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Reformasi in the Islamic world?

By Roger Smith - posted Friday, 10 April 2015

Countless columns and analyses have been written about events in the Middle East and broader Islamic world over the past 12 months. Most have been darkly focused on the atrocities committed by various terrorist groups claiming to represent a jihadist-orientated view of their religion. Almost certainly, the last 12 months has been a benchmark time in how Islam and Islamist groups are perceived in the wider world. Reaction to these events would rightly lead many observers to a gravely pessimistic view on developments where Muslims comprise a majority of the population.

While this pessimistic view is at first glance justified, in reality, as witnessed by the Jordanian and secular Arab street response to the heinous murder of its air force pilot, Egypt's reaction to the slaughter of its Christian citizens as well as Tunisian reaction to the Bardo Museum killings, we are perhaps tantalisingly close to seeing the flickerings of something more nuanced.

In the country where the world's largest number of Muslims live, we paradoxically witnessed in 2014 developments that would have appeared wildly optimistic-even in the heady post-Cold War days of 1990s. In what was arguably the largest single day free and fair election ever held anywhere in the world, on Wednesday, 9th July 2014, an energised electorate, over 85% Muslim, voted in an explicitly pro-reform, pro-tolerance candidate with a reputation for clean administration over his autocratic rival.


Unlike their Egyptian counterparts in 2011, a majority of Indonesians did not vote for Islamist parties in 2014. But just as significantly, and again unlike their Egyptian counterparts in 2013, neither did they vote for a former military authoritarian figure when presented with that clear choice in the case of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. In fact, in the days following that now famous pro-Jokowi vote, a grassroots civil society movement known as 'Kawalpemilu' or 'guard the election' was organised to record polling booth results on citizens' smart phones and then tally them so as to prevent the ballots being tampered with. And indeed they succeeded! Observers overwhelmingly accept that the 53% to 47% vote in favour of President Jokowi reflected voting intentions. From the villages of Java to the suburbs of Canberra, literally millions of Indonesian housewives, workers, farmers, students, professionals and expatriates mobilised online to safeguard their hard won freedoms. Nothing more tellingly illustrated both the dynamism of Indonesia's civil society and its digital literacy!

Although not as numerous as those professing more fundamentalist views, there are in the country with the world's largest number of Muslims, voices radically at odds with Daesh's brutal and backward world view. There is a Liberal Islam Network and even We should also not forget that one of the world's largest Muslim cities Jakarta is, in fact, run by a highly respected and democratically elected Christian mayor of Chinese descent, Mr Ahok. This highly inclusive, pluralist and democratic Islamic world deserves our respect and attention as much as the horrors of northern Syria and Iraq.

Recently in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo atrocities, I undertook a journey through another place that is often somewhat patronisingly lumped along with Indonesia in the ranks of so-called 'moderate Muslim' countries. Indeed, Morocco and Indonesia despite their locations at opposite ends of the Islamic world do share a lot in common.

There is the same striking hospitality and grace at the heart of everyday life. On my first day in Morocco, the lighthouse keeper of Casablanca's famous el-Hank phare kindly offered to show me the best view of the city made famous by Bogart and Bacall from the top of his beacon. The same was true of the kids on the buses offering me updates on progress of the Socceroos in the Asia Cup. And the young women on the Casablanca light rail-some clad in headscarf and some not-chatting freely with their male counterparts in an effortless mixture of Arabic and French. Not to mention the easy comradery of the Marrakesh rail car where an older women offered me her heartfelt welcome to Morocco in French, German, Italian and Spanish. And the fascinating discussions with English literature students who expressed their admiration and fascination for both the writings of George Orwell and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest!

However, while it is easy to be lured by the seductive charms of Tangiers or Fez, there should be no attempt to downplay the dangers posed by the ISIS death cult and its perverted ideology. It is a real and present danger not just in Syria and Iraq, but as we have seen so cogently in recent months, also in Australia and France. These fanatics are fighting and dying to reimpose slavery, cruel and unusual punishments and to banish the very idea of human rights from history without trace. But in our haste to come up with an all-encompassing apocalyptic vision of what is occurring in the broader Islamic world, we should never lose sight of the divisions, the diversity and the challenges that many Muslims face in their everyday life.

One of the main thoroughfares of Morocco's capital Rabat is named Rue Soekarno after Indonesia's founding father. But Indonesians and Moroccans share more than a common post-colonialist heritage. In the thirst for greater political inclusivity, modernity and prosperity, let us also look at the examples set by ordinary people in the cosmopolitan markets, meeting places and modern shopping malls of Marrakesh and Medan. They maybe tell us even more about what is occurring in the broader Islamic world than the depravities of Mosul or Raqqa.


The fight against ISIS is therefore one that Muslims, Christians and good people of all persuasions have a stake in. But this is perhaps most of all the Islamic world's fight for their future, their faith,and the right to determine identity and freedom on their terms-as much for the housewives and the traders, the fishermen and the farmers and the factory workers and the entrepreneurs-as for the conservative clergy. We should wish them luck because in this one they are fighting for every single one of us.

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About the Author

Originally trained as a lawyer, Roger Smith lived in Indonesia and East Timor from 1995 to 2004 where he worked in the justice, human rights and trade union arenas.

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