools, hospitals and mosques to woo voters.

In addition, the waning influence of religious leaders has been manifested by the voters who have ditched Islamic leaders that support unpopular political parties (Buehler, 2009, p.55). The modern Muslim parties continue to play a vital role in the Indonesia’s democratic landscape.

For example, in spite of their diverse political inclinations, the Muhammadiyah and NU parties strongly support the existence of a secular state and have censured terrorist activities and the parochial interpretation of Islamic laws (Smith, 2005, p.115).

The role of radical Islamist in Indonesia

According to Amir Santoso, the relationship between democracy and Islam in Indonesia has been characterized by the antagonism and tension between the ruling elites and Islam (1995, p.3). Right from the colonial period to post-Soeharto era, Muslims have used their religion as their platform for struggle against colonial rule, oppression and as a tool for religious chauvinism (Jillani, 2006, p.727).

During the formative years of Suharto’s totalitarian New Order and Islamic organizations were major political forces that strongly sustained the New Order in defeating communism. However, the cordial partnership collapsed in the late 1960s when the state was fully focused on the general election in early 1970s.

There are a number of theories put forward to explain the demise of the alliance between the government and Islam in Indonesia. First, the demise of communism in the country meant that Islam was the main ideological option to Suharto’s regime.

Second, Suharto’s New Order regime strongly believed that Islamic groups wanted to introduce Islamic tenets in the country. Finally, since the government’s main goals were political stability and economic growth, the government introduced containment policies to weaken the influence of Islam in Indonesia (Santoso, 1995, p.3).

The current democratic landscape in Indonesia has reduced the influence of radical Islam by giving its proponents democratic space to form political parties, take part in electoral process and freedom of press. This type of regime has thus been able to establish the politics and policies employed by Islamists.

This theory is relevant to Middle East countries since flexible autocratic power of some regimes such as Indonesia have allowed the contribution of radical Islamists. The inclusion of radical Islamic groups in the democratic process compelled them to abandon their initial radical stands and in the end, adopted moderate positions (Nasr, 2005, p.13).

In nutshell, the theory of flexible autocratic structure is that the involvement of radical Islam in political process leads to moderate Islam while their exclusion through oppression enhances Islamic radicalism (Hafez, 2005, p.4).


Azra, A. & Hudson, H. (2008) Islam beyond Conflict: Indonesian Islam and Western Political Theory. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Buehler, M. (2009) Islam and Democracy in Indonesia. Insight Turkey, 11(4), 51-63.

Carnegie, P. (2006) The Politics of Indonesia’s Islamic Identification. Dialogue, 4 (1), 1- 24.

Effendy, B. (2008) Islam and the State in Indonesia. Web.

Hafez, M. (2003) Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. London, Lynne Rienner.

Hefner, R. (2000) Civil Islam: Muslims and democratization in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heryanto, A. and Mandal, S. (2003) Challenging authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. London: Routledge.

Huntington, S (1984) Will more countries become democratic? In Political Science Quarterly, 99 (2), 206-228.

Jillani, H. (2006) Democracy and Islam: An Odyssey in Braving the Twenty-First Century. Brigham Young University Law Review, (3), 727-753.

Nasr, V. (2005) The Rise of Muslim Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 16 (2), 13-27.

Santoso, A. (1995) Islam and politics in Indonesia during the 1990s. Asian Journal of Political Science, 3(1) 1-34.

Smith, P. (2005) Terrorism and Violence in Southeast Asia. London: Sharpe.

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