What the Arab Majority World Can Learn from Indonesia – Op-Ed

What the Arab Majority World Can Learn from Indonesia

Muslims attending prayers near Bayra Sandhi Monument in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia June 25, 2017 – © Photo: Reuters.

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The Arab majority world in contemporary times is being pugnacious to delineate the linkages between the state, creed and the civil society. From the time when the so-called Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East in 2011, this has turned out to be the prevalent concern for monarchs in the region. The agitations have altered the political scenarios of the Arab majority world and have sent a caveat to dictatorial regimes that they need to discover a middle ground and reach a decision to incorporate egalitarian practices if they desire to remain in power.

Indonesia – an enormous archipelagic island country in Southeast Asia – is the world’s fourth most-populous state and the largest Muslim-dominated nation. But many don’t know the fact that, regardless of having overwhelming Muslim population, Islam is not the state religion of Indonesia. That may sound beyond belief but Indonesia on the record recognises five official religions for the country: Islam, Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Since it attained independence from the Dutch regime in 1945, Indonesia has progressed into a democracy centred on cultural mosaic and sensible elucidation of Islam.

In order to legitimise their authoritarian regimes, rulers of the Arab majority world generally contend that their tradition of government was bequeathed from the Prophet Mohammad, and that the melange of religion and the state are inseparable and unquestionable. While most of the countries in the Arab majority world have Islam as the state religion and Quran as a guide to the Constitution, Indonesia is based on a nationalist ideology Pancasila, which advocates secular, democratic and nationalist principles.

Now many of the readers would be wondering how Pancasila, a nationalist ideology can be inclusive. As a matter of fact, it is poles apart from Arab Nationalism. While Arab Nationalism is based on a common ethnicity, language and culture, Indonesian Nationalism is exactly its opposite. It is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual, which are the signs of progressive nationalism. Pancasila is based on five principles:

  1. Belief in one and only God (Article 29 of Indonesian Constitution mentions there is no specific god of any religion who holds the superior status).
  2. A just and civilized humanity (freedom to practice culture, religion and mutual respect).
  3. A unified Indonesia (multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual).
  4. Democracy, led by the wisdom of the representatives of the People (largest Muslim country follows democracy while sparsely populated gulf kingdoms still follow religious autocracy).
  5. Social justice for all Indonesians (Irrespective of ethnicity and religion).

According to conservative Islamic rituals in the Arab majority world, non-Muslim men are prohibited to marry Muslim women, or else they have to convert their faith to Islam. If anyone wants to renounce Islam and embrace another faith, it is considered as apostasy and the individual faces social boycott or even harsh punishments. Openly practicing other religions is considered as blasphemy, and even a positive critique of Islam may be viewed as a threat to the state and Islam.

While in Indonesia, interfaith marriages call for one partner to ceremoniously convert to one of the six acknowledged religious creeds. A Muslim man/woman can convert to their partner’s faith without any violation of law because Indonesia doesn’t have a law specifically devoted to apostasy. Indonesia does have a blasphemy law but it is very different from the Arab version. Article 156 (a) of Indonesian Penal Code prescribes a penalty of up to five years imprisonment for expressions or actions in public that have “the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion, adhered to in Indonesia” or are committed “with the intention to prevent a person to adhere to any religion based on the belief of the almighty God”. So Indonesia on one hand protects all religions but on the other hand disregards the proselytization of atheism, which may also change in the future.

Indonesia has generated some extraordinary progressive Muslim thinker-activists, men as miscellaneous as Tan Malaka, Haji Misbach, Tjokroaminoto, Agus Salim, Mohamad Natsir, Kartosuwiryo, Nurcholish Madjid, Dawam Rahardjo, Kuntowijoyo and Abdurrahman Wahid. With hardly any exceptions, their literatures have not been interpreted into Arabic or English, and their comprehensive philosophy for that reason never made the impression in other parts of the world. If an initiative is taken up to resuscitate these literatures, then it might have an optimistic influence in the Arab majority world.

Islamist groups have got acceptance from all corners of the Middle East because they have been looked upon as an insignia of resistance against dictatorial regimes, and extended a status of being “upright and untainted.” In Indonesia, religious associations have shaped progressive intelligentsias, who have upheld the perception of compatibility between religion and democracy. These public intellectuals have played a crucial role in Indonesia’s democratization procedure since they were linked to mass based religious organizations, and their participation in political society has helped legitimize democratic societies and reinforced pro-democratic coalitions.

Indonesia has always been secular and progressive in mustering the people towards education. The Islamic schools in Indonesia, for instance, use Islam as a foundation but mostly combined with progressive nationalism (as explained above “Pancasila”), self-sufficient funds and support for development and progress. Indonesia is known for the ritual of syncretic occult in Islam after a long custom of Hinduism in Java, for instance still today we can see very strong Hindu rituals socializing with Islamic practices and customs.

Indonesian version of Islam has been widely acknowledged as a vivacious rational discourse, and a noteworthy ingenuousness to alternative opinions and comprehensive recognition of religious diversity. Liberal and reformist trends, like the Indonesia’s Muslim feminist movements, are the most vigorous and miscellaneous. It has also been well-regarded in the secular sections of Arab majority world for their efforts on building a spirited alliance of women’s groups and individual activists taking up numerous women’s issues from grassroots to the legislative level. Unlike the case in the Arab majority world where the majority of Muslim feminist movements are “elite” leaning.

We have to concede that time and circumstances fluctuate, political philosophies vary, structures of economic elites contrast, arrays of civil-military relations vary, as do corresponding positions within the international system of power and authority, all to greater or lesser scopes. Yet, if the reformers in the Arab majority world want to generate a long-lasting change for the better, then emulating some of what has in reality worked out in Indonesia may be a place to start with.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the MPC Journal.

© Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal


Abhishek Mohanty

Abhishek Mohanty

is studying M.A Politics: International and Area Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is a Junior Research Associate at German Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance- Bangkok, Junior Researcher at Centre for Southeast Asian Studies- Jakarta, and Research Intern at Centre for Vietnam Studies- New Delhi. Research interests include critical analysis of foreign policies, regional and global issues of Indo-Pacific countries.
Abhishek Mohanty

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