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Democracy for all? Minority rights and democratisation

The challenge of accommodating and promoting the rights of ethnic, religious and other minorities tends to emerge whenever a formerly authoritarian country begins to move towards democracy. It is faced today as the middle east and north Africa embarks on its own democratic transition. The region could be aided in the endeavour by learning lessons from earlier experience in countries such as Indonesia, says Mark Salter.
Mark Salter
10 February 2012

After two decades marked by a quantum leap in the number of countries formally considered as democracies, it is widely understood that new and emerging democratic states confront a complex, many-layered set of often competing political, social and economic challenges. In the sphere of institutional design and development the key challenges - holding free and fair elections, establishing functioning political parties, entrenching an independent judiciary among them –  are readily identified, relatively well understood and thus the focus of domestic political-reform efforts and international assistance.

But another critically important challenge is less appreciated or emphasised: that of promoting and developing democratic values and principles within a society. For if it is vital to put the institutional architecture of democracy in place, it is no less so to have a strong foundation of shared and applied democratic values and principles - for without these "bricks and mortar", in the long run the whole construct runs the risk of proving itself a flawed, chronically unstable political edifice.

In this context, experience indicates that a defining feature of a functioning democratic ethos is adherence to the theory - and practice - of the fundamental principles of equity, justice and inclusion. If the "all" referred to in the title of this paper means what it says - women, men, young, old, able-bodied and disabled alike, and regardless of race, class, religion or sexual orientation - then promoting and ensuring inclusion is a continuing challenge for all democracies, a benchmark against which any democratic polity, new or established, may reveal significant shortcomings. The challenges of promoting genuine equity, justice and inclusivity to which this points, however, are critical to the long-term sustainability of the democratisation project.

This essay – excerpted from a longer study - Democracy For All: Minority Rights Protection and Minorities' Participation and Representation in Democratic Politics - commissioned for the Democracy Forum of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) - focuses on a key (though by no means the only) dimension of the tasks of promoting an equitable, just and inclusive democratic ethos and of fashioning institutions and practices intended to entrench it - namely the protection and promotion of minority rights.

For present purposes, "minority" is understood primarily with reference to issues of identity: whatever, in other words, is understood by groups within a society as defining or otherwise constituting their self-understanding. Precisely what those defining features of minority identity are varies significantly from country to country, and from context to context. A list of the features that typically constitute the bedrock of minority identity, however, includes religion, language, race, culture and regional/geographic location.

These two tasks are being posed today in many diverse ways according to the particular historical, political, social, cultural and judicial environment of the countries and regions concerned. Among the most vivid experiences are unfolding in the middle east and north Africa (MENA) region, where from December 2010 a swathe of states - from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan - have been living through individualised versions of what has come to be known as the "Arab spring" (or the "Arab awakening" and other variants).

Alongside their singular and unfinished trajectories, these countries are also confronting their own versions of the abovementioned multifaceted, multi-layered democratic-transition agenda. But other regions and countries too, some with considerably or only slightly longer democratic experience - such as Canada, India, South Africa, and Indonesia - still face comparable issues in their own contexts.

In this light, this essay reflects on the issue of the centrality to democracy of the protection and promotion of minority rights via a dual approach: first by exploring its worldwide challenges by particular reference to the transition agenda facing the MENA region's countries, and then by looking more closely at Indonesia to see what lessons can be learned from that country's two decades of democratic evolution.

The minority-rights landscape

The importance of minority rights to the prospects for continuing democratic progress in the MENA region has been vividly illustrated by sporadic outbreaks of inter-communal violence between Muslims and the minority Coptic community in Egypt. These have included a confrontation in early October 2011 between massed Coptic demonstrators and the army that left at least twenty-seven people dead, the majority of them Christians. It was one of the most violent incidents in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak relinquished the presidency in February 2011.

Elsewhere in the region, the Iraqi Christian community’s grim experience in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003 (with an estimated 400,000 members of this community having been forced to flee the country) even led one expert commentator to suggest that: "The Arab spring, it is widely feared, could yet mark the onset of the final winter for the forgotten Christian faithful of the Middle East".

It is also important to recall, though, that the MENA region countries possess both rich historical experience in and practical resources for managing diversity within their societies. With respect to governance, for example, centuries of Ottoman rule bequeath a still influential legacy in the form of the millet system, under which designated confessional minorities enjoyed a wide degree of autonomy in managing their affairs.

Even more fundamentally, this is a region where the main "religions of the book" - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have their origins; and thus where traditions of diversity, religious tolerance, coexistence and minority accommodation (as well of course as far less tolerant currents and ideologies) have long played an important role in shaping popular understanding of the virtues of inclusive approaches to majority-minority relations.

These examples of the MENA challenge are prefigured by comparable experiences in other regions over recent decades (from southeastern Europe to the Caucasus and central Asia). Their experiences, and in selected cases the policy responses to them with respect to minorities, can provide a useful comparative set of benchmarks and "lessons learned" for MENA region countries seeking to promote inclusive politics within the framework of their specific transitional democratic trajectories.

It is worth recalling here that a defining feature of the post-cold-war global political landscape has been the eruption of inter-ethnic and intra-state conflicts - in Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir, Chechnya and Sri Lanka, to name but a few of the most salient examples. In all too many instances of such conflict, moreover, a central feature has been the state’s failure to tackle minority demands, concerns and grievances.

