A Mosaic of Islam, Democracy and Modernity in Indonesia
The face of Indonesia has dramatically changed in the past decade. Often dubbed as a thriving exemplar of democracy, Indonesia has now been able to standing tall amongst democratic nations of the world.
Simultaneously, Indonesia successfully emerges from the havoc of economic crisis that hit the entire region in late 1990s. Today, harnessed by strong exports, vigilant domestic consumption, as well as sound and viable fiscal and monetary policies, its economy is amongst the most vibrant and far-reaching.
What makes it so unique about Indonesia is not so much about democracy or its rapid economic development. It is truly about the underlying story beyond its venture towards democracy and economic prosperity.
It is at all about a soul-searching journey of a country where more than 150 million Muslims call it a home. Indeed, as a home to the largest Muslim population on earth, Indonesia’s successful transformation to become the world’s largest democracy is indeed a story in itself. In the modern history of nation-state, and by the standards of growing suspicions amongst civilizations and culture that was underpinned by waves of violence, Indonesia’s face of Islam, democracy and modernity is indeed soothing.
What is the nature of Islam in Indonesia?
In terms of religious teachings and the fundamental of faith (aqeedah), Islam in Indonesia is no different from that of Islam in other places, the Middle East alike. As a monotheistic religion, Islam is widely understood and well practiced as the religion of peace. Islam came to the archipelagic Nusantara (ancient lands of Indonesia) through various ways and from various places, mostly South India, Persian, and Southern Arabian Peninsula.
Islam was spread though the words of merchants and scholars, who were able to blend in and mixed well with the local predominantly Hindu and Budhist societies, as early as 13th century. Just in the span of seven centuries, there are more Muslims in today’s Indonesia compared to the entire Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam.
From the outset, pluralism has always been the nation’s religious spirit. One theory illustrates that such spirit stems from the geographical nature of Indonesia, where the country is rightly situated between Asia and Australia, and between the two world’s oceans, the Pacific and the Indian. It allows the local inhabitants to receive constant influences from all places through trading and economic activities, and adapt well to it. Yet, such a theory should be coupled with our objective understanding on the nature of religious teachings.
At its core, Islam, like other religions, always puts a special respect for diversity. It also embraces tolerance and care for others.
But those two factors—geography and foundations of religious teachings—while necessary and important, are inadequate to explain to true face of Islam in Indonesia today. We need to take another important element into our account, and that is the Muslim in Indonesia itself.
Here we are talking about the devoted, pious, and enlightened Muslim scholars who gained their prominence through their moderate interpretation and moderate voice of Islam. Their message is clear: while differences are indeed facts of life, one should not resort to violent means to settle their squabble. Harsh and bloody bickering would only suffer the Ummah any further. And as history has shown us, we have more than enough examples of how social fabrics were disrupted only by strict interpretation of religion.
Indonesia is fortunate to having moderate Muslims and Islamic organisations that form the majority of its body of Islam in the country. The works of the Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadyah, two largest Muslim organisations in Indonesia, in the promotion of unity, prosperity and tolerance, are indeed commendable and exemplary. Even in the early formative years of the Republic in 1945, despite their strong influence over our national politics, moderate Islamic leaders at that time, gave their consent not to make Indonesia an Islamic state. And at the subsequent stages of our statehood, the question of Islam and the state remains at the realm of constructive dialogue, leading to a deeper mutual understanding on the role of state to ensure the harmony and tolerance amongst peoples of different faiths in Indonesia.
The majority of Muslims in Indonesia is convinced that the difference(s) within and across faiths should be settled through intensive dialogue. This provides a strong rationale for Indonesia to take an active role in promoting inter-faith, inter-civilization, and inter-cultural dialogues with our friends and at all levels, including with the United Kingdom, among others, through the establishment of the UK – Indonesia Islamic Advisory Group in March 2006.
Arguably, settling differences in a peaceful manner is not the biggest problem that everywhere Islam is facing nowadays. All conflicts and collisions in the name of religions may have something to do with malicious sense of religiosity or simply wrong and contending interpretations of the religions concerned. While many perceive radical groups such as Al Qaeda as proponent of violence, Indonesia does not rely much on the military might nor does it resort to the use of gross violent means to subdue it. Instead, we strengthen the moderate Muslims and strengthen their voice of moderation.
We in Indonesia continue to strengthen our education system, and enhance the modern curriculum of our Madrasahs (Islamic boarding schools), while restlessly improving the welfare of and justice system for our peoples. Anger simply derives from ignorance, hunger, injustice and madness. Hence, we must not fail to address them in a comprehensive and sensible manner for the stake is too high.
We simply believe that Islam, democracy and modernity are panacea to the social problems that often disrupt our social harmony and threaten our national unity. And they are the true face of modern and transformed Indonesia today and in the future.