Democracy Lab

There is no Indonesia Model for the Arab Spring

Yes, Muslim-majority Indonesia has made a successful transition to democracy. But no, that doesn’t make it an example for the Arab Spring.

Many analysts of the Arab Spring have observed that the recent democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia echo what happened in Indonesia, another Muslim-majority country, in the late 1990s. These observers cite Indonesia's transition as a model or template for the countries of the Arab Spring. But the similarities between the three countries are deceptive.

Beginning with Suharto's resignation in May 1998 and ending with multiparty parliamentary elections held in June 1999, Indonesia -- like Egypt and Tunisia -- witnessed the dismantling of many of the institutional and political legacies of decades of authoritarian rule. As in Egypt and Tunisia, Indonesia's authoritarian New Order had also previously clamped down on Islamist opposition groups. When the New Order collapsed, Indonesia's Islamists were among the first to articulate a new vision for what Indonesian politics should become. Yet Indonesian Islamists have failed to capture either the mobilizational energy or the electoral following that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood have enjoyed overwhelmingly in North Africa. Whereas the first democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia brought Islamists to office, Indonesia has had three democratic elections since 1999, and Islamists have failed to make an electoral breakthrough in any of them.

The different trajectories of political Islam in post-authoritarian Indonesia, Egypt, and Tunisia show why there can't be an "Indonesian model" of democratic transitions in Muslim-majority countries. To be sure, new Muslim democracies in Egypt and Tunisia face similar challenges as Indonesia did when it emerged from authoritarianism. These include histories of rigged elections and managed oppositions, delicate relations with Western allies, large and visible non-Muslim minority populations (in Egypt), weak rule of law coupled with large and inefficient state bureaucracies, activist militaries with histories of political action, and many others.

But one major difference between Indonesia and its North African counterparts exists. Whatever the excesses of the brutal and corrupt New Order regime, Suharto presided over remarkable increases in the material well-being of the Indonesian people. By contrast, Ben Ali and Mubarak oversaw developmental debacles in Tunisia and Egypt: economic stagnation, ineffective development policymaking, and state decay. In such environments, Islamists thrive because their ideas resonate with a natural constituency of disenfranchised, disempowered, and frustrated citizens who expect more from their governments.

This is not a new argument. Three decades ago, Philip Khoury identified the "crisis of the secular state" as the root cause of what he termed "Islamic revivalism" in the Arab Middle East. The crisis of the secular state was fundamentally about the inability of nationalist and socialist governments in places like Egypt and Tunisia to deliver the development, material prosperity, and economic performance which they, as modernizing states, had implicitly promised their citizens. Islamic revivalism was a spiritual, social, and eventually political response to "state exhaustion." Islamist political thought contained both an explanation for the failure of secular development models (for they ignored or even betrayed classical religious principles) and a template for future political action. In various ways, Islamists around the world today use this vision for Islam as a political tool to promise a better life.

The key point is that these movements resonate most among communities for whom the secular state has failed: lower-middle classes, university graduates without jobs, new migrants from the countryside to the cities, and others. The electoral success of Islamists in post-authoritarian Egypt and Tunisia simply reflects the failure of these regimes to make people better off than they were before.

Islam and politics in post-authoritarian Indonesia is different because authoritarian Indonesia was different. If Egypt and Tunisia are case studies in state exhaustion and developmental stagnation, New Order Indonesia is a case study in economic transformation and social development. Under Suharto, female literacy rates skyrocketed and birth rates plummeted. Public debt remained chronically high in Egypt and Tunisia, whereas it was manageable in New Order Indonesia. But the Arab regimes' unemployment crises had perhaps the most devastating effects on the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Adult unemployment rates never exceeded 40 percent in Indonesia, even during the depths of the Asian Financial Crisis that ultimately drove Suharto from power. In Egypt and Tunisia, adult unemployment rates have exceeded 55 percent for more than two decades.

None of this denies that Suharto was ironfisted, brutal, venal, spectacularly corrupt...the list goes on. The New Order regime can rightly be charged with plundering Indonesia's economy and eviscerating public trust in state institutions -- although its predecessors (from the Dutch East India Company through to Sukarno's Guided Democracy regime) share part of the blame for the latter as well. Development under the New Order was certainly unequal, with only a fraction of the population able to benefit from gleaming new malls or international airports. Nevertheless, under Suharto, even ordinary Indonesians prospered in ways that they never had before. By the 1990s, when Indonesia joined the ranks of newly industrializing economies, millions of Indonesians could still remember the hyperinflation and polarized political atmosphere of the early 1960s. They could also remember how Suharto brought both to an end, the former through skillful macroeconomic management, the latter through the mass bloodshed that accompanied the extermination of the Indonesian left.

