Jeremy Menchik, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Fredrick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, was recently interviewed on his book Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance Without Liberalism.
Menchik was interviewed for a September 11, 2017 article on Ta’Seel Commons entitled “An Interview With Jeremy Menchik On His New Work, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance Without Liberalism.”
From the text of the article:
Why did you write this book?
My book stems from frustration with the most common approaches to Islam, tolerance, and democracy. Instead of asking whether Islam is compatible with democracy, my book investigates the more important (and less polemical) question: what kind of democracy do Muslims want? Instead of asking whether Indonesian Muslims are tolerant, my book investigates the historical and political conditions that engender tolerance and intolerance. Most important, to me, is that my book explains what tolerance means to the leaders of the world’s largest Islamic organizations and challenges the assumption that liberal modes of tolerance are necessary for making democracy work. Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism demonstrates that Indonesia’s Muslim leaders favor a democracy in which individual rights and group-differentiated rights converge within a system of legal pluralism, a vision at odds with American-style secular government but common in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
In investigating the kind of democracy that Indonesians want through the use of archival research, quantitative surveys, interviews, and ethnographic observation, your book indicates that Indonesia wants a type of communal tolerance not based on Lockean senses of liberalism. How do you see your findings in reference to the ‘conservative turn’ indicated by Martin van Bruinessen and picked up in popular discourse?
I agree with Martin van Bruinessen and others that conservatives such as the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, Front Pembela Islam, and Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia have become more vocal and visible since democratization. As van Bruinessen rightly notes, the conservatives set the terms for debate and social change in Indonesia. This is a contrast with the 1970s and 1980s when more liberal voices such as that of Abdurrahman Wahid from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Syafii Maarif of Muhammadiyah were the most prominent voices of Indonesian Islam.
As the same time, however, my research suggests that Abdurrahman Wahid and Syafii Maarif were never accurate representatives of the leadership or members of NU and Muhammadiyah, let alone representative of Indonesian Islam writ large. Based on surveys with contemporary leaders of NU and Muhammadiyah, as well as historical material on the attitudes of past leaders, I suggest that Indonesian moderates are not liberal in their views about tolerance or democracy. They are mostly tolerant and support democracy, but a variety of democracy that is very different from the liberal and secular political institutions of Western Europe and the United States. Also, their tolerance does not extend to the most difficult issues like a Christian holding the presidency, or building a Church in an overwhelmingly Muslim village. Indonesian Islamic organizations seek a state and society where each recognized community has religious freedom, but is not free to interfere in the faith matters of others. In that sense they support communal tolerance rather than individual tolerance.
So my findings suggest that Indonesian Muslim’s conservatism is the norm rather than a turn. Or, in other words, we are witnessing a ‘conservative return’ to the modal attitudes of moderate Muslims.
Jeremy Menchik’s research interests include comparative politics, religion and politics, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. At Boston University he is a member of the graduate faculty of political science and coordinates the MAIA program with specialization in Religion and International Affairs.