The Arab Spring and the Reformasi ’98: A Comparative Study of Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Indonesia

[This is the sixth in a series of my notes on the 2013 International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“The Arab Spring and the Reformasi ’98: A Comparative Study of Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Indonesia”

Ahmad Najib Burhani, University of California – Santa Barbara

Why has Ennahda able to take power while the Indonesian Islamists failed? What are their similarities and differences? Why has moderate Islam been able to grow under Suharto and Ben Ali while the conservatives are able to grow during the democratic era?

Suharto came to power in 1966 after the failed Communist coup. Islamist hopes to come to power faded as Suharto adopted policies to blend all parties into the PPP, a development party. The Left and Right opposition groups (the Islamists belonged to the latter) were restricted while economic development was encouraged making Indonesia one of the Asian tigers. Parties were tolerated to make a show of democracy. Near the end of his reign he moved from an anti- to pro-Islam policy, thinking they could be allies in his bid to extend his regime. The first Islamic banks were established and he associated with the Muslim intelligentsia for the Islamization of Indonesia. Their acquiescence to this alliance contributed to their later failures. The 1997 crisis was the trigger for Suharto’s fall.

Ben Ali came to power by means of a constitutional coup against Bourguiba. At the beginning he allowed multiple parties to participate in the 1989 election. Although Ennahda got 15% of the vote, Ben Ali suppressed them and some leaders, including Ghannouchi went into exile. Further Ben Ali portrayed Islam as the binary opponent of democracy and modernity.

After the Uprising, Ennahda won a plurality of seats, 90 out of 217. Ennada rebuilt itself in a short time. The party symbolized opposition to authoritarianism rather than promising shari`ah or Islamic state. Indonesia was different. Secular parties won the elections. The surprise was the rise of political Islam. If we exclude PAN and PKB from the definition Islamic party, the Islamists only won 20% of the vote. In Indonesia the secular parties were seen as aspiring to Islamic values equally with the Islamist parties. The slogan was: “Islam, yes; Islamist Party, no.” In Tunisia, Ennahda is still perceived as associated with Islam.

The conclusion is that Ennahda benefited from its role as a symbol of opposition to the government. In Indonesia Madjid and Wahad desacralized the Islamist parties.

Usaama al-Azami: I would be interested in a reading lists from you.

Ermin Sinanović: I had hoped that we would not be limited to papers on the Arab world and was pleased to see these submitted. “After the Arab spring” really needs to be a global conversation. The trap of area studies is that it looks at different parts of the world as disjointed, and your paper draws our attention to the glocalized world with multiple discourses in conversations with one another, and I think you should even strengthen that aspect of your paper. Our approach must be more international. Look at Activists Beyond Borders. You are talking about activist entrepreneurship. Try to go beyond description into analysis and even theory development. There is no center there is no periphery, it is all transnational. Look at linkage as well.

Najib’s question is answered by the way the repression of Islamist movements made them symbolic of resistance, but we need to also look at the degree to which Islamism has been incorporated into the repressive regimes and become symbolic of repression. When we say secularism is good we need to clarify what we mean by it.

Burhani: Sometimes we may write something within the paradigm we wish to challenge. Geertz asked why Islamist parties have never won in Indonesia. Some Orientalists have said Indonesians are only superficial Muslims who remain Hindu or Buddhist underneath. There is a debate in Indonesia on secularism. Secular parties in Indonesia are those that use Pancasila as the basis. That’s why PKG and PAN are sometimes considered to be Islamist.  Society must be religious but the state must be neutral without judging theological disputes like the Ahmadiyya issue. Fazlur Rahman praised Indonesia under Suharto as a place that could implement his ideas.

Q: I see these as civil rights movements. We should go beyond these exceptionalisms. Taksim Square is not Tahrir Square, but there are similarities. And there are similarities to the Occupy movements in the Western countries. Civil Islam in Indonesia was a pioneer of progressive Islam or post-Islamism long before the Arab spring. Maybe IIIT can devote a workshop on the concept of secularity. Read Alfred Stepan on secularism around the world. We can also distinguish between philosophical secularism which is related to materialism and the practical notion that separates religious institutions from the state. I agree with challenging the notion that the Middle East is religious when the dominant mode of the Middle East has been secular. People in the Middle East do not make the distinction between religiosity and secularism that we make in academia.

Q: Islamic awakening is a process that started in the late 60s. The uprising is a result of the awakening.

Q: It seems that there is in Islamic studies in the Far East a dilemma to which you  have built a counter-argument that there is an Arabo-centricism that considers the real Islam is in the Arab world. You bravely try to counter the dilemma by showing that our understanding is not peripheral, and I ask what has this to do with the Arab spring? The term in the Arab world goes back to Damascus in 2000 when the opposition movement was called to write about reform, the Damascus spring movement, Before that was the Prague spring.

Q: The use of terminology usually occurs within a universe of discourse. Consider the Qur’an, which used some terms with which the Arabs were not familiar. It is important to unearth the underlying assumptions behind terms. Who introduced term “Arab spring” is less important than the end to which it is used.

Q: Are you familiar with Valerstein’s work on capitalism and the periphery and the center? Spring comes from Prague and the reference to repression, but all happened after neoliberalism. Don’t expect them in Saudi Arabia, etc.

Q: It doesn’t matter who used it first, what matters is how it is used in a particular setting. No one I’ve read says the Arabs are central.

Burhani: I am not trying to challenge the discourse from the Arab world, but rather the Western scholars who ask whether Islam in Indonesia is orthodox Islam.

Q. Geertz’s Islam Observed was a very imaginative approach comparing not two Islams but two Sufi approaches. In Religion of Java he was showing a variety of Islamic expressions.

Burhani: But Geertz only admits of the Muhammadi interpretation being close to real, “puritanical” Islam

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute



One Response to “The Arab Spring and the Reformasi ’98: A Comparative Study of Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Indonesia”

  1. najib says:

    Dear Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad,

    Here is the final version of the article:



Leave a Reply