In response to this development the international community began to pay heightened attention to the need for more vigorous, even interventionist, minority-rights protection regimes and policies. The results of this increased focus on minorities are particularly evident in Europe, where over the last twenty years multilateral structures, notably the Council of Europe (CoE) and the OSCE’s High Commissioner for Minority Rights (HCNM), have assumed a leading role both in developing new regional instruments for promoting the protection of minority rights and monitoring their implementation on the ground.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, however, with respect to minorities no less than other aspects of the policy menu, international attention shifted towards the broader anti-terrorism agenda. An important consequence of this security-dominated refocusing of priorities is that it has become more internationally acceptable for states to treat domestic minorities first and foremost as a "security issue".

This has had serious and often deleterious consequences for minority groups around the world, notably for Muslim populations, who in accordance with the new securitised approach have all too often become the subjects both of heightened public suspicion and new or enhanced forms of state-sponsored discrimination and mistreatment.

Thus, as they come to address the multiple challenges of protecting and giving fair political representation to their minority populations, the emerging new democracies of the MENA region have much prior experience - positive and negative - to draw on. A wide range of alternative approaches and policies based on inclusive, accommodating approaches exist. It is these, as seen in the practical experience of just one country, Indonesia, that the essay now examines.

The Indonesian case

With a population of nearly 238 million scattered across a vast archipelago of over 13,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the planet’s most humanly diverse countries. With over 86% of its population officially designated as Muslims, it is also has the distinction of being the world’s largest majority-Muslim democracy. This combined with the country’s relatively recent experience of democratic transition, a process that began in 1998 with the resignation of President Suharto, has already served to make it a focus of considerable interest among the MENA countries.

This is the case not least in Egypt which, as a large country of comparable complexity, power and regional stature, is arguably faced with similar types of challenges in the context of its - currently faltering - attempts to effect a transition from decades of military-authoritarian dictatorship to genuine, civilian democracy.

From the perspective of majority-minority relations and the political framework within which they currently operate, Indonesia displays a number of distinctive features. The Indonesian human landscape comprises over 300 different ethnic groups and an even larger array of local languages and dialects - credibly estimated at more than 700.

Following the country’s formal declaration of independence from its erstwhile Dutch colonial rulers in 1945, the "new" official national language became Bahasa Indonesian, a version of a Malay dialect previously in wide use throughout the region that was promoted by the Indonesian nationalist movement from the 1920s onwards as the basis of a new national identity.

In ethno-linguistic terms Bahasa Indonesian is a minority language - a point underscored by a number of those interviewed in the course of researching this essay as illustrative of the far-sighted approach of the architects of the country’s independence. As a consequence most Indonesians speak at least two, and often several languages: Bahasa, their own mother tongue and quite possibly one or more of the other locally or regionally dominant languages. The country’s official espousal of an inclusive approach to national identity is encapsulated in the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, usually translated "Unity in Diversity".

By far the largest ethnic group is the Javanese, who as well as constituting over 40% of the population are also widely viewed as culturally and politically dominant. Alongside major regional ethnic groups such as Madurais, Sundanese and ethnic Malays, one of the most significant minorities is the Indonesian Chinese. A well-established community whose origins are in the sustained labour migrations from mainland China during the Dutch colonial era, their relative prosperity and perceived economic power has made the Chinese a frequent target of popular resentment that as recently as the 1990s spilled over into widespread anti-Chinese riots.

While the Indonesian constitution both espouses secularism and recognises the right to freedom of religion, in practice only six faiths are officially recognised: Islam, Roman Catholicism, "Protestantism", Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism - the last the most recent addition to the list. For the purposes of national-identity cards and other official documents, Indonesian citizens are required to state which religion they belong to - a formal citizenship requirement that at least in some eyes remains controversial.

The majority population’s adherence to Islam also belies the fact that historically speaking Islam came fairly late to Indonesia, chiefly under the influence of Arab Muslim traders. The first evidence of local Muslim populations dates from 13th-century northern Sumatra, and Islam only achieved a position of dominance across the Indonesian archipelago during the course of the 1500s. Prior to this both Hinduism and Buddhist-dominated kingdoms had long prospered, most notably the Buddhist Sailendra, Hindu Mataram and Java-based Majahipit dynasties of the 8th-10th and 13th-15th centuries. In addition, many point to the generally tolerant, accommodating version of Islam that has traditionally dominated in Indonesia as evidence of Buddhism's (and particularly Hinduism’s) enduring impact on the Indonesian psyche.

Indonesia’s current democratisation process took shape in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, rising popular discontent with General Suharto’s corrupt, authoritarian "New Order" regime and his eventual resignation in May 1998 after three decades in power. Suharto’s assumption of power in March 1968 from Sukarno, the country’s founding president, itself came in the aftermath of a protracted period of national upheaval marked by wide-scale violence - in particular ruthless Army-led purges directed against the hitherto powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) - that left an estimated 500,000 people dead.

With regard to the position of minorities, an important aspect of the democratisation process has been the wide-ranging series of administrative decentralisation measures undertaken since 2001. In a vast country such as Indonesia, devolving power away from the centre and down to the provinces (numbering thirty-three in total) was viewed as a practical means of enhancing citizens' access to government, boosting official accountability and fostering and consolidating democratic rule.

In practice, however, with respect to local inter-ethnic relations the impact of decentralisation has not always proved to be positive. In areas across the country, the creation of new local administrative districts has often taken place along communal or ethnic lines, thereby exacerbating tensions.

