Dec 07, 2023 Last Updated 1:42 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Making democracy work, Islamically

Making democracy work, Islamically
Published: Dec 08, 2007

Indonesia’s Muslim educators support democracy, but grapple with how to make that commitment consistent with Islamic law.

Robert W Hefner

Islamic schools have a formative influence on many young Indonesians.
Credit: Robert W. Hefner

Ever since the Taliban rolled into Kabul, Afghanistan on 26 September 1996, many people have asked whether Islamic schools are the fount from which contemporary Islamist radicalism flows. In the weeks following the departure of Indonesia’s authoritarian President Suharto in May 1998, political observers expressed similar concerns about Indonesia’s Islamic schools. Just days after Suharto’s departure, dozens of Islamist paramilitaries, many with ties to Islamic boarding schools, sprang up in towns across the country. Many launched ‘sweeping’ campaigns, looking for alleged purveyors of drugs, alcohol, and sex, as well as young women unfortunate enough to be found out and about without a head scarf. In several locales, militias engaged in street-battles with Christians, democracy activists, and even the local police.

More than anything else, however, it was the October 2002 terrorist bombings of a beachfront pub in south Bali that pushed concerns about Indonesia’s Islamic schools to a new high. Students from an Islamic boarding school in Lamongan, East Java were eventually convicted of the crime. They and several of their teachers were shown to have ties to the al-Mukmin boarding school in Central Java. Al-Mukmin is the boarding school founded by Abu Bakar Ba`asyir, a senior Islamic scholar who is widely thought to have served for several years as the spiritual leader of the terrorist organisation, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). For some Indonesian observers, facts like these confirmed that at least some of Indonesia’s Islamic schools had been turned into training camps for terrorist militants.

The forward-looking mainstream

However, Islamic education in Indonesia is nothing if not varied, and its central streams look little like the radical fringe. With some 11,000 Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) and 36,000 Islamic day schools (madrasah), Indonesia has one of the largest Islamic educational sectors in the world. A full 13 per cent of the country’s elementary school population receives their primary education in Muslim day schools. More than twice that number take evening or weekend religious classes at Islamic schools. About one per cent of Indonesia’s Islamic schools might be described as socially radical, and the number that seems inclined to support militant violence is no more than a few dozen.

Far more representative of the educational mainstream, then, is Indonesia’s system of State Islamic Universities (UIN, IAIN). Under the leadership of Mukti Ali - who was Minister of Religion from 1971-1978 - Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion undertook an ambitious modernisation of the state Islamic colleges, which had been formally established in 1960. Today, every student admitted to the state Islamic university system fulfills divisional studies requirements that begin with courses on Islamic history and contextualising methodologies for the study of Islam. With their undogmatic emphasis on alternative interpretations of key historical events, these courses use methods similar to those in comparative religion programs in the West, but rarely used in higher education in other Muslim countries.

Since the early 2000s, seven of the state Islamic universities have begun a far-reaching restructuring that includes establishing new faculties in non-religious fields like medicine, psychology, general education, and business. No less surprising, since 2004, all students entering the state Islamic system have been required to take a civics course which introduces students to the ideals of democracy, civil society, and human rights. No where else in the Muslim world do Muslim colleges provide comparable instruction on democratic values. One reason this is so significant is that the state Islamic college system acts as a cultural broker for new ideas and programs to most of Indonesia’s 47,000 Islamic schools.

Democracy and God’s law

The question these broad-minded reforms raise is whether the democratic values being promoted in the state Islamic system are in fact representative of general cultural currents among Muslim educators. In an effort to examine Muslim educators’ views on Islam and democracy, in early 2006 I worked with staff at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta to carry out a survey of 940 Muslim educators in 100 madrasah and Islamic boarding schools in eight provinces in Indonesia. The survey had 184 questions, the aggregate results of which are too complex to present here. But even a summary overview of the educators’ views is revealing.

Indonesian Muslim educators’ ideas on democracy are neither formalistic nor crudely majoritarian; they also extend to subtle civil rights.

The most interesting of the survey’s findings concern educators’ views on democracy and syariah, or Islamic law. An impressive 85.9 per cent of Muslim educators agree that democracy is the best form of government for Indonesia. In surveys of Muslim public opinion in other countries, analysts have greeted results like these with scepticism, claiming that the concept of democracy respondents had in mind is just majority rule, with little concern for another of democracy’s key ingredients, civil and minority rights. The Indonesian survey, however, had a battery of questions designed to get at these latter points. The results confirm that Indonesian Muslim educators’ ideas on democracy are neither formalistic nor crudely majoritarian. In fact, the educators’ views extend to subtle civil rights.

These rights include support for the idea of equality before the law (94.2 per cent of educators agree); freedom to join political organisations (82.5 per cent); protections for the media from arbitrary government action (92.8 per cent); and the notion that party competition improves government performance (80 per cent). These figures are as high as comparable data collected by the World Values Survey for Western Europe and the United States.

If this was all there was to educators’ attitudes on Islam and democracy, the results would be brightly optimistic indeed. However, educators’ views on democracy are not stand-alone. They co-exist with an almost equally strong commitment to syariah. For example, notwithstanding the strength of their commitment to democracy, 72.2 per cent of the educators believe the state should be based on the Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) and guided by religious experts. A full 82.8 per cent of educators think the state should work to implement syariah. Support for syariah wobbles on a few points. For example, it drops to 59.1 per cent when the regulation in question concerns the amputation of thieves’ hands, or government efforts to require performance of the Ramadan fast (only 49.9 per cent agree). On these matters, at least, some educators seem to have second thoughts about a too-literalist implementation of the law.

