September 21, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Islam & Liberty Alive in Jakarta

The lack of freedom and democracy in the Muslim world is one of today's most pressing foreign-policy challenges.

In fact, of the 47 Muslim majority nations worldwide, only 11 are electoral democracies - a mere 23 percent.

The situation in the Arab world is far worse. Of the 16 Arab Muslim countries, none are electoral democracies. (Whereas, 82 percent of the world's 191 countries are considered democratic to varying degrees.)

Add to the mix a lack of press freedom and less-than-free market economies in many Islamic lands, and what do you get? Stifled opportunity, arrested development, the rise of radicalism and the specter of terrorism.

Of course, many Muslim rulers and clerics argue vociferously that democracy and Islam are simply incompatible. This assertion is utter nonsense.

The strongest argument to the contrary is hard evidence: Lo and behold, the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, went to the polls on Monday to elect a president for the first time in - what appears to be from initial reports - a free and fair democratic election.

Just six years after throwing off the 32-year yoke of Indonesian strongman Suharto, Indonesia has gone from autocracy to democracy. A remarkable - and highly unanticipated - political transformation.

It might sound flippant, but in some ways, it doesn't matter who wins the Indonesian presidency. The mere fact that this giant Southeast Asian nation of 240 million people (87 percent Muslim) is voting in a democratic election is a major victory for freedom - and, more importantly, the Muslim world.

After today, no one can say that Muslims can't be political pluralists. In fact, some Islamic scholars have long argued that the Koranic principle of shura (consultation) was the Prophet Mohammed's endorsement of democratic ideals.

Others in the Muslim anti-democracy camp will say that Indonesian Islam, which came to the vast 17,000-island archipelago via India, is different than the brand of Islam practiced by Middle Eastern Muslims.

True: Islam, like other religions, isn't monolithic. But this misses the point. Indonesia, a Muslim nation, proves empirically that Islam - based on the very same Koran - can be secular, tolerant and democratic.

To their credit, insightful Indonesian Islamic activists and intellectuals sought - and found - democratic values within the teachings of Islam. By doing so, the success of the Indonesian democratic revolution dispels the long-held myth that democracy and Islam cannot thrive together.

Heavy-handed, autocratic Muslim rulers have also justified their tight grip on the political reins because of the threat of terrorism. But that argument is contradicted by Indonesian fact.

Yes, Indonesia has a terrorism problem. It's the home of al Qaeda's Southeast Asian franchise, Jemaah Islamiya - perhaps Osama bin Laden's largest terrorist spin-off. Jemaah Islamiya is responsible for the infamous October 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, which killed more than 200, mostly Australians (and seven Americans.) And just two weeks ago, it set off a bomb outside the Australian embassy here, killing nine locals.

But did Indonesia roll back political freedoms to the repressive Suharto days after the terrorist attacks? No. Using the rule of law, it cracked down on terrorists (arresting more than 100 and convicting more than 70) and pressed forward with successful, democratic national parliamentary and presidential elections. (Russia should take note.)

Although the winner is still uncertain as results roll in from 585,000 polling stations, the presidential candidates, Megawati Sukarnoputri (sitting president) and Bambang Yudhoyono (former security minister), waged a spirited campaign, emphasizing counterterrorism, anti-corruption, judicial reform and economic development.

Fortunately, Indonesia has recognized what others in the Muslim world haven't: Freedom, democracy and open markets are strong antidotes to radicalism and terrorism.

By increasing economic opportunity, giving people a stake in the political process and improving the quality of life, these principles of liberty undermine the attraction of militancy, hatred and violence.

Democracy is on the march, taking root in 156 nations across the globe. Political freedom is a universal value and the right of all mankind - including the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

No, Indonesia's democracy isn't perfect - but it's flourishing. And if democratic ideals can flourish here, they can prosper anywhere in the Islamic world - including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, was in Indonesia to monitor the presidential election. E-mail:peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post