On a more positive note, a key feature of decentralisation has been the special-autonomy laws covering four regions - Aceh, the capital Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Papua - enacted since 2001. As a result, for example, in 2003 the Acehnese authorities - despite serious prevailing tensions with the central authorities - exercised their newly acquired right to establish an independent legal system, in this instance based on Islamic Sharia law - although the result remains both constitutionally contested and controversial, not least among sections of the local population.

In relation to discourse regarding minorities, majorities and the relations between them, several interviewees pointed out that such terminology is largely absent in official Indonesian documents. Indonesian officialdom is similarly uncomfortable with terms such as "ethnicity" - arguably a legacy of the Suharto-era "nation-building" project, which heavily emphasised the "unity" aspect of the national slogan over and against its "diversity" component. Over a decade into the new democratic order, old-style "unitarist" thinking and approaches remain pervasive at the official level. On the ground, however, the undoubted reality is that the country contains a wide array of minority, ethnic and religious groups.

Important legal safeguards of minority rights are in place, and the Indonesian constitution’s human-rights-related provisions are generally judged to be quite rich. At the same time, conservative and fundamentalist forces undoubtedly exist in Indonesia. The growing political influence of Islamist groups is viewed as a testament both to what one interviewee described as "their ability to outmanoeuvre the silent, tolerant majority", and more specifically the prevailing lack of political leadership from President Yudhoyono's administration in countering their views and actions.

Indonesia's challenges: migration and national identity

A cornerstone of the Suharto "New Order" era was a large-scale programme of Transmigrasi (transmigration). Following the advent of democracy, however, Transmigrasi was significantly reduced, among other things from a combination of the impact of decentralisation measures (which have given local authorities a greater say in relation to population migrations) and fears in some regions of the country, notably Papua, that indigenous local groups were fast becoming minorities in their own cities and districts.

While the downscaling of Transmigrasi is undoubtedly a move forward from the perspective of democratic control, a number of interviewees voiced some concern about its impact on the maintenance of Indonesian national identity - an issue that, economic considerations aside, undoubtedly played a critical role in Suharto’s vigorous espousal of the transmigration programme.

Establishing and maintaining a shared sense of national identity in a country as vast and diverse as Indonesia is no small achievement, and one of which many Indonesians remain justly proud. How to maintain this sense of a shared identity in the new, more fractious democratic era is a question that clearly continues to exercise the minds of many.

In addition, according to one expert interviewee, a major challenge in maintaining a shared sense of national identity stems from the way in which ordinary people now tend to view their own - and equally, other people’s - identities. "They define people as ‘other’ simply based their religious or ethnic affiliation. And in practice these often cannot be separated, as ethnic groups usually identify with a specific religious affiliation". In this sense it appears that, in Indonesia as in other transitional countries with past histories of imposed national identities, the advent of the democratic era has brought with it an outpouring of previously supressed identity politics that all too often focuses on the political expression of narrow, exclusionary self-definitions.

Indonesia's challenges: religious pluralism - and extremism

An upsurge in religious extremism and general intolerance towards religious minorities in recent years in Indonesia was noted by a number of interviewees. One obvious form this has taken is the introduction of Sharia-type regulations by local mayors and city councils aimed at, for example, forcing women to wear the hijab, closing down bars and enforcing anti-pornography measures.

Increasingly, religious issues are being used by local leaders, who exploit loopholes in the existing legal framework in ways that antagonise inter-community relations. In Papua, for example, there have been efforts to apply Sharia-type provisions regarding clothing in majority Christian districts, and in 2007 the local government declared Manokwari, the West Papuan provincial capital, a "Bible City" subject to "Christian bylaws". To date, the central government has shown little if any inclination to take these issues seriously, less still to address them in practice.

Encouragingly, the number of local initiatives to promote religious bylaws is decreasing, largely as a result of local resistance. Aceh is a case in point; there, the local government appears to have begun to realise that applying such laws simply does not work in practice. Thus, prior to the 2009 local elections the local administration agreed to implement local Islamic law - an initiative started by the previous local assembly. The Aceh governor, however, reportedly refused to sign the relevant bill, with the result that it remains unimplemented. To quote one interviewee: "By and large Indonesians will listen to religious arguments during election time, but ultimately they won’t buy them".

Perhaps the strongest point of both domestic religious contention and recent international concern relates to the Ahmadihya. An Islamic sect originating from India that has existed in Indonesia for over a century, in recent years Ahmadi communities have been subjected to growing social and political pressure. A June 2008 government decree limited Ahmadi rights to propagate their faith. Most recently, the July 2011 trial of an Islamist radical accused of murdering three Ahmadis during a mob attack on a community meeting resulted in a derisory three-month prison sentence.

Interpretations of the increasing pressure on the Ahmadis vary. Some emphasise the influence of an international fatwa pronounced by Saudi Arabian Wahhabis (in Pakistan the sect has been on the receiving end of some appalling attacks by local Taliban forces), and argue that the assaults themselves are masterminded by "foreigners". Domestically, others put the attacks largely to lack of law enforcement by the police.

More broadly there is widespread concern that President Yundhoyono’s government has no real strategy - and little if any political willingness - to combat the influence of extremist Islamist groups. The religious-affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali, has fanned the flames of discontent, and breached constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, some would add, by both pronouncing the Ahmadis to be "non-Muslims" and appearing to support their banning.

