A period of discouragement has followed the heady early days of the Arab Spring, when mass demonstrations eventually led to the election of the first democratically elected government in Egypt and popular movements seeking to bring reforms flourished throughout the Middle East. Today, after a military takeover in Egypt and with Syrians caught between Islamic State militants and the dictatorial government of Bashar al-Assad, some may wonder about the prospect for expanding political freedoms in the Middle East.

But it would be unwise to make simplistic or stereotypical assertions about the compatibility of Islam and democracy in the midst of these unfolding events. As this month’s overview from the celebrated Indonesian journalist Endy Bayuni makes clear, two of the largest Muslim-majority nations in the world are prospering under democracy. Die Demokratie in beiden Ländern hat sich trotz oder wegen des Aufstiegs des politischen Islam gefestigt, notes Mr. Bayuni, a Nieman scholar much in demand as an international analyst and speaker.

It is impossible to predict the future. Martial law was imposed in Poland even as powerful coalitions of religious and secular forces continued their efforts that helped lead to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. How many secular and religious martyrs lost their lives in Latin America in the long transition from military rule to democracy in nations throughout the region?

What we can do is contribute to understanding by looking at each nation individually, and the historic, economic, political, cultural—and religious—factors that shape current events.

We hope you find Mr. Bayuni’s article, and the resources that follow, to be helpful.

Democracy and Islam: The experience of Indonesia and Turkey

Democracy is paying handsome dividends, in terms of peace and prosperity, in Turkey and Indonesia. Though far from perfect, their democratic political systems, with guarantees of freedoms and basic rights commonly found in liberal democracies in the West, make them models for other nations still struggling, many violently, for representative government.

Democracy has been taking roots in Turkey and Indonesia in the last decade or so, marked by the rise of civilian rule that is subject to checks and balances while once-politically active and powerful military forces are increasingly being confined to the barracks. Both countries have periodic general elections considered free and fair by international standards, ensuring that powers are always kept in check and that those who govern account for their actions before the people.

The most important message for the Muslim world from this political narrative is that democracy has ensured unprecedented political stability to allow them to develop their economy. With it comes world recognition. Indonesia and Turkey have become important players in their respective regions. Both are now members of the Group of 20 largest economies in the world.

In Turkey and Indonesia, democracy and development are mutually reinforcing goals. And their successful experience with democracy could give answers to the questions about the compatibility between the values and teachings of Islam and the main tenets of liberal democracy.

By embracing democracy, the two countries have reconciled the key question asked by Muslims: Should sovereignty be in the hands of God or the people? The answer is both. The representatives who are elected and trusted by the people hold the sovereignty on behalf of God. This separates Indonesia and Turkey from the Islamic republics like Iran where real powers rest in the hands of the mullahs, or the Gulf kingdoms where kings and sultans hold absolute powers.

Indonesia and Turkey have experienced the tide of conservatism sweeping across the world and all major faiths. Indonesia, where almost 90 percent of its 250 million people are Muslims, is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. In Turkey, all but 1 percent of its 76 million people are Muslims. But as society becomes more conservative, they have managed to keep the state secular, a salient point for any democracy to function effectively.

Democracy in both countries has strengthened in spite of, or because of, the rise of political Islam. Political parties that run on religious agendas are growing in strength as they capitalize on the greater political freedom and openness, but they are limited as in any democracy by the strength of their opposition.

Turkey has not seen another military coup since 1997. In Indonesia, the military rule effectively ended with the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998.

In both countries, religious political parties and civil organizations parties were part of the democracy movement.

The two paths to democracy

In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since winning the parliamentary elections in 2002, and again in 2007 and 2011. Party leader Recept Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister since 2003, won the first direct presidential election in August 2014. The AKP is the reincarnation of the Islamist Welfare Party (WP), which won the 1995 elections but was subsequently banned by the constitutional court for disturbing Turkey’s secular order. The AKP has openly dropped its Islamic identity, portraying itself as a social conservative party.

It was the AKP (and WP before it) that led the democracy movement enabling it to earn the chance to govern since 2002. Politics sensitive to Islamic principles appeals to many among the increasingly conservative population, particularly when moral religious values are played up against the historically corrupt secular body politics. By winning all three elections held since 2002, the AKP has been able to introduce measures such as restrictions on sales of alcohol, but failed in an attempt to criminalize adultery. How far it can push this agenda is limited by the aspirations of the people. Turkey has remained by and large a secular state.

