Indonesia Holds Fast to Secular Politics

April 9, 2009

Author: Robin Shulman

Source: The Washington Post

Ismi Safeya is a student at an Islamic school who veils her hair for modesty, prays five times a day and is inspired by the idea of a society based on Muslim principles.

But when the 18-year-old casts her vote for the first time in parliamentary elections Thursday, she won't vote for an Islamist party.

"The wisest choice is a government not dependent on Islamic law," she said, acknowledging the religious diversity of Indonesia and arguing that rules must be fair for everyone. "Islam actually guides our lives, but it doesn't seem to be shown in the way we vote."

Like Safeya, most voters here in the world's largest majority-Muslim country are expected to cast their ballots for secular parties. As political Islam gains strength globally, it has achieved little electoral success in Indonesia. Though polls show Indonesians becoming more religiously observant in their private lives, surveys also suggest this shift will not translate into significant support for Islamist politics in parliamentary elections Thursday or in presidential elections scheduled for July.

"More and more young Muslims are interested in basic bread-and-butter issues," said Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono in an interview in his office in Jakarta, the capital. "Parties that advocate for sharia, or Islamic law, do not get much play."