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Deleting Civility: Uncivil Society in Indonesian New Democracy

Bob Sugeng Hadiwinata


Since the revelation of the “Third Wave of Democratization” in the early 1990s, much attention has been focused on the gravity of civil society as the promoter of democracy. Defined as the realm of organized social life that is open, voluntary and self-generating, transition theorists believe that civil society can increase the performance of representative governments and broaden political participation of citizens. Civil society is believed to have played crucial roles in different phases of democratization. In the liberalization phase, civil society may construct individual rights and open public space. In the transition phase, it may oust authoritarian governments and draft a new constitution that guarantees a public sphere. In the consolidation phase, it may increase transparency and accountability of the government, and ensure democracy as the “only game in town”.


What makes civil society a central player in democracy? Developed during the Scottish enlightenment period, civil society is thought to represent “civic virtues” or civility. In order to qualify as civil society, self-organized groups or organizations must share non-usurpation and legal nature. As civil society is expected to maintain peace and administer justice, it must convey norms of tolerance, pluralism and non-violence. Consequently, groups or organizations following extremism, jingoistic exuberance and predatory interests do not qualify as civil society. Conventional wisdom that civil society can increase tolerance, pluralism and non-violence has generated belief that civil society serves as a crucial player in democracy.


Indonesia’s experiment with democracy offers a completely different picture. The end of military-backed authoritarian rule in 1998, which was followed by rapid transition to democracy, had opened a “public sphere” where various social, political and religious organizations grew and expanded, facing no obstruction.

The removal of rules restricting freedom of speech and public gathering, the relaxation of law on political parties, and the introduction of press freedom, have allowed civil society organizations to swell. Some of them are active in promoting democracy, human rights and accountable government; others engage in defence of the rights of the oppressed (workers, the disadvantaged, women and so forth). Nonetheless there are also extreme Islamic groups which attempt to defend their sacred belief and impose them on others.


In the wake of the “war on terrorism” and growing religious conflict in the country, extreme Islamic organizations were formed and began to incite fear on minorities in order to achieve their goal. Their main agenda is to form a Daulah Islamiyah (Islamic state), where all citizens must swear allegiance to a leader (caliph) who carries the divine rights and therefore secures the privilege to remain unchallenged.


The emergence of these radical Islamic organizations during the troubled period was hardly surprising. Loretta Napoleoni, for example, argued that a weak government (where the central power faces rapid erosion and political figures struggle for power amid the fading state institutions) serves as a breeding ground for religious extremism that eventually leads to terrorism. The weak government in the transition period created a safe haven for the growth of terrorist networks in Indonesia.


When the government failed to resolve religious conflict in the Moluccas, Laskar Jihad (LJ) – a self-organized and armed extremist group – began to get involved in the bloody conflict between Muslims and Christians which killed more than 5,000 people, including women and children. LJ was believed to have deployed 4,000 insurgents to defend their Muslim brothers in the conflict. In March 2000, LJ organized a “show of force” parade in front of the Presidential palace in Jakarta, where hundreds of their ready-to-die warriors chanted anti-Christian slogans with swords in their right hands pointed upward. Such a display generated public fear, especially when security apparatus failed to take necessary measures against them. Following the peace agreement between Muslims and Christians in the Moluccas in September 2002, LJ was disbanded. However, the dispersion did not automatically stop the religious conflict. Many believe that former recruits of LJ were behind various bomb attacks and indiscriminate killings in the conflict-torn area of Poso in Central Sulawesi.


While LJ was believed to be active in turning religious conflict into war, the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is active in waging war against the “ills in society” (gambling, prostitution, alcoholism, pornography and so on). Between 2000 and 2005, FPI members were reported to have raided various night clubs, bars and other premises on the grounds that they were home to erotic dance, gambling, prostitution and selling alcohol. In most of their activities, FPI are often accused of destroying property and physically abused those who try to stop their actions. After a serious encounter with the Jakarta police in November 2002, FPI was temporarily suspended but was reactivated a few months later with more branches in major cities in Java. In June 2005, FPI members in West Java forced various Christian churches to close down on the grounds that they were operating illegally.


The use of violence clearly indicates that civil society could lose its civility and therefore put democracy at risk. When tolerance and pluralism, the two important elements of democracy, are no longer considered to be the essential rules to ensure peaceful co-existence among different groups in society, one can see a shortcoming in the democratic process. Transition theorists believe that for a democracy to be consolidated, there must be significant political players - at both elite and mass levels - who firmly believe that democracy is the most appropriate political instrument and norm, better than any realistic alternative form they can imagine. In other words, political competitors must come to regard democracy (the laws, institutions and procedures that come with it) as the “only game in town”, the only viable framework for governing and advancing interests.


