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Indonesia's presidential elections
and the move to democracy
in the Islamic world



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

September 15, 2004

LONDON - The two big wings of Islam -Turkey in the West and Indonesia in the East - are reforming and changing at a lightening pace, confounding those who only measure Islam by its seemingly stagnant middle ground. Next week Indonesia goes to the polls for its final round in a presidential election that so far has been largely free, courteous and non-violent. Turkey continues with reforms that began in Ataturk's day in the 1920s but which have recently accelerated under its relatively new Islamist government that is determined to meet all the criteria for entry demanded by the European Union.

In fact the countries that contain the largest numbers of Muslims- Turkey (70 million), Indonesia (240m), Bangladesh (114m) and India (121m)- are all liberal minded and democratic. All have populations that overwhelmingly reject the terrorist jihad. All prefer their women uncovered. All find the rigidity of Islamic belief as exhibited in the many smaller countries of the Middle East as both archaic and uninformed theologically. For them it is the ballot not the bullet that counts.

The Indonesian election tells us a lot. It is only six years ago that Indonesia overthrew its strongman, Suharto. Democracy did not take root easily. The country was ripped apart by separatist and religious violence. Two years' ago terrorists with links to Al Qaeda set off a bomb in a Bali nightclub killing 200 people. Even last week they showed they were still around with their blast outside the Australian embassy.

Most of Indonesia is now peaceful. The terrorists have not gained traction, indeed the reverse. Its president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, now fighting against a former general for re-election, may be no great administrator or visionary but under her the country has found both a sense of peace and a return to economic progress.

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If one is of a mind one can paint Islam as the sire of most contemporary wars, as the repository of economic backwardness and as antipathetic to democracy. But a more truthful picture is quite different. When there are elections in Muslim countries voters for the most part- even in Pakistan- reject parties that sympathize with the extremists. Countries, like Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan which have convinced themselves that elections will bring to power radical Islamists overlook what seems to happen in an open electoral arena- the softening of the edges and the strengthening of the moderates. They are not Weimar republics about to elect extremists.

Turkey is the best example of this process. For decades the military establishment, which believes it has a sacred duty to preserve the secular precepts of Ataturk, opposed the very idea of the coming to power of an Islamist government. When one was finally elected, as part of a coalition in 1996, it didn't take the generals long to force it to step down. Yet all the while Turkey's electorate has been modernizing its outlook. As it has become more educated, as women have taken more important jobs, including the premiership, as the interaction with Europe has become more intense, as the media has become more open, the electorate decided to face the generals down and elect in 2002 a modern Islamist government, one that was avidly pro Europe and also, even more important, that was dead set against the corruption of the anciens regimes. To outsiders it may seem something of a contradiction that a vote based on these two concerns should be pro Islamist. But this is because outsiders have an idée fixe about Islam. They overlook the reformation that is well under way in its most populous and best-educated countries. Being Islamist can mean being modern whilst eschewing corruption and cheap sensuality. Rationally speaking, by the criteria of any religion, the over-sexualisation of Western culture is hard to defend. We shouldn't pause to wonder why earnest young girls are drawn towards the headscarf.

The West has overreacted by protesting so loudly about the bill now before the Turkish parliament to outlaw adultery. Apart from the fact it is unlikely to pass, it is very much a reaction against a still pervasive macho culture that allows men to get away with everything whilst women, especially in the countryside, can be shunned for the rest of their lives if caught out in an extramarital relationship. The important thing about Turkey is that these sensitive issues are now out in the open to be debated passionately.

Next Monday the most populous state in the Islamic world will remind us that democracy is alive and strong among Muslims. There really is no sign that the Islamists will exploit freedom to impose a loss of freedom. Muslims desire democracy for the same reason the West does - the chance, if they want, to throw the rascals out.



Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:



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