A meeting between leaders of the radical Islamic Defence Front (FPI), which has been at the forefront of both anti-Ahmadi and anti-church agitation, and President Yundhoyono was also described by a senior government official as "sending completely the wrong message". As one analysis of the 2008 decree concluded, "the government has no clear vision of basic principles but rather seeks compromise between those who speak loudest".

Issues with respect to the country’s  Christian minority currently revolve around two controversies: campaigns against the activities of Protestant evangelical proselytisers in majority Muslim areas of West Java spearheaded by organisations such as the radical FPI; and obstacles to church construction, as exemplified by a Protestant congregation in Bogar, West Java whose ten-year long attempts to build a new church remain blocked by the local mayor - this despite all legal formalities having been completed and even a supreme-court ruling in 2010 in the community’s favour.

These developments illustrate graphically the fissures that can open up in the absence of local-centre official coherence. Along with defence, security and fiscal policy, religious affairs remain a central Indonesian government competence: yet it appears that across the country, locally-elected authorities are demonstrating a growing appetite for using the powers afforded them by decentralisation to pursue policies that are both antagonistic to religious minorities and in breach of the constitution.

Overall, localised moves to curtail the rights and freedoms of religious minorities are seen as presenting an important constitutional challenge. Currently legal challenges to, for example, local-government edicts preventing the construction of religious buildings - as with the ongoing church saga in Bogor - are channelled through local district courts. As things stand, the Indonesian constitutional-court’s competencies only extend to cases relating to judicial legal review, conflicts between state institutions, impeachment and the dissolution of political parties.

Human-rights activists, however, argue that cases involving a constitutional complaint, particularly those where a fundamental principle - in this instance, freedom of worship - is at stake should come under the constitutional-court’s jurisdiction (as is true in, for example, Germany, South Korea and a number of Latin American countries). More broadly it was suggested that defining and guaranteeing access to processes of constitutional complaint is an issue that MENA countries such as Egypt should consider carefully in the context of drafting a new constitution.

In this respect one interviewee succinctly summarised the current situation as follows: "the state intervenes where it shouldn’t in religious matters, and doesn’t intervene where it should - in protecting the rights of minorities."

Assessments of the impact of the 2001 decentralization law vary widely. Some stress the resulting improvements both in local service delivery and the extent to which, for example, customary law and governance structures are accommodated and included. Others, however, emphasise the negative - if largely unforeseen - impacts of decentralisation on inter-ethnic relations.

There is growing evidence, for example of provincial leaderships pursuing policies designed to keep out ethnic "outsiders". Some provinces have also begun to stipulate the required ethnicity of elected officials, even if this goes against the constitution. In significant parts of the country, it is argued, decentralisation has thus unwittingly assisted a process of homogenising local populations at the expense of previously prevailing heterogeneity.

The central authorities are currently in the process of drafting a set of revisions to the 2001 decentralisation law intended to address these challenges, particularly with a view to curbing the role of ethnicity in the selection of local officials and elected officers. How this works out in practice remains to be seen, not least in provinces such as Papua where the special-autonomy law stipulates that the governor should be a "native Papuan": but, as one interviewee put it, "how is the term native to be defined, and by whom?".

Devolution of power downwards means that mayors and other provincial leaders are elected locally and as such are not directly accountable to the central authorities. Finding means of reconciling the tensions between upwards and downwards-directed accountability remains a critical challenge for Indonesian democracy.

Overall the verdict on decentralisation’s impact to date is very mixed. On the negative side, in many provinces it has led to the election of what were described as "local kings" - and related local dynasties - who govern essentially for their own benefit. In some regions, such as parts of Kalimantan, power has devolved to local communities that are hostile to all newcomers. Local elites have been given the opportunity to upgrade their position and importance, without necessarily passing on the benefits to the people.

At the same time, on the positive side it was suggested that when well managed, decentralisation can prove an effective tool for enhancing local prosperity and managing prevailing diversities. As one interviewee put it: "We Indonesians are still dreaming that local government will become an engine of local economic prosperity that also helps to strengthen the state".

A potentially critical instrument for monitoring and promoting minority rights and protections is the National Human Rights Council (NHRC). Established in 1991, initially as something of a showcase institution but accorded more substantive powers and a clear legal standing (1999) following the advent of the reformasi era, the NHRC’s position today reflects some of the challenges confronting Indonesia in the minority rights arena.

While the NHRC’s operations are financed from within the state budget, a senior council staff member pointed out that the office remains hugely under-resourced in relation to the demands placed on it: its staff of 200, for example, is roughly a third of that in sister structures in India and the Philippines.

As well as dealing with the large number of complaints it receives on issues ranging from police violence, conflicts between corporations and local populations to religious freedoms and the behaviour of local government officials, Council officials would also like to take a more active role in promoting tolerance and respect for human rights through expanded national education programmes. Budgetary constraints are such that this is currently not possible.

The fundamental challenge identified here, however, is the low level of attention and priority the commission’s work receives from government. As a council official argued, however: "to make our democratic transition really work, values such as respect for minorities and freedom of religion really need to be placed centre stream in Indonesian society today".

The representation and participation of minorities in Indonesian politics appears problematic. Little if any research has been done on the subject to date, perhaps testimony to the fact that as one interviewee put it "the ‘issue’ of minorities is still new for most Indonesians". With respect to political parties, women are the only disadvantaged group for which there is any form of formal quota system.

