Indonesia: Democracy, Islam do mix

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Cynics in the West argue that Islam and democracy don't mix.

Democracy can't work in a Muslim country like Afghanistan, they say, because of the dictatorial grip of the warlords. It won't work in Iraq because the country is in chaos. It won't work in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or the rest of the Arab world because of autocratic rulers and Muslim extremists.

Such critics in the US conveniently dismiss the presence of some 4 million to 7 million Muslims in their land who remain true to their religion but thrive under democracy and revere it. But even in predominantly Muslim nations there are examples of burgeoning democracy.

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One such nation - the largest Muslim country in the world - is Indonesia. Its 216 million people have survived colonialism under the Dutch, a slide toward communism under Sukarno, an abortive coup attempt that led to a nationwide bloodletting, years of corrupt dictatorship under Suharto, violent separatist upheavals and religious tensions, and a flurry of Al Qaeda-style terrorism.

By all measures, Indonesia should be an international basket case, difficult terrain for democracy. Yet with all its past turmoil, it is moving purposely through a complicated election process in which the once tender shoots of democracy are blooming healthily.

Earlier this month, Indonesians went to the polls in the country's first direct presidential election. A runoff between the two top candidates will take place in September. Hitherto, Indonesian presidents have been appointed by the legislature.

Megawati Sukarnoputri (daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno) who has served as president for the past three years, seems unlikely to survive the runoff. Her presidency has been a time of stability, but she has not been dynamic in addressing Indonesia's many problems. Her likely successor is a former Army general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won the most votes in the July 5 polls. He would be a welcome contrast to another former military leader, General Wiranto, who came in third.

General Wiranto is more controversial and has been indicted for crimes against humanity in East Timor. He would not be well regarded outside Indonesia, and apparently failed to get the support of most Indonesians. Support for moderates like President Megawati and General Susilo also underlines the electorate's disaffection with extremist Islamic candidates, who did not fare well. Not one of the top five candidates in the July 5 voting favored the introduction of sharia, Islamic law.

Despite some minor problems, the elections were fair and peaceful - 80 percent of the 153 million voters cast ballots. Former President Jimmy Carter was an observer, and pronounced the election fair.

Indonesia is known for its rather mellow pursuit of Islam, in contrast to the fervor found in many Arab countries. But Indonesians are capable of violent eruptions - against Christians, for example, and against a Chinese minority that often dominates trade and commerce and therefore arouses envy. However, though militant terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah - responsible for a bloody attack on a Bali nightclub in 2002 - have attempted to galvanize Islamist radicalism, the elections show no major shift in that direction and in fact underscore a commitment to moderation.

Clearly, nations with the greatest distance to travel on the road to freedom, are those with majority Muslim populations, especially in the Arab world. Yet as New York-based Freedom House points out, half of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live under democratically elected governments in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Even Arab states like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar are showing signs of openness.

We are still far from seeing a democratic revolution in the Muslim lands of the Middle East. But countries like Indonesia are currently disputing the cynical view that Islam and democracy must forever be in contention.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the 1967 Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Indonesia.

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