Thursday, 30 July 2015

Political Islam and Indonesia - A few points worth understanding.

Recently I was in Indonesia conducting research on a project I am working on, and although I have extensively travelled throughout Indonesia previously and have done significant studies on Islam, I paid particular attention to certain aspects of Islam in everyday life. With Western governments and media institutions constantly facilitating and leading a conversation that, at times, can negatively portray one of the worlds great religions, it is important to highlight moderate Islam as the Islam that is predominate, normal and mainstream. 

Throughout the non-Islamic world we are constantly besieged by governmental propaganda, media biases and, at times, factual reports on sectarian Islamic violence or violence committed by certain aspects of the Islamic community towards those who are not Muslim. It is easy to think difference of theological opinion within Islam leads to violence, again driven primarily by media institutions. However those who have a basic understanding of Islam and politics within countries that have a predominate Islamic population, will know that most differences within Islam are peacefully and intellectually debated. A good example of intellectual debate is demonstrated in the July edition of the well respected Tempo magazine.  The article clearly makes known the debate surrounding recitation of the Quran in Indonesia, after a Javanese inspired recitation was made at the State Palace in May 2015. This engulfed a debate surrounding Javanese Islamic traditions and Middle Eastern Islamic traditions. The debate, although colourful, was completely peaceful, included a televised debate and was widely discussed at universities and workplaces. 

This lead me into writing a general overview of Political Islam in Indonesia, to attempt to get a point across that Islam can thrive both practically and intellectually within a country. I am passionate about destroying myths and prejudices that surround Islam, especially found in countries such as Australia, the United States, China and Thailand. Notice, it is not only Western countries who have inaccurate assumptions of Islam. Understanding Islam in a country like Indonesia goes along way in improving ones understanding that Indonesia is not a hotbed of Islamic extremism.                      

In the keynote address to the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) in 2007 the then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) explained, “Rather than becoming a bastion of radicalism, the heart and soul of Indonesia remains moderate and progressive. In Indonesia, democracy, Islam and modernity go hand in hand effortlessly together” (Yudhoyono 2007). President Yudhoyono’s claim is carefully scripted for his intended audience however there is a significant amount credibility found within his words.  There are also challenges to what President Yudhoyono argues with radical groups operating all throughout Indonesia, however somewhat limited in scope. To accurately demonstrate why Indonesia is still relatively moderate, although challenged at times, I will discuss reasons why Political Islam has not become a dominant force within Indonesian society and politics, again very generally. 
In recent decades numerous States throughout North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia have seen a reemergence and reappearance of religious values and issues in public affairs. Little consensus has surfaced in to why this has occurred with some more credible commentary noting reasons include, the rejection of globalisation, apprehension of the spread of democracy, state interference, the desire for religious authenticity and legitimacy, and the desire for a global caliphate (Hirschkind 1997:4). Many scholars have adopted the term ‘Political Islam’ as the distinct development of the Islamic religion into the secular sphere of politics. This creates little differentiation between religion and state thus enables Islam to be both a political ideology and a religion (Hirschkind 1997:12).

There has been no consistent or homogeneous growth of Political Islam throughout the Islamic world although there are some commonalities, such as the rise of Islamist political parties and Islamic community leaders and scholars entering the political arena. The so-called Arab Spring saw long-term dictatorships fall and Islamist parties rise, however the majority of these were short-lived, such as in Egypt and Tunisia. Even in Turkey where the Islamist AK Party has dominated for many years, at the recent election, there was a significant swing towards more secular political parties. Over the last couple of years the world has seen the growth of the so-called ‘Islamic State (IS)’, which poses new questions into the discourse of Political Islam, especially the influence IS is having throughout the world. I would argue IS is attempting to prove that Political Islam and Islam in general is not compatible with democracy, authoritarianism or capitalism, thus a new ‘IS’ style Islamic State (regional caliphate) is necessary. 

To Australians especially, Indonesia is often seen as a ‘hotbed’ of Islamic fundamentalism, where Islam flourishes giving Australia a somewhat ‘dangerous’ neighbour just to its north. However this depiction could not be further from the truth. Indonesia demonstrates minimal aspects of Political Islam and is arguably distinctively unique as it lacks many of the contributing factors states within the Islamic world inhabit, thus limiting religion and ensuring the supremacy of secularism. However it still has internal battles with the ideals of Political Islam. 