As a consequence, although Islam became increasingly visible in the Indonesian public sphere in the New Order's later years, this was a compliant, state-managed form of Islam. It was an Islam that supported the New Order regime's essentially nationalist (rather than religious or sectarian) foundations. Islamists either joined with the New Order (sacrificing their ability to serve as effective regime critics) or remained in the opposition (and subject to state repression). Groups patterned after the Muslim Brotherhood or drawing on tarbiyah movements made some inroads on university campuses and in urban areas, but that was it.

In turn, when Indonesia's 1997-98 economic meltdown ultimately drove Suharto from power, Islamists in Indonesia -- unlike Ennahda or the Muslim Brotherhood -- had neither a latent constituency hungry for an Islamic alternative to the New Order, nor the mobilizational networks needed to turn out voters at election time. Facing the regional Asian economic crisis rather than slow-moving developmental debacle, there was no particular reason for Indonesians who were angered by the abrupt end to decades of economic growth to think that a turn to Islam would solve their country's problems. It is no accident that even today, the image of the New Order as a period of dynamism, optimism, and material progress remains powerful for many Indonesians.

In sum, we should attend to the differences between the growth of political Islam in Indonesia versus Egypt and Tunisia. The crisis of the Arab secular states that Khoury first identified three decades ago had no counterpart in Indonesia. As a result, Islamists have never found the same mobilizational base there, and today, they struggle to present an alternative to mainstream non-Islamist parties in the democratic era.

The central implication of this argument about developmental debacles and the rise of political Islam is that authoritarian legacies matter. The idea of Indonesia as a template for other post-authoritarian Muslim states, or as a model that can be imported to understand transitions in the rest of the Muslim world, must be combined with an appreciation for the model's limits. In Egypt and Tunisia, priorities such as military professionalization, judicial reform, party system design, and others will usefully draw on Indonesia's experience, which has much to teach us about the likely course of these reforms during democratic consolidation and the various obstacles and challenges along the way.

But observers and practitioners also care about Islam in these new democracies, and understanding ideological cleavages in newly democratic polities requires a more nuanced analysis of the social and economic legacies of authoritarian rule. Islamist messages do not resonate the same way for all Muslims living under corrupt and repressive regimes, and the counter-hegemonic ideas that emerge under authoritarianism shape the movements that mobilize, and subsequently, their post-authoritarian electoral fortunes.

Note: This is an abridged version of a longer essay entitled “The Limits of the Indonesian Model.”


Against the Tides

As Pope Benedict XVI says his final farewells, how will Germans remember one of their own?

Eight years ago, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was proclaimed Pope Benedict XVI, a German tabloid ran the headline: "We are pope!" It was meant to suggest a special bond between Germans and the new pope -- the first to hail from Germany since Pope Adrian VI in 1522. And it was an expression of pride: Finally the Catholic Church was being run by someone whose own biography allowed him to relate to German concerns and sentiments. That's how it appeared then. But the relationship soon went sour: Disappointment turned into indifference, indifference into rejection. Last time he came to visit Germany's capital, in 2011, the pope's detractors gathered at night near his lodgings and tried to keep the old man awake by banging drums and playing trumpets.

Initially, the question of the pope's nationality was also taken up by commentators outside Germany. After all, here was a German who had once been a member of the Hitler Youth. The suspicion grew when he voiced his intent to bring back a reactionary Holocaust denier into the church's fold -- in 2009, Pope Benedict lifted the ban on Bishop Richard Williamson, who once said, "There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers" during the Holocaust. It seemed a little much. But the pope confronted his critics' somewhat superficial perspective head-on by placing himself, his testimonial, and his teachings at the core of his rule. During his visit to Israel in 2009 he stressed the "indestructible bond" between Jews and Christians and the need to fight against anti-Semitism with "all strength." Soon, assumptions about his attitude toward Judaism and position on the Holocaust appeared not only unjustified, but straight-out ridiculous.

