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Democracy the right choice over theocracy

Thang D. Nguyen, Jakarta

As Indonesia turns 62 this month, Indonesians should be proud of their nation's democratic transformation.

Since 1998 when strongman Soeharto was toppled, Indonesia has become a rising democracy. With free elections and a democratically selected government, Indonesia is, in fact, the world's third-largest democracy, after the U.S. and India.

But what makes Indonesia's democratic transition outstanding is that it has taken place in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Amid global debates on whether Islam and democracy can coexist, this transition has, indeed, been an inspiring success story.

Although most Indonesian Muslims are considered moderate, radical, hard-line Islamic groups do exist in Indonesia, and they are not happy with the country's democratic change.

What these groups want, instead, is a theocratic state, an Indonesia that is ruled by sharia, or Islamic law. And to that end they have made numerous attempts.

In 2002, for instance, a motion to institute sharia in Indonesia was put before the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), but it was rejected.

This Aug. 12, 90,000 Muslims gathered at Jakarta's Bung Karno Stadium for the International Caliphate Conference. This was the second conference by Hizbut Tahrir, a global Islamic organization whose mission is to build an Islamic state throughout the world.

During the event, the group blamed democracy as the main reason why Indonesia is lagging behind other nations.

"What has democracy brought us?" asked Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, spokesperson of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a chapter of two million members. "Democracy only brings us secular policies, like what's happening nowadays (sic)."

But, seriously, what can theocracy, or sharia, bring to Indonesia, where 39 million people live in poverty and 22 million others are still unemployed?

And if sharia is the key to Indonesia's, or any other country's, problems, why is it that the Islamic world is so far behind the West and other non-Muslim countries in economic development and other spheres?

To be sure, if we take a good look at the Islamic world today and ask ourselves which countries are peaceful, prosperous and advanced, we can only name a few: Brunei, Malaysia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

As for the rest, some are either at war with a foreign country or in a civil war, e.g. Iraq, while others face the threat of terrorism masterminded and launched by homegrown radical Islamic groups, e.g. Indonesia.

Ironically, this is the Islamic world that is 1.3 billion strong and has the biggest oil reserve in the world, among a wealth of other natural resources. And, lest we forget, this is the same Islamic world that was the most powerful, advanced and enlightened civilization at one point in history.

Unfortunately, as the West developed and gained dominance following the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, the Islamic world continued to live in its once-glorious past and gradually fell behind.

And as the development gap between the West and the Islamic world has widened, Muslim groups, such as Hizbut Tahrir, have put the blame on democracy as the cause of all the wrongs in the Islamic world.

Some other groups, such as al-Qaeda, have taken a more extreme view, calling the West the enemy of Islam. Thus, they have turned to jihad as the way to fight against the West, particularly the U.S. and its allies, in defense of Islam.

This is certainly the case of the al-Qaeda-linked Jamaah Islamiyah (JI). With its links and operations across Southeast Asia, the JI has been responsible for major terrorist acts in Indonesia, namely the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005; the Jakarta JW Marriott blast in 2003; and the attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta right before the 2004 elections.

As we have seen, violent jihadism is no solution to poverty, backwardness and other problems that Islamic countries are facing today; in fact, it has done more harm to Islam and Muslim-majority nations.

In the JI attacks, for instance, most of the victims were innocent Muslim Indonesians. What is more, these attacks have damaged Indonesia's global image, investor confidence and tourism industry.

But most importantly, these attacks have darkened the good name of Islam.

In a nutshell, such jihadism is no way for Indonesia, or any other Muslim-majority nation, to overcome its national challenges and move forward.

Likewise, instituting sharia, as Hizbut Tahrir would have you believe, is not the answer to Indonesia's problems either.

To be sure, democracy may not be the best political system in the world. Or, as the former British prime minister Winston Churchill put it: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

So, until Indonesia finds a better form of government, it had better stick with democracy.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at

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