Civil Islam - Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia by Robert Hefner – Book Report/Review Example

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The paper “ Civil Islam - Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia by Robert Hefner» is a  meaty variant on book review on politics. Civil Islam presents a discussion of Indonesian politics in relation to Islam and democratization. It challenges the notion that Islam is antagonistic to democracy and shows possibilities of democracy in Indonesia in what he calls Civil Islam. Robert Hefner, an anthropologist and a teacher at Boston University, is considered a highly respected observer of Indonesian politics and society in general. The main question in this book is whether democracy and Islam are compatible.

Robert Hefner grapples with the issue of Islamic states’ ability to tolerate civil societies. Using Indonesian political history, Hefner argues that Islamic states and civil societies are compatible. In essence, he reveals the unfolding of the evolution of moderate Muslim politics. Indonesia is important to mirror when looking at Muslim politics since it is the world’ s largest majority-Muslim country. This book according to Hadiz (2001) is considered a major reference in regards to contemporary Indonesian Islamic politics. Looking at this book, it is evident that for Hefner, Civil Islam is more than scholarly interest.

He seems passionately committed to the issue of Islam and democracy. As much as this book gives an account of the efforts that have been made to bring civility and democracy to Indonesia it is apparent that Hefner’ s core focus is to give the principles that govern civil Islam as well as discuss the principles that lead to civil Islam. Civil Islam is set between 1945 and 1999 and it details how Indonesia was democratic; its politics were both tolerant and exuded values of civility in the 1950s.

However, in 1965, it yielded to violence in which many communists were killed. After this, there emerged the ‘ New Order’ regime which instituted dictatorial controls and suppressed the democratic forces in Indonesia. However, even with this kind of violence, a new movement of Islamic democracy emerged which supported and pushed for overthrowing of Soeharto’ s regime and later in 1999 Abdurrahman Wahid became the president of what can be termed as a reformist government. There has been a long-held notion that Islam and democratization are incompatible. However, Hefner concerns himself with showing how Islam itself can be a democratizing force in Indonesia.

In doing this, he faces and challenges the Western-world-held assumptions on the contradictions that exist between democratic politics and Islam. The Western world has argued that there is no cultural basis for democracy in Islamic societies, for instance, Samuel Huntington’ s thesis, ‘ Clash of the Civilians’ . Thus Hefner examines the political thinking of the traditionalist Muslims and the Modernist Muslims during Soeharto’ s rule. He shows how both groups rejected the Western argument of relegating religion out of politics and the state.

In addition, he shows how both the traditionalist and modernist Muslims reject the notion of an Islamic state. Thus, this leaves the path for ‘ Civil Islam’ as a favorable one. Hefner posits that civil Islam is ecumenical, democratic, pluralistic and reformist in its ideology and practice (Huxley, 2002). In this book, Hefner appraises how Indonesian Muslims participate and reject democratization in the country’ s post-colonial era. He shows how the two Muslim parties Nahdlatul Ulama and Masyumi defended Islamic ideals in Sukarno and Suharto’ s authoritarian rules. Hefner demonstrates how a large number of Muslims have embraced the culture of tolerance and pluralism to develop a culture of civil Islam.

His analysis is well developed because, despite the challenges, which he acknowledges quite well, he shows that democratization has had its successes. The events that have been taking place in Indonesia serve to illustrate that there is a clash of cultures between those who promote Muslim civil society and democracy and those who support an anti-pluralist Islamic state and this situation is likely to remain a major feature of Muslim politics for a long time.


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Hadiz, VR 2001, 'Civil Islam (Book)', Asia Pacific Business Review, 8, 2, p. 184

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Hefner, RW 2001, ‘Public Islam and the problem of democratization’, Sociology in Religion, 62, 4, 491-514.

Huxley, T 2002, 'Civil Islam: Muslim and Democratization in Indonesia', Survival (00396338), 44, 3, pp. 153-154,

Martin, RC 2002, ‘Civil Islam: Muslims and democratization in Indonesia by Robert W. Hefner’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 61, 2, pp. 774-776.

Pye, LW 2001, 'Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Book Review)', Foreign Affairs, 80, 2, p. 185.

Sutley, S 2001, ‘Civil Islam: Muslim and democratization in Indonesia by Robert W. Hefner’, Pacific Affairs, 74, 3, pp. 459-460.

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