Indonesia: Essay: "Is secularism a choice?" by Ali Noer Zaman

Common Ground News Service
"Indonesia in the post-Suharto era has maintained the Pancasila, a political ideology comprised of the belief in one God, humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice. However, demands for the implementation of shari'a remain audible..."
"During his one-month visit to Indonesia between July and August 2007, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a Sudanese Muslim intellectual who now teaches at Emory School of Law in the United States, campaigned for Muslim countries to adopt a secular system of governance. In this system, the state is not based on specific religious teachings, whose interpretations, he argues, are monopolised by the authority. The state would also not intervene in the religious beliefs and practices of its subjects, with the possible exception of donating aid to religious institutions.
An-Na'im disagrees with the efforts of those political and social organisations that champion for the adoption of shari'a, a political system based on Islamic principles. He believes that shari'a is based on time-bound religious interpretations from scholars of previous eras. These antiquated interpretations have many shortcomings, such as the relegation of women and non-Muslims to the role of second-class citizens in society.

Indeed, the debate over secular versus Islamic states in the Muslim world is not a new one, and has raged on since the abolishment of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. In Egypt, the Islamic scholar Ali Abdul al-Raziq provoked controversy with his book Islam wa Ushul al Hukm (Islam and the Fundamentals of Government), in which he stated that the main message of the Prophet Muhammad has to do only with religious matters, while mundane affairs are relegated to the ummah (Muslim community). He rejected the unification of religious and administrative affairs under the control of a caliph who serves as a successor to the Prophet.

It is likely not by chance that An-Naim chose to make this speech in Indonesia, a country with a long history of secular nationalism that still struggles with calls for the implementation of a state governed by religious laws.

Sukarno (1901-1970), the first president of the Republic of Indonesia and a secular nationalist, was the first Indonesian Muslim leader who triggered the discourse on the separation of religion from politics, rejecting Islam as political ideology, and preferring secular democracy as a foundation for the country's government. For him, Islam within a secular state would not be marginalised, but would instead function as the moral force of the Muslim community.

In response, Muhammad Natsir (1908-1993), an Indonesian scholar known for his Islamist orientation, believed that Islam and the state are inextricably linked; the first being an ideology of the second. In practice, the state has to be controlled by the Muslim authority because it is a medium through which to implement Islamic orders, such as those regulating zakat (alms), religious marriage and the banning of alcohol and adultery.

As Suharto's New Order administration (1967-1998) reinforced modernisation, the Muslim community in general suspected it as having a hidden agenda to mitigate the role of Islam in socio-political life. To get out of the deadlock, the young thinker Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) made a breakthrough by proposing the idea that Islamic values could be realised through spiritual and cultural development. Categorising Islam as a political ideology would only trap the religion in political interest conflicts. In his words: Islam, yes; Islamic political parties, no.

Indonesia in the post-Suharto era has maintained the Pancasila, a political ideology comprised of the belief in one God, humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice. However, demands for the implementation of shari'a remain audible as many Muslim social organisations seek to integrate facets of shari'a by hiding them within an amendment to chapter 29 of the 1945 constitution, which says that the Muslim community should practice its religion fully and through local regulations.

In a 2002 national survey conducted by the Centre for Research of Islam and Community at Syarif Hidayatullah State University, Indonesia's Muslim community also demonstrated growing interest in an Islamic state. In this study, for example, 71% of respondents supported the implementation of shari'a in Indonesia. However, it is worth noting that only 33% agreed with cutting off a thief's hand as punishment for stealing, which some would argue is a quintessential example of shari'a at work. These findings indicate that though the majority of respondents diverge in their understanding of what shari'a, would look like.

In addition, the result of the democratic elections of 1999 and 2004 suggest that the majority of Indonesians are still loyal to nationalist secular parties such as the Golkar Party, also known as the Party of the Functional Groups, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of the Struggle, instead of Islamic-based parties such as the United Development Party and the Prosperous Justice Party.

Also, a national poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute earlier in October revealed decreased support for Islamic radical organisations such as the Jamaat Islamiah, Defenders Front for Islam, Indonesian Hizbut Tahrir and the Indonesian Martyrs Council for a variety of reasons, including the lack of financial resources and the incapability to translate Islamic values into socio-political movements.

If these polling results are any indication, Indonesia is unlikely to become an Islamic state anytime in the near future."

23 October 2007

Ali Noer Zaman is a writer on socio-religious issues. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)