The astonishing popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have mesmerized the world and spawned many analyses about their meaning. For an Indonesian observer who watched his countrymen overthrow an entrenched military dictatorship, the upheaval has a familiar ring. Indonesia, too, is a predominantly Muslim country, the most populous among Muslim-majority nations – and its experience since the 1998 revolution shows the fight ultimately will be not between Islamic and secular models, but between liberal and autocratic styles of governance.
For the past two months, young men and women from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have taken to the streets, demanding basic rights that people in many other countries around the world take for granted. They want freedom, justice, free and fair elections.
In Tunisia and Egypt, long-time dictators capitulated to the people-power movements. In Libya, the regime has unleashed brutal military force in a desperate bid to quell the rebels. The monarchies in Jordan and Bahrain, and the Palestinian Authority and Yemeni government are making concessions to defuse tensions.
The protesters are Muslim, or certainly the majority is, and no one should brand this a secular movement. Who is to judge if they are devout or not? Not the imams and clerics who long turned a blind eye to violent practices of the regimes. It’s significant that in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the Egyptian revolution, protesters launched “the day of rage” and “the day of departure” to pressure President Hosni Mubarak to leave after they held mass Friday prayers. That is as Islamic as the protests ever got in Egypt and in other Arab countries that followed.
The protesters can be as religious as the next person. What set them apart from their elders is their craving for freedom, including individual freedom – considered by some in the Arab world and outside as liberal values and anathema to Islam. Many want freedom bad enough to die for the cause.
Noticeably absent from these protests is the use of Islamic symbols. The majority of these Arab countries have their share of Islamist movements, operating underground or in exile. During the uprising, these have mostly kept silent, contributing little or nothing to the movements. The Islamic Republic of Iran, after congratulating the protesters in Egypt for their successful revolution, quickly and brutally quelled its own uprising. The Iranian government’s response dashed suggestions that Iran might offer its Arab neighbors and predominantly Muslim societies any viable model of democracy.
While Islam may be the common denominator among young Arabs, the protesters did not exploit religion in the way Iranians did in 1979. Nobody is making any claim for the moral high ground. The issue does not come up. The biggest factor drawing the protesters together was not religion or economic hardship, but the fact that all had led suppressed lives for too long.
The quest for freedom, human rights, justice, free and fair elections driving them to the streets are the basic principles of a liberal democracy political system. The term, however, is not part of the Arab political lexicon, not even now after the uprising. The notion is considered a Western if not a Christian import. Liberalism, which underpins such a system, is inappropriate to the traditions and cultures of the Arab people. Some have even claimed that Islam is incompatible with democracy. The best that the Arab people could hope for, in their view, is an illiberal democracy.
The uprisings took everyone by surprise because they defy a long-held myth about the Arab political culture. The conventional thinking is that Arabs are content to live under an absolute monarchy or a dictator because the alternative is living under a strict theocratic state run by mullahs. Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban and Sudan are the only models available for an alternative Islamic state. The chaos and near anarchy of today’s Iraq and Afghanistan with electoral democracy has only strengthened the belief in some quarters that liberal democracy is unsuitable for the Arab people and not a real option.
If they’re not interested in an Islamic state, but are nevertheless rebelling against regimes that had supposedly protected them from the powers of the mullahs, what do the protesters want? Are they condemned to two alternative political systems because of their religion and culture? Isn’t there another option, one that provides guarantees for their freedom and basic rights? After paying a dear price for freedom, they surely won’t give it away to a new form of dictatorship.
Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation in Southeast Asia that underwent a similar revolt in 1998, sheds light and some hope about what could evolve in Egypt and Tunisia in the coming years. After deposing strongman Suharto, the nation began its path of democracy with a series of political reforms. Four presidents and three democratic elections later, Indonesia is a stable and functioning democracy on the fringes of the Muslim world.
Its political system is run along the principles of a liberal democracy, though due to the Western/Christian connotations, it is not called such. Its multiparty elections include a plethora of political parties with a range of ideological platforms. Islamist parties, banned under Suharto, now openly campaign for an Islamic state or the introduction of the sharia, the Islamic law. At the other end of the political spectrum, there are the labor and socialist parties that campaign chiefly on the overthrow of Indonesia’s capitalist economic system.
In the 2009 election, 44 political parties contested in the polls. Nine made it to the national parliament, three of which ran on Islamist platforms. The Islamists are not in the top three, which went to secular-nationalist parties. This suggests that political allegiance of the majority of Muslims in Indonesia, who make up nearly 90 percent of its population of 240 million, is with secular parties rather than with the parties that claim to represent their religion.
The combined share of the votes of the Islamist parties in the three democratic elections held since 1999 have not exceeded 25 percent. Political Islam is a fact of life in a country with a large Muslim population, and there will always be constituents who cast their votes to Islamist parties. In Indonesia, where religious parties must contest with other ideologies at the polls, their appeal is limited. The best they can hope for is to become junior partners in a coalition government.
The political contest in a modern and predominantly Muslim nation like Indonesia is not so much between Islamism and secularism. Political Islam is actually confined to the margins. The real political contest is between parties that can best guarantee freedom, justice, governance, accountability and prosperity. Voters, the majority of them anyway, are not swayed by heavenly promises from the Islamist parties.
The similarities in the nature of the uprising between Indonesia in 1998 and Egypt and Tunisia this year – from the absence of Islamist slogans to the demands for traditional liberal values – make it irresistible to suggest that the liberal democracy has a chance to work in the Arab world. It’s certainly a system that can guarantee the freedoms and rights that young Arabs desire.
Endy M. Bayuni is a visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and former editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post. Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online