In administration, the judiciary and other public bodies, it was suggested that minority representation is very low, particularly at the higher levels of office. In this context, the importance of civil-society organisations starting to take on these issues, in particular promoting broader debate and discussion of the whole idea of quotas was highlighted.

Indonesia: lessons learned - majority-minority relations

In relation to the growing ethnicisation of local Indonesian politics in the reformasi era it is important to underscore the basic point articulated by one interviewee: "Democratisation opens up both a space for increased respect for minority rights and a forum where intolerance and hatred can come into play." Recent experience in Indonesia, no less than in many countries across central-eastern Europe, the post-Soviet space and sub-Saharan Africa, points to the critical relevance and vital importance of paying due attention to this "heightened conflict potential" aspect of the policy agenda in new democracies of the MENA region.

Indonesia: lessons learned - minority rights

From the perspective of entrenching democracy, devolving power downwards to the local level is clearly a positive development, particularly in a large country such as Indonesia where the obvious alternative - a federal structure - is still widely viewed with suspicion. At the same time, from the perspective of majority-minority relations to date decentralisation appears to have had a number of negative, if often foreseen, local-level consequences. More specifically, five wider "lessons learned" from this experience suggest themselves:

* The first concerns the importance of establishing a clear, thought-through constitutional framework for reform. As one interviewee put it: "If you want to implement decentralisation, first make sure [the framework] is clear in your constitution. If it isn’t then you are certain to face all sorts of different constitutional interpretations and unforeseen legal tangles"

* In this context, and specifically with respect to drafting a new constitution - a process that MENA countries such as Tunisia and Libya are facing into 2012 and beyond - Indonesian experience points to the particular importance of defining and guaranteeing access to formalised processes of constitutional complaint. This is especially critical when issues of fundamental democratic constitutional principle, such as freedom of religion and worship, are involved. In a significant number of existing democracies, the constitution makes clear provision for referring such cases to the higher authority of the constitutional court. The validity of this approach appears to be confirmed by Indonesia’s recent experience, and is one to which transitional MENA countries would do well to give serious attention.

* The implementation of decentralising reforms is best undertaken gradually. To quote the same interviewee cited above: "In Indonesia we made the mistake of going for the 'big bang’ approach, trying to jump from a centralised to a decentralised system in one rapid move". Specifically in this context, it was suggested that the first round of local elections held following democratic transition should use an indirect voting system: "the first time round the parties simply need to learn how the system works, and it will probably take two or three electoral cycles before you can get the approach ‘right’".

* A related lesson drawn from Indonesia’s experience may be that the country has, as suggested by another interviewee, "put too heavy emphasis on building democratic institutions while neglecting to deal with other vital issues such as economic and social rights and building a common sense of citizenship. It is particularly important that minorities develop a sense of citizenship: that way they can actually play a role in consolidating a society built on democratic principles". It was further argued that promoting the notion of shared citizenship with equal rights for all might be as much a priority issue for countries of the MENA region as it remains for Indonesia today.

Indonesia: lessons learned - radical Islamism and minority rights

There are also three lessons of democratisation in the area of strategic responses to the challenge of radical Islamism and enouraging respect for minority rights:

* For all the opportunities afforded by the political freedoms the county has enjoyed since the beginning of the reformasi process in 1998, and despite an overwhelmingly majority Muslim population, a critical feature of Indonesian democracy to date is that "political Islam" or "Islamism" continues to play a relatively insignificant role in national political life. While the majority of Indonesian political parties started life as Islamic cultural movements, to date parties with explicitly Islamist programmes have proved unable to attract anything more than minority electoral support.

Why is this? One view is as follows: "By and large Indonesians don’t ‘buy’ religion at elections: they will listen to [religious views] but they won’t buy them in determining their government". And in seeking to explain this fact one can point to the influence of the country’s historically moderate majority Islamic outlook in which elements of Hinduism, indigenous, animist and Chinese religious influences have all played a role

* Indonesia’s current struggle to hold the line with regard to policies of tolerance, minority recognition and rights points, however, to a wider lesson. While it is critical to democracy’s functioning that a clear, constitutionally-mandated legal framework upholding essential minority rights is in place, the existence of such a framework does not in itself ensure that those rights will be respected in practice. For this it is vital that the authorities take a proactive lead both in ensuring that minority rights are respected on the ground, and in actively advocating within society for the fundamental principles of tolerance and inclusion upon which they are based.

The prevailing lack of Indonesian governmental action or leadership in this area has led one commentator to propose the creation of a taskforce tasked with developing a "national strategy on religious tolerance", with the aim of both "underscoring the government’s commitment to uphold[ing] a national value" and identifying an appropriate set of policies in this area. Such an approach to upholding and promoting religious tolerance may also merit consideration in other democratising majority-Muslim countries in the MENA region. Whether or not this specific policy approach appears relevant, it is vital that - both in theory and in practice - the authorities in new democracies of the MENA region work vigorously to uphold respect for fundamental minority rights within their societies

* In addition, one government official argued that vigorous official initiatives to promote religious tolerance should be accompanied by parallel "education for diversity" programmes modelled on post-apartheid era South Africa initiatives. In this context, moreover, a related challenge - and opportunity - is what one interviewee described as "finding ways to mobilize the positive resources of Indonesia’s many and diverse cultures in favour of education rooted in tolerance".
Indonesia: conclusions and recommendations

Taken as a whole, the practical evidence and policy insights derived from the Indonesia case form just one basis of potential guidance that could be applied elsewhere in strategies for protecting the rights of minorities and promoting their participation and representation in the political process. Whether they are considered helpful or relevant with respect to the challenges confronting MENA countries engaged in the complex process of promoting and entrenching their democratic transitions is ultimately a matter of internal, contextualised judgement by governments and other critical actors within particular societies in this region.