Nonetheless, when asked whether inobservant Muslims should be allowed to serve in the National Assembly, 74.3 per cent of educators feel they should not. A full 64.4 per cent agree with ongoing campaigns in Indonesia to implement Islamic law. On matters of women and non-Muslim religious minorities, we see a similar tension between educators’ enthusiasm for democracy and their commitment to syariah. Some 93.5 per cent of the educators believe that a non-Muslim should not be allowed to serve as president. A full 55.8 per cent feel that women should not be allowed to run for the office. Some 51.3 per cent feel that women do not have the intellectual capacity to serve as judges. About 20 per cent would bar non-Muslims from teaching in public schools; a similar percentage want to ban non-Muslims from performing religious services near the neighborhood in which the interviewee resides. Twice that percentage would bar non-Muslims from erecting houses of worship in the same area. In short, on three matters – gender, non-Muslims, and the place of Islamic law in government itself – the educators’ do not appear to be particularly tolerant.

The sacred and the practical

We see in these survey data, then, the tip of a larger problem for Muslim politics and public ethics. The Muslim educators’ stated commitments to democracy, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press are about as strong as anywhere in the democratic world. However, on religious matters, Indonesian Muslims are not secularist liberals. Where a democratic principle runs up against an issue on which syariah is seen as having something to say, most educators feel that they must defer to syariah. At times this deference results in judgments that many observers, including most Muslim theorists who write on democracy, would regard as undemocratic.

However, in the complex circumstances of actual life, the tension between syariah and democracy does not appear to be as clear-cut as these survey data initially indicate. However strong educators’ support for syariah, most do not vote for parties dedicated to implementation of Islamic law. An additional battery of interviews that I carried out with 200 educators between 2004 and 2007 revealed that fewer than 30 per cent said they had voted for an Islamist party advocating the implementation of syariah, and fewer than 10 per cent voted for parties advocating the law’s immediate implementation.

Does this mean that the data indicating broad support for syariah are inaccurate or, alternately, that Muslim educators are hypocrites? The discrepancy between the survey data and electoral choices can be interpreted in several ways, but, based on my interviews, I think it reflects two primary influences. First, the discrepancy shows that Indonesian Muslims do indeed believe that syariah is God’s direct and sacred guidance for humanity. Rejecting syariah amounts to rejecting God’s commands. That is something most educators are not prepared to do.

Most Muslim educators affirm the importance of syariah but want its implementation to be consistent with justice and fairness.

Second, and some might think paradoxically, this idealised commitment to syariah does not result in most Muslims making immediate implementation of the law their first political priority. Some interviewees pointed out that syariah can only be implemented in its entirety when a fully just social order is in place (which may be a very long time indeed). Until that time, stoning adulterers and amputating thieves’ hands is just not consistent with the broader conviction that syariah is supposed to be a blessing for humanity. Whereas conservative Islamists insist the meaning of the law is clear and unambiguous, some interviewees pointed that it is in fact neither, but requires continual contextualisation.

Rather than agreeing with the radical Islamist claim that syariah is the key to solving Indonesia’s problems, then, most Indonesian Muslim educators seem to engage in a subtle rational calculus as to the proper approach to the law’s enactment. They affirm the law’s importance, but are keen to make sure that its implementation is consistent with their general ideas on justice and fairness.

If this conclusion is correct, it means that the educators’ commitment to syariah is sincere, and a social fact that all political analysis must acknowledge. But the commitment coexists with an equally significant recognition that tackling the practical challenges of modern government and society requires effective empirical measures, not just vague invocations of the benefits of God’s law. Parties or actors that can demonstrate that implementing syariah can solve practical problems may yet be able to tap this otherwise amorphous reservoir of support for God’s law. But those that simply repeat that the law is a panacea for all society’s problems will not necessarily be rewarded for their views.

Inasmuch as attitudes like those of the educators are widespread in Indonesian society (and other surveys indicate that they are), these findings suggest that Muslim Indonesians are likely to continue to grapple for some time to come with the question of how to balance the ideals of syariah with those of democracy. At times the effort may give rise to ‘culture wars’ as intense as those that have taken place in the United States and other Western countries over the proper place of religion in public life. What is certain is that the results of this ongoing debate will have serious implications for the culture and practice of Indonesian democracy.     ii

Robert W. Hefner ( ) is Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. He is the author of several books on Indonesian Islam, including Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton, 2000) and the recent volume (co-edited with Muhammad Qasim Zaman), Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education (Princeton 2007).

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

Latest Articles

Apakah Prabowo “fit and proper”?

Dec 06, 2023 - PAT WALSH

Dari tiga pria yang mencoba menjadi presiden berikutnya Indonesia, satu orang menonjol, dan bukan karena alasan yang tepat.

Is Prabowo fit and proper to be Indonesia’s next president?

Dec 04, 2023 - PAT WALSH

Of the three men who seek to be Indonesia’s next president one stands out, and not for the right reasons.

Prabowo's record in need of review

Dec 01, 2023 - EDITOR

Letter to the Editor

Feminists and LGBT


Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Concerts for cash

Oct 27, 2023 - MICHAEL H. B. RADITYA

Indonesia has a plan to boost the economy through large-scale arts, cultural and sporting events, but are they ready?

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.