Islam and Democracy in Indonesia

Tolerance without Liberalism

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Jeremy Menchik
Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recent events in Indonesia surrounding the blasphemy trial and sentencing of the now former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in May of 2017 drew criticism from human rights organizations, Western media sources, and Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. This is not the first nor the last time that the issue of blasphemy and tolerance brings into focus the importance of the questions driving Jeremy Menchik’s book, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism. Menchik seeks to uncover what type of democracy Indonesia wants through extensive historical analysis, ethnographic investigation, and quantitative data. He artfully indicates how the formation of tolerance in Indonesia is historically constructed and based on the coevolution of religion and the state. This mutual constitution of religion and the state creates an Indonesian democracy driven by what he dubs “godly nationalism” and communal oriented tolerance.

In weaving the tale of the formation of Indonesian democracy that is not based on Lockean and Rawlsian visions of a liberal secular democracy, Menchik focuses on the coevolution of three Indonesian Islamic organizations—Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah, and Persis— and the state. Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the book as well as lay bare the theoretical underpinnings, findings, and research design of the project. Menchik’s project is based on extensive historical, ethnographic, and quantitative data and finds that NU is the most tolerant and Persis the least tolerant of the three Islamic organizations. All these organizations have also changed over time, Menchik points out, and grown less tolerant of Ahmadi Muslims and communists and more tolerant of Christians and Hindus. The explanation for the transformation of tolerance is not theological, says Menchik; rather the two mechanisms leading to these generalized conclusions are the “institutionalization of attitudes into policies” and “political alliance” which are traced throughout Islam and Democracy in Indonesia (22-23).

Chapter 3 displays how the original ethnic and religious cleavages in West, Central, and East Javanese society became institutionalized in Muhammadiyah, Nadhlatul Ulama, and Persis between 1880 and 1930. The formation of Muhammadiyah in 1912 Central Java was largely in response to the Islamic reforms of the Middle East and the Sultan’s Mosque in Yogyakarta. Muhammadiyah’s denigration of Christians through fatwas and their continued separation from traditionalist Muslims who associated with the practices of the Kraton were not as harsh as Persis in West Java. Persis emerged in 1923 as an organization more openly combative and critical of both non-Muslims and Christians. NU in East Java, on the other hand, worked with Christians as co-conspirators against the colonial Dutch and were opposed to the Middle Eastern Reforms that Muhammadiyah embraced. Christians of East Java as opposed to West and Central Java did not work with the colonial government; Menchik sees this as a defining factor for determining NU’s tolerance of Christians. The initial local relationships and history of interactions between Islamic organizations and others create social cleavages that become institutionalized in fatwas; this is reflected in Menchik’s quantitative surveys of contemporary views.

Chapter 4 flips the reading of intolerance towards the Ahmadiyya by looking at how intolerance is related to nation building. Menchik argues that godly nationalism, “an imagined community bound by a common, orthodox theism and mobilized through the state in cooperation with religious organizations in society,” is an alternative to liberal secular democracy as defined by Rawls and Locke (67). In this chapter, the social and religious cleavages are now being solidified in the governmental apparatus through the 2009 blasphemy court case, creating a godly nationalism that favors communal tolerance over minority rites that not only blurs the boundaries between the religious and secular, but rather indicates a different form of nation building.

Menchik uses three examples from recent Indonesian history (1945-1966) to argue for viewing the relationship between religion and the Indonesian state as mutually constitutive. Persis' growing tolerance of Christians during this period to defeat communist sentiments and bring religion into the public sphere, the creation of Balinese Hinduism as a monotheistic religion recognized by the state, and NU's involvement in the mass killings of 1965-66 all contribute to the way in which Islamic definitions of religion and the state's regulation of religion become intertwined.

The results of merging the historical realities and the firming of the relationship between religion and the state are reflected in the contemporary views of members of the three Islamic organizations. In chapter 6, Menchik’s rich survey data and analysis indicate the development of communal tolerance as the basis for the type of democracy Indonesian Muslims want. For example, in his surveys, NU and Muhammadiyah elites were more likely to support a Christian government official in an area that has a larger percentage of Christians, but not in a place like Aceh, which is almost exclusively Muslim.

Menchik’s illumination of an alternative to the Rawlsian vision of secular-liberal democracy operating in Indonesia challenges long held assumptions that place religion on the fringes of political science. He provides a different way of conceptualizing religion and politics that is productive for not only the field of political science, but also religious studies, area studies, Islamic studies, and Indonesian studies. His notions of godly nationalism and communal tolerance deserve further analysis and inclusion in other contexts outside of Indonesia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Edmonds is a doctoral student in religious studies working on contemporary Indonesian Islamic movements at the Arizona State University, 

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeremy Menchik is assistant professor of international relations at Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.



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