What’s Different About Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia

In both theory and practice, Islam has proven to be resistant to secularization, even (or particularly) in countries like Turkey and Tunisia where attempts to privatize Islam have been most vigorous. If Islam is exceptional in its relationship to politics — as I argue it is in my new book Islamic Exceptionalism — then what exactly does that mean in practice?

As Western small-l or “classical” liberals, we don’t have to like or approve of Islam’s prominent place in politics, but we do have to accept life as it is actually lived and religion as it is actually practiced in the Middle East and beyond. What form, though, should that “acceptance” take?

If Islam is exceptional in its relationship to politics then what exactly does that mean in practice?

First, where the two are in tension, it means prioritizing democracy over liberalism. In other words, there’s no real way to force people to be liberal or secular if that’s not who they are or what they want to be. To do so would suggest a patronizing and paternalistic approach to the Middle East — one that President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials, and not just those on the right, have repeatedly expressed. If our own liberalism as Americans is context-bound (we grew up in a liberal democratic society), then of course Egyptians, Jordanians or Pakistanis will similarly be products of their own contexts.

One should be suspicious of “models” of any kind, since models, such as Turkey’s, tend to disappoint. That said, there are good examples outside of the Middle East that deserve a closer look. Indonesia and to a lesser extent Malaysia are often held up as models of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, these two countries feature significantly more sharia ordinances than, say, Egypt, Tunisia or Morocco.

In one article, the Indonesia scholar Robin Bush documents some of the sharia by-laws implemented in the country’s more conservative regions. They include requiring civil servants and students to wear “Muslim clothing,” requiring women to wear the headscarf to receive local government services, and requiring demonstrations of Quranic reading ability to be admitted to university or to receive a marriage license. But there’s a catch. According to a study by the Jakarta-based Wahid Institute, most of these regulations have come from officials of ostensibly secular parties like Golkar. How is this possible? The implementation of sharia is part of a mainstream discourse that cuts across ideological and party lines. That suggests that Islamism is not necessarily about Islamists but is about a broader population that is open to Islam playing a central role in law and governance.

Islamists need secularists and secularists need Islamists. But in Indonesia and Malaysia, there was a stronger “middle.”

In sum, it wasn’t that religion was less of a “problem” in Indonesia and Malaysia; it’s that the solutions were more readily available. Islam might have still been exceptional, but the political system was more interested in accommodating this reality than in suppressing it. There wasn’t an entrenched secular elite in the same way there was in many Arab countries. Meanwhile, Islamist parties were not as strong, so polarization wasn’t as deep and destabilizing. Islamism wasn’t the province of one party, but of most. In a sense, Islamists need secularists and secularists need Islamists. But in Indonesia and Malaysia, there was a stronger “middle,” and that middle had settled around a relatively uncontroversial conservative consensus.

In Southeast Asia, then, democratization went hand in hand with Islamization. To put it more simply, where many assume that democracy can’t exist with Islamism, it is more likely the opposite. What distinguishes Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as their electorates, isn’t some readiness to embrace the gradual privatization of religion. The difference is that their brand of Islamic politics garners much less attention in the West, in part because they aren’t seen as strategically vital and, perhaps more importantly, because the passage of Islamic legislation is simply less controversial domestically. There has been a coming to terms with Islam’s role in public life, where in much of the Middle East, there hasn’t — at least not yet.

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Edition: July/August 2016
Filed Under: Global Affairs, Islam, politics