INDONESIA, the Philippines’ sister republic to the south, has solved one of the great cultural-political dilemmas of modern times: It has shown that Islam and democracy are compatible. Most talk on this matter focuses on the West and the Middle East and is very negative about the chances of the two cultures living in peace with each other. Just recently, for example, the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was seen by some writers as “the death of political Islam.” Indonesia has solved the problem and made it look easy. There was none of the riots, battles, or furious demonstrations we have seen elsewhere.
Wardah Hafidz, an Indonesian woman who has led national urban poor movements for years, told us: “It will not be Islam’s fault if it and democracy part ways. It will be the fault of the people’s culture and history.” Wardah views Islam from the point of view of the very poor, from which point of view both poor Muslims in Indonesia and poor Catholics in the Philippines see their God as the source of all mercy and loving care. They don’t see why that Holy God of theirs would be interested in politics.
We should remember that Indonesia is the third largest democratic country in the world, with 200 million people. Some 86 percent of them are Muslim, so it is the largest Muslim country in the world. It is a democratic and Muslim giant, so what happens there has significance for both democracy and Islam.
We were still interested in seeing how Islam was lived out in ordinary life among the people, so we went last May 30 to a political rally of presidential candidate Joko Widodo in Surabaya. Except for the language, it was like any political rally in Manila, Davao or Cebu. The grounds were packed with young and old, mostly poor people, but many well-off people as well, about 12,000-15,000 all together.
Widodo spoke softly, as if he were in a conversation with the crowd; he told jokes that had the people laughing. It took the people a second or two to understand the meaning of his jokes, it seemed to me, and then they laughed as though they saw then how the funny story could make a political point. He talked very briefly and then was whisked through the people, who pushed in to see and touch him.
It was his third stop of the day that began at dawn 1,000 kilometers away in Jakarta. He would fly to Bali for the final stop. When I asked myself what person he called to mind, I thought of Abraham Lincoln—that is, his manner and plain dress spoke of Lincoln. We’ll have to wait to see what he does for his country, should he be elected.
One night we visited a community along the Surabaya River. The government had allowed the families to stay near the river if they would chop three meters off their houses and build a road instead. They did that with a great deal of suffering, but now they have permanent homes along a lovely waterway. Late in the evening the young girls and women danced—this was the modern, naughty, total-effort dancing we see in Manila. Some wore the veil (hibab). I watched an old woman near me in full Muslim dress. Her face wasn’t covered in the way we often see in other Muslim countries. She was beaming like she would burst as she imitated the young women as best she could. Faster went the music, and she looked for someone to bump hips with. Alas, I was the only one near her. She wasn’t ready for that meeting with the secular world.
At a seminar I asked a young Muslim girl wearing the veil what the Koran had to say about the poor and helping the poor. Her name was Habi (Love). She told me: “Muslims are told we should be with the poor people. It is a demand to live in peace and modesty and to love and care for the poor people in need.”
Muslims seem just as much at home in the politics and democratic and secular world of Indonesia as Christians are in Manila.
Indonesians speak softly, even when they are angry, but that doesn’t mean they are all gentle people. There is a movement now in Indonesia urging people not to forget the past, and to remember the estimated one million people—communists, communist sympathizers, people simply interested in justice and a better life, and personal enemies—who were slaughtered by the army of General Suharto in the mid-1960s as he climbed to power.
Sri Wiyanti Eddyono, formerly of the National Commission on Women and a longtime pro bono lawyer for urban poor causes, told me that the people are also asked to remember the plunder of the Suharto years and the human rights atrocities in East Timor and Aceh, and to watch out that the friends and relatives of Suharto don’t rise again to power.
We, too, should not forget. The Philippines has had just as many sorrows and villains as Indonesia.
The people I met are well aware of the limitations of their democracy, just as people here are aware of this country’s weaknesses. They are especially worried about the growing income gap between the rich and the poor, and the strains it puts on democracy, and the growing power of foreign investors and multilateral lending institutions.
Most of all, the people we met wanted their leaders to be close to and listen to the people, and include the opinions of the people in their decision-making.
Leaders of the Philippine government also need to listen more carefully before they decide what to do with the poor. It is frightening in a way to find the government deciding how and where the poor in the areas devastated by “Yolanda” will live, when there has been almost zero consultation with them on housing matters, according to a recent Oxfam survey. Only 7 percent of the people interviewed in the study had been consulted in any way on the question of housing.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).