Islam in Indonesia, whose 200 million people constitute the world's largest community of Muslims, is increasingly viewed as very different from the Islam practiced in the older Muslim communities of the Middle East. Indeed, one distinguished academic, Bassam Tibi of Gottingen University, has described Indonesia as "a model for religiously and ethno-culturally different communities to live together in peace and mutual respect."
Some historians argue that Indonesia's moderate form of Islam reflects the way in which foreign traders introduced it, as early as the 14th century. Then, the coastal culture already incorporated egalitarianism, dynamism, and inter-dependence, which affected the ideology and practice of Islam. In addition, Indonesian Islam had strong Sufi influences, which emphasize the spiritual rather than the legal elements of the faith.
Similarly, Giora Eliraz of Hebrew University argues that the Islamic ideas that arrived in Indonesia from the Middle East changed, becoming more inclusive and pluralist in character, owing to the influence of the great 19th-century Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh.
In Egypt, Abduh's progressive ideas gained support from only a tiny group of reformers. In Indonesia, however, Abduh's vision of Islamic modernity sparked the creation of the country's largest modernist Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, which represents mainstream moderate Islam in Indonesia.
This history of moderation continued unabated through the 20th century, embraced by both traditionalists and modernists. The traditonalist organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for example, had issued a fatwa (religious decree) in the 1930s declaring Dutch colonial rule to be legitimate. The early leaders of Muhammadiyah focused more on the spiritual improvement of individual Muslims, rather than public enforcement of Islamic law.
Most importantly, this orientation toward moderation has consistently drawn support from Indonesia's leading intellectuals. A remarkably creative and dedicated group of young religious and social thinkers and activists chose in the 1960s and 1970s -- during the early days of General Suharto's secular New Order regime -- to reject the idea of an Islamic state.?
At the height of the New Order's political repression of Islam during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new pattern of thinking emerged among younger intellectuals. Their gerakan pembaruan (reform movement), is perhaps best summed up in Nurcholish Madjid's 1972s dictum: "Islam yes, Islamic party no." This new generation successfully took the idea of an Islamic state off the political agenda.
By the late 1980s, Suharto's own stance towards Islam was changing. Government concessions to religious sentiment included the promulgation of Islamic family law in 1989, the establishment of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectual Association in 1990, lifting the ban on schoolgirls' wearing the jilbab (head cover) in 1991, the founding of an Islamic bank (Bank Muamalat) in 1992, and abolition of the state lottery. These measures persuaded Indonesia's Muslims that they could live in accord with Islamic teaching without Indonesia becoming an Islamic state.
The state established a wide network of educational institutions that support this moderate tendency. There are now 27 branches of the State Islamic University, which integrate Islamic and general studies for undergraduate and graduate students. There are also roughly 100 Institutes of Islamic Studies, for undergraduates who want to focus on Islamic studies only.