In Indonesia, the religious political parties, long excluded from the government, have been able to push some of their agenda by joining the ruling coalitions since democratic elections were introduced in 1999. Previously under Suharto, political parties were not allowed to campaign on religious platforms. Dozens of Islamist political parties have since emerged, but only four made the electoral threshold to win representations in parliament. Among the major religious parties are the Justice Welfare Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP), both of which have openly campaigned for a theological state; and the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the National Awakening Party (PKB), which campaigned more on moral issues.

In contrast to Turkey, the democracy movement in Indonesia is led by civil society organizations, including Islamic groups, rather than the religious political parties. Two mass-based Islamic organizations deserve a mention: Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, both having built large followers and influence through running schools (madrasah), hospitals and programs to help eradicate poverty. Their huge influence is recognized as the main factor that has kept Islam in Indonesia moderate and tolerant, a role that they will continue play under a more democratic Indonesia.

Nahdlatul Ulama ventured into politics by creating its own political party, PKB, when Indonesia opened up politically after 1998. Unlike their counterpart AKP in Turkey, PKB and the other Islamist parties that have emerged since then found limited appetite for their agenda among voters. Their combined votes in the last four democratic elections never exceeded 20 percent.

Following the general elections in 2014, Indonesia saw the appointment of its fifth elected president in the last 16 years, while control of the parliament constantly changed hands primarily between different secular parties. The religious parties have won enough votes nevertheless to join the ruling coalitions and to exert some influence in helping to shape democracy in Indonesia.

The future

Given the growing role of Islam in both Turkish and Indonesian societies, it is unlikely that the evolving democracy will turn them into complete secular states as happens in the West. Instead, both countries have developed their own style of liberal democracies imbued with Islamic values. Freedoms, human rights and dignity are not the monopoly of the West. They are also virtues taught in Islam, and they underpin the democratic political system evolving in Turkey and Indonesia.

It’s also too early to conclude that the democratic experience in Turkey and Indonesia have been successful or are sustainable. All indicators so far are encouraging. Democracy remains a work in progress. They are not without their challenges that could unravel all the gains made. As Egypt’s short-lived experience of democracy shows, these nations could easily turn their back on democracy.

Turkey still needs to deal with the long-running insurgency movement by the ethnic Kurd minority. The long years of the AKP ruling has led to growing discontent, primarily from the urban population, as shown by the massive violent street protests in Istanbul in 2013. Accusations of corruption and collusion fly, and freedom of expressions comes under pressure with the jailing of journalists amidst growing controls of the media by the AKP government under Erdogan.

Indonesia is also facing problems on several fronts, including its failure to protect the rights of some religious minorities, a low level insurgency in the easternmost province of Papua, and impunity of the military for past human rights abuses.

The real test of democracy for both Indonesia and Turkey will be if they can resolve these long standing problems through the democratic procedures rather than by force.

The rise of Turkey and Indonesia to become regional powers of the last decade or so came with the democratization process not seen in other Muslim-majority nations. They have established civilian rule in place of the military, provided greater guarantees of freedom and basic rights, and introduced periodic free and fair elections to choose their leaders. The role of Islam is growing, even politically, but both nations essentially remain secular states.

In the absence of any alternative systems, liberal democracy remains the best chance for these two countries, probably for other Muslim-majority nations, to guarantee peace and prosperity. At least, the past decade has proven so.

Mr. Bayuni is senior editor of Die Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s leading independent English-language newspaper and a founding member of the International Association of Religion Journalists.


  • Nationale ARDA-Profile: Hier finden Sie religiöse, demografische und sozioökonomische Informationen zu allen Ländern mit muslimischer Bevölkerungsmehrheit und mehr als 2 Millionen Einwohnern. Spezielle Registerkarten für jedes Land ermöglichen es den Nutzern außerdem, die Religionsfreiheit in der ausgewählten Nation zu messen und die wichtigsten Teile der Verfassung zu lesen, die sich auf die Religion beziehen.
  • ARDA Nationenvergleich: Vergleichen Sie detaillierte Messungen zu Themen wie Religionsfreiheit und religiöse Demografie für bis zu acht Länder.
  • International Maps: Visually compare countries throughout the world on issues such as government favoritism of religion and religious persecution.
  • Comparative Values Survey of Islamic Countries: The Comparative Values Survey of Islamic Countries examines the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of individuals in fifteen nations with Islamic majorities. Representative samples of each nation’s population are surveyed on their opinions regarding religion, politics, gender roles, well-being and numerous other issues.
  • Pew Global Attitudes Survey: Most Muslims Want Democracy, Personal Freedoms, and Islam in Political Life.


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