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Islam and the Secular State

There is a popular misconception in the West that Indonesia is an Islamic state. Many assume that the Indonesian government is a form of theocracy akin to that found in Saudi Arabia, or (in principle) Iran. Although roughly 80% of Indonesia’s population identifies as being Islamic there are four other officially recognised religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism.

Even within Indonesian Islam there are multiple schools of thought – Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi, (and unique to the Island of Java) Abangan and Santri.

Despite a Muslim majority, traditionally, Indonesians of all faiths have held positions of power. Benny Moerdani for instance, a Catholic and former ABRI Commander-in-Chief, was arguably Indonesia’s second most powerful person during the late Soeharto era.

Even after the so-called Islamic Renaissance of the early 90s, support for an Islamic state remained a minority view. Support for secular government, increasingly solidified by the 2004 Presidential election, saw an overwhelming majority of votes delivered to religiously non-aligned parties.

Thus, despite what many think, Islamic Indonesians are not a homogenous entity. They have varying degrees of faith, different ideas about religion, and have twice voted in a secular government. Moreover, the same can be said about Indonesia’s other religious groups. Just because they are a minority does not mean that they vote strictly along religious lines.

Although there has no doubt been religious conflict in the past (most notably in Maluku and West Kalimantan) Indonesia is yet to be radicalised in the way the Middle East has. Even the province of Aceh a traditional religious hotspot has, since the 2005 MoU, joined the political mainstream.

Despite Western criticism, and the alarming trend towards Islamophobia, Indonesia continues to remain a religiously plural society. From this the world should take a lesson – it is possible for secular government to exist in a state with an Islamic majority.


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