Thu, 24 Jul 2003

'Democracy can thrive with Islam'

Muhammad Nafik, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Fears of religious extremism in Indonesian politics have become quite strong following recent terror attacks, but it should not pose a threat to the fledgling democracy in the predominantly Muslim nation, analysts here said on Wednesday.

They believe that Indonesia will survive the struggle for democracy and be able to withstand the challenge by Islamic militants, given their relatively tiny minority within the country.

Rizal Sukma, a director of studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the emergence of several Islamic parties campaigning for the implementation of sharia law should not be perceived as a serious challenge to the frail democracy here.

"Those who support the agenda of sharia through constitutional means remain a tiny minority group," he told a three-day seminar on Islamic militant movements in Southeast Asia, organized by the Center for Languages and Cultures at the State Islamic University (UIN).

He said public support was very low for Islamist ideas, although Indonesia is home to a majority of Muslims.

This could be seen through the results of the 1999 elections, in which the parties that advocated sharia law -- the United Development Party (PPP), the Crescent Star Party (PBB) and the Justice Party (PK) -- seized less than 15 percent of votes in a total, Rizal added.

The three parties had sought the inclusion of the Jakarta Charter to the amended 1945 Constitution in a bid to promote sharia in the country, but failed in their struggle at the People's Consultative Assembly as major political groups opposed the idea.

Opposition also came from the largest mainstream Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which embrace a moderate brand of Islam and support the idea of democracy.

However, Rizal said supporters of sharia law should not simply be branded "militants" as long as they went about it in a peaceful, constitutional way.

Bachtiar Effendi, a lecturer from Jakarta's UIN, was of a similar opinion that political Islam would not be detrimental to democracy.

"As long as Islam is being used only as a party symbol, then its impacts on the structure of the country's politics are insignificant," he said.

He claimed that political Islam did not necessarily mean authoritarianism, and that a symbol is merely a matter of human necessity.

"If one party employs the politics of symbolism, one cannot jump to a conclusion that such a party will automatically resort to reactionary methods," he added.

After the downfall of authoritarian, but secular, president Soeharto in 1998, Indonesia saw a number of Islamic political parties, including the major ones -- PPP, PBB and PK -- grow in strength. However, they have no structural links with other extremist groups such as Laskar Jihad and the Islam Defenders' Front (FPI).

Laskar Jihad was notorious for sending Muslim mercenaries to fight Christians in Maluku, while many FPI leaders have been formally charged with vandalism following dozens of violent raids on gambling dens and bars that serve alcohol.

Both of the militant groups have essentially the same goal as the major Islamic parties -- to struggle for the enforcement of sharia in the country.

Speaking at the same seminar, American scholar Elizabeth Fuller Collins acknowledged that a more extreme version of Islam was a growing force in Indonesia due to a large population of young people facing economic difficulties.

She added that the people's hopes, for democracy to bring about a better future, were being undermined because of widespread frustration with President Megawati Soekarnoputri's government, which includes a lack of support for true reform and increasing corruption.

Rizal gave another reason to believe that Indonesia would remain resilient to the challenge of religious extremism and said the majority of Muslims did not see Islam as contradictory to democracy.

American democracy and its political process, with some qualifications, still is a source of inspiration for many key moderate Muslim leaders, including NU's Hasyim Muzadi and Muhammadiyah's Syafii Maarif and scholar Nurcholish Madjid, he added.

Moreover, Rizal said the growth of extremist discourse was not without a countermovement from within the Muslim community.

The challenge included the establishment of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) by a number of young moderate Muslim thinkers led by Ulil Absar Abdalla from the 40-million strong NU. Related story on Page 2