That said, what follows is an attempt to summarise key policy-related conclusions and recommendations. They arise from a broad examination of the issues in the context of Indonesia, Canada, India and South Africa, though for the purposes of this essay the Indonesian case provides the core empirical foundation. It is hoped that these insights will indeed prove to be both relevant and useful in the context of efforts to address challenges of minority protection, recognition, participation and representation in new and aspiring MENA-region democracies.

Additionally, it is hoped that the conclusions and recommendations outlined below will provide some useful policy-directed food for thought for donors and other external actors seeking to support long-term democratic consolidation in the MENA region.

The transition test: reform and democratic values

Here then are three conclusions with respect to reform and the promotion of democratic values in the context of minority rights:

* In relation to Indonesia’s democratising experience in particular, there is a risk of overemphasising formal institutions at the expense of attention to other vital issues pertaining to citizen’s economic and social rights, in particular to building a common sense of citizenship shared by majority and minority populations alike

* While it is critical to ensure that a clear, legal framework upholding basic minority rights is put in place, the existence of such a framework does not in itself ensure that those rights will be respected in practice. In particular, experience in transitional countries such as Indonesia indicates that beyond establishing an appropriate legal and institutional framework for protecting minority rights, it is vital for governments to take a proactive lead in ensuring that those rights are respected on the ground, and in actively advocating for the fundamental principles of tolerance, inclusion, justice and equity upon which they are based.

These general conclusions, deriving both from the specific transitional experience of Indonesia and more generally from that of numerous "new" democracies over the last two decades, are ones to which nascent MENA region democracies would do well to pay close attention.

In countries such as Egypt with large, well-established religious minority communities, it is particularly important for transitional authorities to take a lead role in protecting and promoting the rights of minorities. In the Egyptian as well as other regional contexts, moreover, official efforts in this area can potentially draw support from prevailing popular attachment to the values of inter-religious tolerance and respect - a fact to which in Egypt’s case, the Muslim-Christian alliance underpinning the mass Tahrir Square demonstrations of early 2011, and the spontaneous resultant gestures of inter-confessional solidarity and support, gives potent testimony

* With respect to overall democratic reform processes, it is essential for the leaderships in new MENA region democracies to demonstrate a keen appreciation of the fact that in practice, democratisation opens up both a space for increased respect for minority rights and a forum within which intolerance and hatred can come into play. Recent experience in Indonesia, no less than in many countries across central-eastern Europe, the post-Soviet space and sub-Saharan Africa points both to the critical relevance and vital importance of paying due attention to this "heightened conflict potential" aspect of the experience of new democracies.

Mindful of the bloody inter-ethnic conflicts that have stained the transitional experience of so many countries over the last two decades, new and emerging MENA democracies need to frame approaches to majority-minority relations that are informed by a keen awareness of the lessons learned from these painful experiences.

The transition test: secularism

There are also three lessons with respect to secularism:

* India’s experience of a secular state in conditions of majority religiosity suggests that appropriately conceived, secularism is both a critical and potentially effective tool for managing relations between majority and minority religious communities – all the more so if the government both insists on secularism in theory and applies it even-handedly in practice.

Crucially, India’s approach licenses the state to intervene whenever and wherever minority religious groups are subject to discrimination or ill-treatment, and thereby to prevent a majority religion’s domination of minority religious groups.

To date the idea of secularism has not received a particularly positive press in the MENA region. To the extent that it is identified with western policies based on attempts to keep religion as far out of the political domain as possible, this is wholly understandable in countries where the primacy of religion in the majority of the population’s lives remains a basic fact of life. Informed as it is by a fundamental appreciation of a broadly similar social reality, however, Indian democracy’s approach to secularism is one that merits much closer study and attention among new and transitional MENA region democracies.

* Independently of the presence, or absence, of an official secular policy framework, vigorous official initiatives to promote religious tolerance should ideally be accompanied by parallel "education for diversity" programmes modelled, for example, on post-apartheid era South Africa initiatives in this area. In this context, moreover, a related challenge - and opportunity - is what one Indonesian interviewee described as "finding ways to mobilize the positive resources of [a country’s]...diverse cultures in favour of education rooted in tolerance".

From an early stage, new and transitional democracies in the MENA region should seriously consider engaging in the development of nationwide civic diversity education and promotion campaigns tailored to the specific needs of majority-minority relations within their own context.

The transition test: state intervention and minority rights

There are five recommendations with regard to the responsibility of states in relation to the protection of minority rights:

* Democracy and diversity are fundamentally linked. In new MENA-region democracies as elsewhere in the world, safeguarding minority rights is not a "soft", optional policy issue. It may well be critical to democracy’s essential functioning and, in many contexts, to its prospects for long-term sustainability. Concrete evidence of this is provided by the recent experience of countries that do (e.g. India) and do not (e.g. Sri Lanka) pursue minority policies based on appreciation of the fundamental democracy-diversity linkages

* India’s approach to accommodating minority demands and concerns, as compared to neighbouring Sri Lanka’s experience in this domain, suggests that state policies with respect to minorities have the potential to either make or break the contours of the democratic polity - for minority and majority populations alike. This basic perspective on the strategic importance of devising appropriate policy frameworks for managing majority-minority relations is one that all new and transitional MENA region countries would do well to take seriously, first and foremost in the context of fashioing their own democratic institutions and related constitutional frameworks

