Muslim Democracy: Why Not Look to Indonesia?

John Owen has a recent essay at the Monkey Cage entitled “What history says about the prospects for Islamic democracy.” It makes the case that democracy is entirely feasible in Muslim countries, but it may be unlikely in the near future.

The West’s past suggest that, for a hybrid form of government to spread and flourish in a region, it must take hold in a large and influential country that interacts significantly with that region and is manifestly stable, secure and prosperous over time.

Those large and influential countries for the West were Great Britain and the United States. Owen is skeptical that such a country exists right in the Muslim world. Not even Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and a consolidated democracy.

Looking at the Middle East and its borderlands, it is difficult to find an exemplar of Islamic democracy. Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh are all majority Muslim democracies, but their interactions with Middle Eastern states are too slight to qualify them as exemplars.

I’m not sure how to parse Owen’s “interactions with Middle Eastern states are too slight.” A more pointed way to put it might be that Muslims in the Middle East don’t think that Indonesia counts.

Stark, perhaps. Yet, it helps us to focus on what Owen is really dealing with in his essay. Owen is not writing about Islamic democracy, he is writing about Middle Eastern democracy. The elision of Middle Eastern political issues with the foundational questions of Islam’s compatibility with democracy is common, of course. But we must be sure that we realize it when we see it. And to remember that when it comes to Islam and democracy, yes, Indonesia counts.

(For tangentially related writing on this topic, check out my recent essay “Political Islam and the Limits of the Indonesian Model” [PDF])

Comment 1

  1. dwayne woods June 8, 2015

    Interesting reflection; however, your take on Tunisia differs somewhat from Eva Bellin’s. Granted that her point of comparison was not Indonesia!!!!

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