A recent article by Amika Wardana was intriguing in its call for political Islam to adopt liberalism. The analysis also came at an interesting time where President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently stated that democracy had gone overboard as radicalism and liberalism had taken a toll on Indonesia’s identity.
Liberalism in the political sense is rooted in primacy of individual liberty often associated with Western thought deemed “not Indonesian” by more conservative thinkers.
President Jokowi’s statement certainly sparked concerns among many intellectuals. But it was a politically savvy move. His concern was mostly radicalism and the Islamist groups hijacking Indonesian Islam. But nowhere in recent Indonesian history had a leading politician dare to criticize Islamist groups for fear of being accused anti-Islam.
Hence, Jokowi’s statement saying democracy had gone overboard and including liberalism was a blanket statement to show that he was concerned with anything considered against “Indonesian nature.” His primary concern was apparently Islamist thinking that is deemed not in line with “Indonesian Islam.” However liberalism is also not necessarily something many Indonesian leaders and politicians think as being compatible with Indonesia either.
Herein lies the complexity of Indonesian democracy. The reality and roots of Indonesian society is much too complex to adopt liberalism. It also begs the question whether liberalism works for Indonesia.
There are two principal issues with the call for Indonesian Islam to adopt liberalism. First, can Islam, for that matter, political Islam, separate religion from the state?
It is impractical to ask political Islam to adopt liberalism — whose core difference with conventional political Islam is the separation of church/mosque and state and also individual versus communal/ group rights.
Second, is liberal individualism acceptable to more traditional societies like Indonesia?
Jeremy Menchik, in his works on political Islam in Indonesia, showed clearly the “Asian way” of communal rights over individual rights to be the prevailing mindset within Muslim leaders and groups. Mindsets take generations to change. These two points alone makes the exhortation for political Islam, even in Indonesia, to adopt liberalism, to be an impossible task — at least within this generation.
Does this relegate Indonesia to a “backward” religious society that is behind the West? Not at all. Indonesia has, and can continue, to function well in finding a good balance between Islam and democracy without adopting the liberal political philosophy of the West.
Alfred Stepan’s work on the “Twin Tolerations” is a good framework for the Indonesian context. Secularism in the Western theoretical sense is a “myth” to an extent. Hard secularism like in France, or even Turkey before President Recep Tayip Erdogan, is not ideal for very religious societies.
Hence Stepan called for differentiation rather than separation between the public sphere and the religious sphere. Each society will find and fine-tune its balance and separate what is acceptable and what is not between the religious and public spheres.
Indonesia has much experience in dealing with these spaces. For example, although interreligious marriages, apostasy, and now, non-Muslim leaders, are somewhat frowned upon, our history shows those issues are acceptable and did not cause widespread violence against the involved individuals, compared to areas like the Middle East.
It is only in the past 10 to 15 years that these issues have become more problematic.
Public debates often highlight the loud-mouthed radical groups utilized by politicians for political and economic purposes. But at its roots, Indonesia is very much an open, pluralistic, and harmonious Muslim majority society.
What the government and Muslim leaders of major groups like the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah need to do is not necessarily adopt liberalism. What needs to be done is to spread counter narratives on what Indonesian Islam is rooted in, and what is not conducive for Indonesian democracy.
Second, political interests can never be disentangled, but there needs to be a clear differentiation on what is acceptable by Indonesian democracy, on which is compatible with Islam or not.
The hot issue now regarding non-Muslim leaders in majority Muslim areas is a delicate problem. It is perhaps legitimate from a religious standpoint to have a scriptural interpretation that claims Muslims should not vote for non-Muslim leaders.
But so far in a number of regions it is equally acceptable and legitimate to have Muslim leaders in Christian majority areas as well as Hindu/Buddhist areas.
Can groups with narrow interpretations justify their existence in Indonesia where both the Constitution and reality allow for leaders from minority religions to lead in regions dominated by those of another faith?
Is it politically and even legally correct for religious leaders and politicians to exhort their constituents to vote only for those of the same religion?
In the end, Indonesia may not yet be ready for liberalism in the Western sense. It may not even need to adopt it wholesale. Paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Indonesia may not need to necessarily go where the path leads, it can go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. It can consolidate a democracy with its own natural fabric.