* At the same time it is also important for transitional MENA-region countries to adopt a realistic approach to the overall role of state intervention in protecting and promoting minority rights. In this respect India’s experience points specifically to a number of important, related lessons that also merit close attention in other transitional contexts:

- Constitutionally entrenched measures that recognise minorities’ existence, and seek to address key structural disadvantages they experience, are both vital to, and effective in, promoting their overall well being and inclusion

- Anti-minority prejudice and discrimination cannot be legislated out of existence. To be effective legislative and other state interventions need to be underpinned by, among other things, a broad-based programme of advocacy and education in favour of fundamental democratic principles of tolerance and inclusion

- Empowerment measures are not synonymous with providing resources for the practical realisation of minority rights. As one Canadian Chinese minority rights activist interviewee argued: "It’s not enough to say that you have a right to exist: there have to be clear state interventions in your favour". For such rights to function in practice, moreover, it is essential to give members of minority communities a clear say in decisions on matters that affect them directly - in other words, to devolve power down to the lowest practicable level

* India’s experience with respect to the classic "individual vs group rights" dilemma also suggests the value of an approach predicated on the notion of targeted, regularly reappraised socio-economic interventions with respect to minority groups based on identified needs and structural disadvantages rather than simply group identity. This approach has the additional merit of building on broader Indian lessons learned with respect to the impact of "reservations" on the prevailing socio-economic conditions of intended beneficiaries of these policies.

Targeted socio-economic interventions based on the empirically identified needs and structural disadvantages of specific communities thus offer new democracies of the MENA region a potentially promising alternative policy approach to one based on traditional "group rights"-based affirmative action initiatives on behalf of minorities

* Prevailing economic and social exclusions can lead to the creation of linkages and a sense of common identity between hitherto divided minority communities. As long as the prevailing political order is perceived as excluding minorities in significant ways, countries where this is perceived to be the case are likely to experience the rise of political protest and agitation in which issues of identity play a defining or otherwise crucial role. Moreover, such new "political communities" may articulate their grievances in ways that challenge the basis of the existing democratic dispensation: witness the argument advanced by some Coloured / Khoisan community activists in today’s South Africa that "white supremacy has been replaced by black majoritarianism", or that "our democracy is colour-coded - this time for blacks rather than whites".

Democratisation: coalitions and demands

For democratising countries in the MENA region in particular, this last conclusion points towards two important and related further policy considerations:

* Ad hoc coalitions between disparate minority and other political groupings have been an important feature of the broad-based opposition movements that have emerged over the last year in countries from Tunisia and Libya to Syria and Yemen. What has bound these coalitions together is essentially a strong, shared sense of grievance against the existing political order: in some countries this has already provided the basis for the toppling of that order - and may yet prove to do the same so in others as well.

In all cases the coalitions formed in opposition to the old or existing order are likely to remain an important political factor beyond the democratic revolutionary moment itself, and in this context it is important for new or nascent democratic authorities to pay close attention to the specific demands they articulate beyond the basic call for system change

* New democratic dispensations in the MENA region must be prepared for the fact that, their support for or role in an initial democratic revolution notwithstanding, minority groups may well continue to articulate their demands beyond that point in ways that challenge the emerging democratic order, not least with respect to questions of regional, cultural, religious or linguistic autonomy. In this context an awareness of the range of pre-emptive strategies available for accommodating and addressing such concerns and demands may prove to be a matter of democratic transitional urgency, even necessity.

Decentralisation and minority rights

In relation to issues of decentralisation and minority rights, there are four recommendations:

* Devolving power downwards to the local level is a potentially useful tool for promoting minority’s sense of ownership of both the overall democratic polity and related decision-making processes. In this context, moreover, establishing a clear, thought-through constitutional framework for local-level democratic reform has paramount importance.

In the context of MENA region democratic transitions, it is vital that an understanding of this basic perspective is mainstreamed into constitutional-reform processes, in particular in the context of the constituent assemblies currently being formed in Tunisia and other countries

* The implementation of decentralising reforms is best undertaken gradually. Adopting a "big bang" approach to attempts to move from a centralised to a decentralised system of governance carries with it the likelihood that at least as many problems will be created as a result - many of them unforeseen and unpredictable - as old ones are "solved". MENA transitional countries should thus avoid the temptation to rush - or be rushed by outsiders - into rapid decentralisation programmes that attempt to "fix" all aspects of centre-region governance relations in one fell swoop.

* When designing reforms aimed at enhancing local-level democracy it is vital both to pay attention to and, where possible and appropriate, adopt governance policies and frameworks that are rooted in, or otherwise incorporate, already existing rate customary governance structures and processes. India’s adoption of the local-level panchayati raj system is a concrete and largely positive example of how this approach can be applied in practice. And as one interviewee expressed the broader issue to which this points: "Unless you identify and adapt customary structures within your democratic framework, in many countries the enterprise will simply fail".

In newly democratising countries of the MENA region it may thus be critical to explore governance institutions and approaches located within traditional tribal and other customary structures, inter alia with a view to identifying those that can be appropriately integrated into or otherwise accorded formal recognition within emerging transitional democratic frameworks. In this respect, moreover, it is important to take account of the central role of customary institutions and decision-making processes in many MENA region countries - democracies and non-democracies alike - notably in relation to prevalent, and often powerful, tribal social structures.

