Egypt and Indonesia: what comparison?

Firstly, forgive me for not updating this site more often lately. I’ve been busy and lazy  in equal measure, on holidays, on work missions and diverting my rave energies through other channels.

So much has happened in Indonesia over the past few months that I don’t know where to start. Of course I was sickened by the slaughter of Ahmadiyah followers by crazed Islamist brutes, and by the government’s pathetic response. I didn’t mean to watch the unedited video, I kind of saw it by accident. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was one of the most disgusting and disturbing things I’ve seen. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you really want to know what’s happening in Indonesia in terms of religious thuggery there can be no better illustration. The Ahmadiyah man who filmed it is a hero.

In the past couple of weeks there have been a lot of attempts by Western journalists and analysts to compare the Egyptian uprising with the fall of Suharto in Indonesia. Most seem to be written by people who may, perhaps, feel a little bit of attention deficit disorder because they are not actually in the Middle East. In my opinion they are trying a little too hard to get in on the Egypt story by making flimsy analogies.

The argument follows a now-familiar pattern: the White House is using the Indonesia example as a model to game possible outcomes in Egypt and calibrate its response; the similarities between the two countries are “striking”;  Indonesia is a moderate Muslim-majority country where secular democracy has taken root; like Egypt, Indonesia has Islamist political parties; these parties have tried to advance their agendas at the ballot box but have failed; this comparison is illuminating.

I disagree. Sure, there are superficial similarities but the comparison is flawed. Even to the degree that it can be justified it is not particularly illuminating and doesn’t really say much about current events in Egypt or how that country may look in 10 years time.

Firstly, the Indonesian party everyone compares to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – the PKS – is fundamentally different in many ways. The PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) may share some genetic material with the Brotherhood but it is not the same critter. For a start it is not openly Islamist. It has existed for only around 10 years, not 80-odd like the brotherhood. It didn’t exist at all as a mass opposition movement against Suharto. And it has never had any significant popular support. The Brotherhood it ain’t.

In other words, there’s very little point talking about the PKS as a model for what a post-Mubarak Brotherhood might do. And anyway, no one in the Arab world looks to Indonesia for insight into political Islam, so even if there was a superficial comparison to be made it would not be one that would have any bearing on Egyptian affairs.

Revealingly, few of these analyses give much in the way of direct quotes from US officials about what precise parallels they see and why they are focusing on Indonesia, and not, say, Turkey. In one of the pieces linked to above,  the only direct quote from a US official says the Philppines and Chile are better case studies.

The other thing most of these comparisons have in common is that at some point they admit that their argument is thin and acknowledge that in fact the two countries are very different.

A better way to compare the two situations, in my very humble and uninformed opinion, is through the lens of justice. Despite all the fear-mongering about political Islam and Islamism, the uprising in Egypt does not seem to me to be about religion. People are united in their yearning for justice, for an end to rampant corruption, for an end to the unaccountability of the ruling elites, for an end to the brutality of the security forces.

Indonesians (and everyone else who has overthrown a dictator) know this yearning only too well. They gave vent to it in 1998 when they ousted Suharto in a secular, nationalist uprising sparked by a savage economic crisis. The fact that these were mainly Muslims on the streets wasn’t much noted in those pre-9/11 days. Now, when Westerners see Muslims on the streets, citing “jihad” and claiming the blessing of Allah, they tend to get fixated on the religious aspect and forget more important things like the universal desire for justice.

Robert Fisk says it well in today’s Independent. After explaining that Egypt’s uprising was pluralist and non-religious and therefore a defeat for radical Islam, he adds:

There’s a catch, of course. Almost all the millions of Arab demonstrators who wish to shrug off the cloak of autocracy which – with our Western help – has smothered their lives in humiliation and fear are indeed Muslims. And Muslims – unlike the “Christian” West – have not lost their faith. Under the stones and coshes of Mubarak’s police killers, they counter-attacked, shouting “Allah akbar” for this was indeed for them a “jihad” – not a religious war but a struggle for justice. “God is Great” and a demand for justice are entirely consistent. For the struggle against injustice is the very spirit of the Koran.

Fisk isn’t saying religion is central to the Egyptian uprsing, only that it’s the vocabulary of Islam that most Egyptians use to express their yearning for justice. The same can be said of many Indonesians. He concludes:

Better perhaps to ignore all the analysts and the “think tanks” whose silly “experts” dominate the satellite channels. If Czechs could have their freedom, why not the Egyptians? If dictators can be overthrown in Europe – first the fascists, then the Communists – why not in the great Arab Muslim world? And – just for a moment – keep religion out of this.

(Photo courtesy of siarragoddess via flickr)

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