A democracy can face a backlash if there are elements of “disloyalty”; that is, groups or organizations which use force, fraud, violence, or other illegal means to acquire power or influence policies. Most liberal-democratic theorists believe that democracy will have its share of cranks and extremists on the margins of political (and social) life. If democracy is to be consolidated, they argue, these disloyal elements must be truly marginal. Many would agree that hate-groups can undermine democracy through their racism, secrecy and frequently resorting to violence. When ethno-religious superiority becomes the prime value, pluralism will turn into sectarianism, breeding intolerance and violence in political life.


As Indonesia is currently entering its early stage of democracy, hope for more political openness, freedom of expression, tolerance, the recognition of minority rights and so on, runs high. The country’s success in conducting two democratic elections, relatively free from fraud and violence, has generated optimism about the future of democracy in the country. However, this optimism began to founder amid the rise of Islamic extremist groups and their determination to spread the idea of Islam’s hegemony. In many occasions Muslim extremists expressed their resistance of democracy since they consider democracy a Western concept, and therefore incompatible with Islam. Although these extreme Islamic groups are small in number, and they do not represent the view of the majority of Indonesian Muslims, their determination had received growing support from the conservative Muslims who began to question the rights of the minority, and refuse to recognize pluralism.



This chilling picture of Indonesian civil society is by no means indicative of the fact that Indonesian democracy is doomed to failure. Some progressive Muslims were poised to challenge the anti-democratic overtone insinuated by the extremists. Organizations such as JIL (Liberal Islamic Network), AMP (Alliance for Pluralist Society) and ICIP (Indonesian Center for Islam and Pluralism) were formed to counteract this extremism. Bringing together young progressive Muslim intellectuals and moderate Muslim clerics, these organizations assert that Islam is compatible with democracy. For these activists, in order to live in a pluralist society such as Indonesia, Muslims must develop tolerance and respect towards other religions. They also insist that Indonesian Muslims should prioritise dialogue in settling differences with other religious groups. Despite these challenges, Islamic extremism went on to spread fear amongst minority groups.


Indonesian experience seems to have challenged conventional idea of civil society. While conventional thinking argues that civil society is created to promote multicultural, multireligious and multinational civic values with respect to human rights, in Indonesia civil society had been contaminated with hatred and intolerant behavior. What has happened in Indonesia – and indeed in many other transition states across the globe – is that the process of transition had been followed by the breakdown of many established ways of doing things. When regulations on societal activities were removed, competition to fill the gap in power politics left by authoritarian rule became more open. In such a situation, different political groups came to the fore disseminating new political currents which included appeal to prejudice, fear and insecurity. To win such an open political contest, civil society organizations can easily turn into hate-groups using threat and violence to demoralize their opponents.


The rise of extreme Islamic organizations during the transition period has much to do with the opening up of political contest after the fall of the authoritarian regime in 1998. Islamic extremism, which had its origin in the mid-1990s, grew from the feeling of insecurity among the Islamists who found the non-Muslims – especially the Christian minority – had secured privileges in filling strategic positions in public office, the corporate sector and the military. It was this background that seems to have encouraged extremists to form hate-groups in order to gain control of social, economic and political life.


The fact that civil society organization may at times turn into hate-groups requires a new way of understanding civil society. Some scholars define civil society as space, site and agency in the juncture of relations with other spheres which may include power struggle, conflict of interests and the construction of counter-hegemonic narrative.

From this perspective one can argue that civil society may not be totally immune from contamination from the state as well as the “uncivil” elements in society such as ultra-nationalist groups, extreme religious groups, recalcitrant militias, thugs and mafias carrying predatory interests. Thus, civil society can be both solution and problem for democracy. Civil society expands democracy insofar as it generates networks for political participation; and it contracts democracy when its uncivil or anti-social elements have taken root in the public sphere.


Some may disagree if groups with predatory interests can be considered as part of civil society. Laurence Whitehead, for example, argued that extremists and mafias belong to the “uncivil interstices between civil and political society”. Cases in former Yugoslavia, India, Africa and Indonesia, however, have generated pressure for reconceptualization of civil society. Mary Kaldor argued that in former Yugoslavia, civil society proved to be vulnerable to jingoistic nationalism that led to violent ethnic conflicts. Neera Chandhoke studied that militant Hindu organizations in India are responsible for the ongoing religious conflicts in the country. Nelson Kasfir observed that in Africa, some civil society organizations formed self-supported armed vigilante groups and preyed upon all of whom they encountered, as witnessed in a number of cases in Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Indonesian case seemed to add to the list where extreme religious organizations turned into hate-groups preying on others who challenge their activities. All of these groups belong to the same category: self-organized organizations in the realm of social life that is open, voluntary and self-generating.