A critical component of Indonesia’s democratic future involves recognition of the special role of Islam in the state. Because most Indonesian Muslims want their government to respect Islamic customs even if they do not support the creation of an Islamic state, the line between support for and opposition to Islamic law is often blurred.
Many Indonesians, including those who are only nominally Muslims, hold conservative values and support strict moral laws without necessarily seeing them as purely religious or based on sharia, or Islamic principles. It is easy to mistake support for a conservative moral law as support for political Islam when it is more simply a reflection of basic conservative values.
By the same token, many Muslims in Indonesia reject some social arrangements and norms that are commonly associated with democracy in the West, including our style of pluralism and secularism. But this too makes them neither theocrats nor anti-democratic.
While the political debate is often framed by pitting Islamists against non-Islamists, the lines are really much more subtle than this and democratic negotiation will require all parties to recognise this so that they can find common ground.
In this regard, Dr. Ahmad Shboul, Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, reminds us that keeping religion out of politics is not the same as keeping it out of society in general and that even the most secular governments of the Western world have not attempted to do this.
Shboul suggests that US attempts to secularise Arab politics may have even resulted in a backlash that has contributed to the growth of political Islam. Westerners would do well to remember that there is not only one form democratic society can take.
In fact, we would do well to remember that even in the West, notions over what a democracy is remains in flux and have changed over time.
As Robert W. Hefner, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University, points out, whereas family was once seen as the central base of Western culture, today individual freedom is often elevated above family unity. Additionally, the very notion of family is being redefined as Americans consider a variety of arrangements, including domestic partnerships, civil unions and gay marriage.
Despite our consensus on many central values, there is constant stress in Western societies over the proper balance of individual rights and the needs of the community, equality and freedom, and even the proper role of religion and morality in politics. Just as various Western democratic societies define each of these somewhat differently, Muslim democracies are likely to have their own brand of pluralism.
The debate over the passage of sharia-based legislation reflects an interest in Indonesia to continue to map out the most central questions concerning the basic shape of its democracy. The debate is less a debate about whether sharia is good or bad, but more about the proper meaning of sharia and its relationship to the state, and thus its relationship to the national ideology of Pancasila, the embodiment of Indonesia’s basic pluralism, influenced by Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Western thought.
Ultimately, it reflects a deep debate over the very meaning of the Indonesian nation and what it means to be Indonesian. All of us have multiple identities. We may define ourselves as students, scholars, husbands, wives, athletes or musicians from an array of images that form our composite selves. However, for a nation state to succeed it is essential that one of the embedded images that a country’s inhabitants hold of themselves is their national identity.
But it is not enough to simply be an American, German, Indonesian or Turk. For a nation to function it is necessary that one’s national identity represent some shared sense of community, and thus shared values.
Most nations develop out of a long history with a shared past. In most of Western Europe these shared histories have been bound together by common languages, religions and cultural norms. Thus, while Italian and French populations were largely Catholics, the growing awareness of their differences became an expression of nationalism.
Indonesians similarly may share Islam with others across the globe, but Islam can fulfill only part of the nationalist vision. Of course this is especially true in light of the tens of millions of Indonesians who are not Muslims.
The challenge for Indonesia is to find a place for sharia that neither subverts the uniqueness of Indonesia from rest of the Islam, nor undermines non-Muslim Indonesians.
This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the authors. The full text can be found at The Jakarta Post, 5 February 2010.