Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim country by population (with over 200 million Muslims constituting a demographic of just under 90 percent of the population) -- is often held up as an example of a modern, moderate Islamic democracy.
Indeed, this is precisely how David Cameron -- the current UK prime minister -- characterized Indonesia in a visit to the capital Jakarta back in April, addressing students there with the following remarks: "The people of Indonesia can show through democracy there is an alternative to dictatorship and extremism. That here in the country with the biggest Muslim population on the planet, religion and democracy need not be in conflict."
But is this conventional wisdom accurate? To begin with, it is worth noting that as of this year, Indonesia is still denoted "Free" by Freedom House, scoring (on a descending scale of 1 to 7) 2 for political rights and 3 for civil liberties. A report by the think-tank from last year affirmed, "Indonesia is an electoral democracy. In 2004, for the first time, Indonesians directly elected their president and all members of the House of Representatives (DPR), as well as members of a new legislative body, the House of Regional Representatives (DPD)."
These elections -- as well as direct elections for regional leaders that began in 2005 -- have generally been judged free and fair. In addition, Freedom House declared that "Indonesia is home to a vibrant and diverse media environment."
However, these points do not make Indonesia a model of democracy and civil rights for the Muslim world.
To begin with, consider the case of Aceh, an autonomous region of Indonesia in the far north of Sumatra. Aceh rigorously enforces aspects of Islamic law that curtail civil liberties. For example, the sale of alcohol is banned and those caught gambling are subjected to caning. Further, there is a special Islamic police force in the province known as "Wilayatul Hisbah" that oversees observance of a dress code, targeting women wearing shorts or seemingly tight trousers.
Debate also continues over whether adulterers should be beaten publicly -- as is the current practice -- or subject to the punishment of stoning. In fact, the question of whether Islamic law is enforced strictly enough was a talking point behind the election of the provincial governor back in April. The incumbent Irwandi Yusuf, who opposes stoning for adultery, lost out to Zaini Abdullah, who promises to introduce a "purer" form of Shari'a to the province.
It should be noted that Abdullah was a former rebel leader in the Free Aceh Movement, which waged a 30-year insurgency campaign against the central government. Autonomy and local elections came as part of a peace agreement in 2005.
Yusuf, who was elected governor for a five-year term in December 2006, has always been seen as a maverick among the rebel movement that has since morphed into the Aceh Party, which is described by the International Crisis Group as an "autocratic, almost feudal party that brooks no dissent." With the rise of Abdullah, who is strongly backed by the Aceh Party, the latter can consolidate its power in the province.
Aceh was probably the first area in what is now Indonesia to adopt Islam. The Sultanate of Aceh that emerged in 1496 always had a reputation for religious observance and fierce independence. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was renowned for its pirates who regularly conducted raids against Thailand, besides attacking European and American trade convoys in the straits of Malacca. This was one of the motives behind the eventual Dutch conquest of Aceh in 1913.
As scholar and adviser on colonial affairs Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje noted in his work The Acehnese:
From Mohammedanism (which for centuries she [i.e., Aceh] is reputed to have accepted) she really only learnt a large number of dogmas relating to hatred of the infidel without any of their mitigating concomitants; so the Acehnese made a regular business of piracy and man-hunting at the expense of the neighboring non-Mohammedan countries and islands, and considered that they were justified in any act of treachery or violence to European (and latterly to American) traders who came in search of pepper, the staple product of the country. Complaints of robbery and murder on board ships trading in Acehnese parts thus grew to be chronic."
Now, it could be argued that Aceh is only an anomaly in Indonesia. To be sure, the sale of alcohol is allowed elsewhere in Indonesia. In addition, it would be wrong to generalize and claim that Islam as practiced in Aceh is the same across the entire country.
For instance, on the island of Java, which is home to the country's capital of Jakarta and has a population of 138 million, the conversion from Islam to Hinduism was for many only a nominal process, unlike Aceh. Consequently, they practiced a rather syncretic form of the religion, and in recent years there has been to a certain extent a Hindu revival in Java.
Nonetheless, the overall trend is pointing in a negative direction with respect to treatment of religious minorities. In February of last year, a Christian man was convicted of "blasphemy" against Islam and sentenced to five years in prison. For Islamists in Java, this punishment was not enough, and in a subsequent rampage they attacked members of the Ahmadiyya sect that affirms its Muslim identity but is deemed heretical by most orthodox Muslims. At the same time, two churches were burned and a third razed to the ground.
To take another example, in May of this year, on the outskirts of Jakarta, a Muslim mob threw stones and bags of urine at a church on Ascension Day: the culmination of an intimidation campaign that had begun in January.
One could go on (a Christian center burned by a mob believing that a new church was being built in violation of traditional Islamic law), and the problem is that the government has failed to protect religious minorities, with violence against them on the rise.
For concrete statistics, one need only look at a Guardian report from last month, which points out that "last year, the local Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace recorded 244 acts of violence against religious minorities -- nearly double the 2007 figure."
The Guardian article, which focuses on the case of a civil servant facing a prison sentence for posting "God doesn't exist" on Facebook, also points to the Indonesian Communion of Churches, which says that around "80 churches have been closed each year since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took power in 2004, and an additional 1,000 congregations have faced harassment."
This is exactly reminiscent of the security forces' behavior not only in what is now East Timor but also in the Maluku Islands in 2000-2002, where many Indonesian soldiers cooperated with the Islamist militant group Laskar Jihad's campaign against Christian Melanesians that killed up to 10,000 Christians.
The trend towards increasing intolerance was also noted by the liberal Muslim writer Irshad Manji, who faced harassment multiple times during her recent book tour in Indonesia to promote her book Allah, Liberty, and Love, which has now been banned in neighboring Malaysia.
Compared with much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as countries like Pakistan, Indonesia is distant from Islamist theocracy. It should be noted that many of the reports linked to above come from Indonesian outlets like the Jakarta Post. This indicates a commendable degree of press freedom that is by contrast being increasingly eroded in Turkey, which is also upheld as a model for the Muslim world but leads the globe in the number of imprisoned journalists.
Nevertheless, the recent trends in Indonesia point to an environment increasingly intolerant of religious minorities and civil liberties: not only in Aceh, but also the nation in general.
Observers often point to an influx of Wahhabi clerics from the Middle East as the cause, but in my view one should also bear in mind that what Daniel Pipes terms the "Islamic revival," which began in the 1970s on a global scale, is deeply rooted in issues of identity and cannot simply be put down to oil revenues flowing into Saudi Arabia, has not quite run out of steam.
In sum, one cannot put it any better than the headline of an op-ed by Andreas Harsono in the New York Times: Indonesia today is "no model for Muslim democracy."
Update from June 6, 2012: Today comes a report in the Jakarta Post, in which an Indonesian think-tank called Charta Politika discusses encroachment of Shari'a into local politics, mentioning the specific case of the city of Taskimalaya in West Java that will soon require all Muslim women - visitors or residents - to wear veils. Again, it should be emphasised that the secular trend that was certainly apparent in the early 1970s is being reversed.
Update from June 7, 2012: In light of Zaini Abdullah's upcoming term as governor of Aceh (described by the Shari'a police as someone who "very much supports the enforcement of Islamic law"), there is going to be a ban on sales of tight clothing.