* With respect to the specific situation of indigenous peoples within a decentralised or decentralising democratic polity, longer-term perspectives on the impact of policies intended to enhance the self-government capacities of minority communities may be necessary, particularly in cases where the small size of indigenous communities makes the exercise of self-government problematic in itself. Generally speaking strategies for promoting indigenous people’s inclusion and representation in the political process - a subject that merits a broader, separate study in itself – should be informed by an understanding and appreciation of customary indigenous institutions, structures, culture and decision-making processes.

Immigration and identity

In relation to questions of immigration, integration, national identity and language, there are six conclusions:

* It is possible to incorporate deep principles of tolerance and accommodation, as well as societal policies based on them, into the prevailing sense of national identity. Preconditions for achieving this goal include not only strong political will but also a sustained readiness to match formal policies with the resources necessary to support their practical implementation.

Unique though it is to date, Canada’s recent experience in this domain suggests that in conditions where the requisite level of political will is matched by the necessary resources, it is possible for a democracy to refashion majority perceptions of identity in favour of an inclusive, open and accommodating national self-understanding. In this respect, new MENA region democracies are in principle well placed to embark on the project of refashioning national identity on the basis of an explicit embrace of the democratic principles of openness, inclusion and respect

* In order to be effective, official integration policies must be complimented by strategies - and related resources - aimed at the social and economic empowerment of minorities. As well as constituting a potentially means of combatting the root causes of minority exclusion, appropriately targeted and adequately-resourced policies aimed at promoting minority social and economic equity, empowerment and integration "add value" to the process of democratic consolidation.

As well as being a powerful tool for preventing the emergence of ethnic underclasses, such equity-based integration-enhancing policies are a potentially effective means of combating the rise of racially- and religiously-based extremisms. In countries of the MENA region with well-organised - and in many cases, well-supported - radical religious structures, notably among Wahhabi and Salafist-inspired Islamist groupings, the relevance and appeal of such targeted integration policies seems readily apparent

* Popular receptivity to the notion of minority rights depends critically on prevailing historical-political conditions in the country in question. Given South Africa’s profoundly negative experience of the effects of categorising people on the basis of their membership of official racial categories, for example, it is not hard to understand prevailing mistrust of treating people on the basis of their perceived ethnic and/or minority racial identity.

When designing transitional reform programmes aimed at improving the position of minorities within a country, national authorities and external assistance-providers alike should thus ensure that such initiatives are informed by a careful, nuanced understanding of dominant social attitudes to what might be called "minority discourse"

* In highly diverse democracies, many prevailing minority-related challenges have their roots in the tension between on the one hand, recognising and accommodating existing diversities, and on the other, efforts to consolidate and build a unified "nation". This is a tension that in its own local variant, many new MENA region democracies will sooner or later be forced to confront, either implicitly or in some cases - such as Egypt - on a more explicit basis

* When considering the option of immigration policies focused on attracting the "best", i.e. most skilled workers - as is the case in Canada - it is important to give due consideration to the broader impacts of such policies, not least with respect to their potential undermining of domestic capacity within target immigration countries.

For countries of the MENA region, notably Libya and the Gulf states, one of the most important current challenges with respect to the question of foreign/migrant workers is the prevailing lack of official recognition of migrant workers' basic civic, economic and political rights - and in some cases, even of the fact that they exist within the country.

From the perspective of basic democratic rights - let alone minority recognition and protection - this is an unacceptable state of affairs, and one that, for example, Libya’s transitional authorities should be strongly encouraged to address as a matter of political priority.

* State policies based on the structural accommodation of minority languages - notably in the form of formal regional and/or state sponsored bi/multi-lingualism - have a real potential to reduce the appeal of separatism. In this respect both Canadian and Indian experience provide empirical support to both this general hypothesis and the overall policy approach it suggests.

For MENA region countries that have significant minority language populations - the indigenous Tamazight-speaking Berber population of countries of the Magreb region being an obvious case in point - accomodationist regional and/or national linguistic policies up to (but not necessarily including) the level of official bilingualism should be given serious, contextualised policy attention. The issue assumes particular importance, moreover, in MENA region countries with a history of strong regional or even separatist sentiment and in the broader context of efforts to promote consolidation and strengthening in prevailing conditions of state fragility, as is the case in countries such as, for example, Libya and Yemen.

The dangers of xenophobia

Three final conclusions suggest themselves with respect to the challenges posed by the prevalence of xenophobic attitudes within a society, in MENA region transitional countries no less than established democracies elsewhere. They arise in particular from recent South African experience, but have wider relevance:

* In conditions characterised by a prevailing lack of resources combined with poor service delivery, it is all too tempting for people to blame foreigners for their situation

* A poor understanding of the culture and overall situation in neighbouring countries and further afield provides fertile ground for the growth of social attitudes characterised by intolerance towards non-nationals residing in the country In this respect, moreover, in conditions of economic recession there is a strong tendency for majority populations to blame the prevailing lack of work opportunities on foreigners "taking our jobs".

* In conditions where population groups have themselves experienced marginalisation it is all too easy for them to accord similar treatment to new social minorities.

It is hoped that this mixture of focused investigation and overall assessment of the contemporary experience of democratisation around the world will generate understanding of, in particular, the challenges facing the MENA region as it embarks, albeit amid still pressing and difficult conditions, on its own great journey.       


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