Egypt vs. Indonesia in attitudes

By Razib Khan | February 2, 2011 2:35 pm

TNR has a post up, Egypt and Indonesia. In it, the author argues that:

At times of unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries, we grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings. Even if we know they are imperfect, we can’t resist their tempting suggestiveness. But, if we cannot resist them, we can at least choose them thoughtfully. Invoking Iran after the Shah is scary indeed, but dangerously misleading. A different analogy that provides more useful grist for our unsettled analytic mill concerning Egypt is Indonesia and Suharto in the late 1990s.

We can gauge the force of this analogy by looking at a Pew Gobal Attitudes report on Muslim public opinion from December 2010. Egypt and Indonesia are in their set of countries surveyed. Below are a selection of results, with Turkey and Pakistan included in for comparisons. I ignored most of the stuff on Muslim radical movements. Additionally, one has to be cautious about interpreting survey data, as people will interpret questions in relation to their local situation. For example, below you will see that 89 and 46 percent of Indonesians and Pakistanis think that the role of religion in politics is “large.” I think empirically we have to conclude that Indonesians and Pakistanis are using the terms somewhat differently, as Indonesia is a much more robustly pluralist regime at this point than Pakistan is. Indonesia is not an officially Islamic state. Pakistan is. Indonesia forthrightly acknowledges its pre-Islamic heritage, and continues to have prominent symbolic roles for non-Muslim cultural forms. The Hindu epics are still popular on the most populous island of Java.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes
Role of Islam in politics is….
Islam’s influence in politics is….
In struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists….
Identify with… (of those who see struggle)
See struggleModernizersFundamentalists
Make gender segregation in workplace the law….
Support for harsh punishments (affirm action)
Stone adulterersWhip & amputate hands of robbersDeath penalty for apostates
Agree that democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government

Comments (9)

  1. i will venture an explanation for why many more pakistanis perceive islam has a small role in politics than indonesians, when the latter is empirically a much more secular system. in indonesia islamic parties are a significant, but minor, force. there is simply no possibility that in indonesian an islamic state could be established. not only are religious minorities opposed in regions like new guinea and bali, but a substantial number of muslims, especially on on the demographically dominant island of java, would oppose it because their practice of islam is at variance with the ‘orthodoxy’ from on high (this is the abangan vs. santri distinction). islamic parties only have a practical possibility of shaping policy, not dictating it. in contrast there is the possibility in the minds of islamists of total state takeover. therefore, islamists in the survey may perceive involvement of religion in politics to be far smaller than it might be, and many secularists also perceive it be small because they know that it could be much larger realistically.

  2. It’s difficult to compare Indonesia to any of those countries, given its underlying cultural differences. It’s also notable that Islam did not become the dominant religion in Indonesia until around the 17th century, so it has had less time to influence the cultural mentality than in many other parts of the world.

    It’s only post-Suharto that Indonesia has seen a rise in fundamentalist Islamic movements which have begun to impinge on the political process, and even that has so far been limited. So Indonesians have never really seen the impact of Islam playing a large role in politics, until very recently. Perhaps the other countries in the survey are more aware of the problems that arise when religion and politics mix due to their histories and geographic locations.

  3. Huxley

    I am surprised that 42% of Indonesians would want to stone adulterers.

  4. J.J.E.

    @ Razib

    Is it also possible that the context of the interpretation has to do with a very high expectation of religious participation in Pakistan? Could it be that in places like Pakistan, the people expect (and perhaps desire) a large role of religion and therefore, despite having more religion in public life than others, still feel stymied, and thus conclude Islam isn’t important because they desire or expect more? On the other hand, in very religious, but still relatively secular, places like Indonesia, perhaps the people are satisfied with the degree of Islam in politics, or perhaps wish it were even lower? There is anecdotal evidence for this last view here:

  5. #4, i find that plausible.

  6. Notably, Turkey is the outlier of the four, much different from Egypt and Pakistan and Indonesia which are mostly closer to each other, with Egypt mostly between Pakistan and Indonesia, no strongly favoring one or the other.

    Since both Pakistan and Indonesia have managed, at least intermittently, to have democratic regimes and less than totalitarian control of the government over daily life in recent years, this suggests that Egypt would manage at least as well.

    At least formally, all of these nations have had governments run for a generation or two on a more secular basis than the new constitutions of either Iraq or Afghanistan, which formally give Islamic law constitutional status and charge the courts with enforcing that, do. I haven’t seen anyone proposing widespread purges of ordinary civil servants on religious grounds, and absent that, their existing secular approach to their jobs is likely to persist, or at least to provide a powerful lobby for continuing basically secular government.

    It seems to me that a lot of ordinary people are yearning for Islam to provide something like the Chinese experience where corrupt officials whose wrongdoings are serious are routinely executed. Americans see a push for Islamic law as a desire for medieval economics and criminal justice, but I think that for a lot of Egyptians, Pakistanis and others in the Arab world at least, Islamic law is a close cousin to and related to a desire for “rule of law” as opposed to “rule of man.”

  7. omar

    I think every case is different, but ohwilleke is right that Indonesia and Pakistan have both had somewhat democratic experiments work for a while, Egypt can too. And the desire for Islamic law does indeed have an element of the desire for a more fair “rule of law” rather than “rule of corrupt upperlcass men”. But orthodox Islam does have its own momentum too and once the mullahs get in, they are hard to push out.

    When my Pakistani friends imagine an Islamist cleansing of Pakistan, they do not usually imagine the full package, but there are two problems with shariah law that make “Islamization” a bit of a problem for Islamic countries.
    First, there are some unpleasant tendencies embedded in shariah ..and shariah law was born into a recent literate society and is well preserved…the nasty parts tend to pop up like inconvenient guests when someone asks for “Islamic law”. The other side of the problem is that there is actually no economic or political theory associated with it. So no one has actually figured out how and why such laws would get enforced any more honestly than the current set of laws. The result is inevitable disappointment, but in some cases (Definitely Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan, Egypt, but maybe not Indonesia) things are such, they may have to try it before they dump it.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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