The other assumption -- that a German pope would be a pope of the Germans -- turned out to be equally silly. The emphasis on his geographical background was little more than patriotic hubris; if anything, Pope Benedict's reign would contribute to the church's decline on the European continent, where only a quarter of the word's 1.2 billion Catholics reside. His time as the head of the church was marked by the rise of Christianity in Africa and Asia, where the faithful are less concerned about issues like abuse, homosexuality, and the ordination of female priests. But Pope Benedict failed to reconcile the rival impulses within his flock.

To be sure, the pope took up the matter of the declining Christian communities in Europe. During the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, he complained about "God's eclipse" in the West, railed against "aggressive forms of secularism," and warned that the disappearance of God from our lives would lead to a "derogative view of man." But his call did not lead to a rejuvenation of Europe's Christianity. In Europe, religious traditions are fading, while anti-religious sentiments in general are on the rise. The Swiss banned minarets, the French banned headscarves, and the Germans, of all people, banned -- briefly at least -- religious circumcision.

In Europe, the Catholic Church and Christianity, in general, face two challenging trends: secular apathy mixed with moments of anti-religious fervor, and the mighty social impact of Islam. The two trends are divisive, yet they have occasionally united people across faiths: The German debate about circumcision, for example, brought Jews, Christians, and Muslims together into a coalition, but the pope's 2006 speech at Regensburg University still remains contentious. In the speech, Pope Benedict XVI referred to a debate between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian and quoted the emperor's provocative words: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an association of 57 Islamic states, called the speech a "smear campaign."

The roots of this misunderstanding can be traced back to a conscious decision: From the start of his reign, Pope Benedict made clear that he wanted to spar theologically with Muslims. In his first encyclical, akin to a State of the Union address for popes, he described the Christian God of love as the radical antithesis of the entity that terrorists take to justify their acts. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant," he said.

Pope Benedict also faced a changing tide, one that threatened to move the epicenter of Christianity -- both demographically and texturally -- from the Vatican. He proved to be a stalwart defender of Christians' religious rights around the globe (especially in places like Iraq, North Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia) where worshipping Jesus can literally be life-threatening. But the persecution of Christians along with their growing ranks in places like Africa and Latin America has made the distinction between European Christians and Christians from other parts of the world less relevant. Christians are persecuted as Christians, not specifically as Catholics or Protestants. And while Christianity as a faith is growing in Asia and Africa, the newly established rites are often a mixture of Christian and local traditions. Increasingly, syncretic forms of Christian life are the global norm.

Back in Europe, however, the erosion of denominational boundaries had raised German Protestants' hopes for a renewed ecumenical push. Before the pope's historic visit to Germany in 2011, expectations ran high that he might rehabilitate Martin Luther, some 500 years after the church's schism. He did not. In ecumenical terms, the Vatican suddenly seemed closer to the Christian Orthodox Church than to the Protestant Church. Many in Germany, a country evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, saw it as an insult that a Bavarian pope would work to further divide Christians. 

During the pope's visit to Germany in 2011, the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung remarked that the "vehemence with which its spiritual head is being opposed is an indication of the church's strength." If only. The pope's decision to step down comes at a time of crisis for Catholics in Germany. Given the disorienting complexity of modern life, the erstwhile appeal of a morally unerring pope suddenly came across as dogmatic. In fact, on the same day that the pope announced that he was stepping down, German news shows were covering the story of a woman who had apparently been raped but was refused treatment in a Catholic hospital in order to avoid putting doctors in a position of advising about the morning-after pill.

Cold, narrow-minded, repellent: That is how the Catholic Church is perceived in Germany today. It may not be entirely the pope's fault, but he has also done very little to counter this perception. Joachim Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, recently complained of a growing "Catholic-phobia" in Germany, while Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, observed in an interview published Feb. 1 that there was a "pogrom atmosphere" against the church.

Pope Benedict felt comfortable as a thinker; the intellectual universe was his home. Whenever he spoke -- often inaudible, sometimes mumbling -- he managed to create fascinating spiritual paintings. Perhaps he was worn down by the politics of the Vatican; perhaps he was too spiritual for the terrestrial intrigues of power and influence. And perhaps he was worn down, too, by the fact that his message was least heard in the place closest to him biographically: Europe and Germany.

All this makes him look like a tragic figure: a man misunderstood, a solitary universalist, a man of letters but not of words. In a world that tends to confuse the quiet with the unimportant and noise with persuasiveness, he will be missed.

Stefano Dal Pozzolo - Vatican Pool via Getty Images