A historical look at Indonesia 

In March 1945 the occupying Japanese forces established a committee to investigate and commence preparatory work towards potential Indonesian independence (Tamara 2009:4). The committee demonstrated profound religious and social division within Muslim communities, with Mietzner explaining, “…when it came to politics, each stream had major differences over ideology, policy and leadership style, and each used different aspects of Islamic thought and tradition to legitimate their particular approach to politics” (Mietzner 2009:73). There were two primary areas of competition, one that concerned the role of Islam within the State and the other the purpose of the State. In June 1945 a small percentage of Muslims argued for Islamic law however those in favour of a religiously neutral state argued Indonesia would split up instantly with non-Muslim areas seceding from the nation state (Pringle 2010:58). Upon negotiation freedom of religion was determined however the President would always have to be a practicing Muslim. This compromise also failed and five pillars, know as ‘Pancasila’, were selected as the national ideology, with the President able to be of any monotheistic religion he or she chooses.  

Indonesia’s first President and founding father, Sukarno, argued that the new Indonesian state needed to be based on a belief in God, thus making it neither Islamic nor a secular state but that of a religious state (Ramage 1995:14). This would enable all religions, including Islam, to practice and perform all their religious commitments. The leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations), Wahid Hasyim, recognised and accepted this premise and agreed that in order to have unity within the new Republic no single religion could receive superior treatment. Hasyim explained, “what we need most of all at this time is the indissoluble unity of the nation (Ramage 1995:14).  

In understanding why Political Islam does not have a significant role within Indonesia today it is crucial to understand the ideology of the Indonesian state. As mentioned Pancasila is the basis and glue of the Indonesian state. The five pillars that Sukarno purposefully set out as the national ideology are; nationalistic unity, humanitarianism, democracy through consultation and consensus, social justice, and belief in God (Ramage 1995:13). The sole purpose of the ideology is to promote and reinforce unity through diversity in a state that has such a broad range of conflicting viewpoints. It was formulated by President Sukarno to define the new Indonesian state, by President Suharto (Indonesia’s second President) to form a ‘state religion’ through all facets of life, and currently as a successful instrument that demands respect as it has enabled democracy, Islam and modernity to flourish within such a diverse society (Porter 2002:30). 

In 1892 a Dutch scholar who concentrated on Islamic Studies, Snouck Hurgronje, explained Indonesian Islam to be remarkably different to that practiced within the Middle East and North Africa with only one pillar of the faith found, “…the confession that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” (Pringle 2010:48).  The lack of Quranic theology and understanding was due to a lack of education, the ability the ruling colonial power had at controlling Islam, and centuries of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism being practiced alongside Islam (Geertz 1985:272). In the early twentieth century the amount of Indonesians receiving an education increased with numerous students studying in Europe and the Middle East thus creating a challenge for the Dutch. Opposition grew towards the colonial power and Islamic and secular societies were established throughout the Dutch East Indies. There was little consensus amongst Islamic groups in what a future Indonesian state should look like and many debated to what level should Islam play a role. However the desire for statehood and nationalism primarily created aspects of unity. One of the most influential voices during the 1930’s was that of Muhammad Natsir, a western educated Islamic scholar. Natsir promoted a modernist interpretation of Islam and supported liberal parliamentary democracy within Indonesia in order for all Indonesians, “to feel as they are members of a larger family sharing a language and a geographical location” (Kurzman 2002:66). Japanese occupation during the Second World War also encouraged nationalism and assisted in the set up of nationalistic institutions that significantly assisted in the birth of the Indonesian state. 

In 1926 tens of thousands of youth and educated Indonesians held a conference that pledged no matter what social group you identify with or the location you inhabit within the archipelago, all belonged to one fatherland, Indonesia. It was also the first time both ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’ were acknowledged as a potential future basis for Indonesian society and polity (Pringle 2010:59). Prominent Islamic leader Wahid Hasyum famously explained that unity must be the priority of all Indonesians and that it was incorrect to ask the question, ‘what ultimately should be the place of Islam in the State’ (Pringle 2010:63). Hasyum argued the appropriate question should be, “By what means shall we assure the place of our religion in Free Indonesia” (Pringle 2010:64). However although there was a strong nationalistic movement it would be inaccurate to understate the rise of Political Islam within Indonesia in the 1940’s. In what could be referred to as an academic or intellectual civil war there were many individuals and groups who wanted Islam in all facets of society and polity and it was not until the early 1950’s when independent and under Sukarno, Political Islam was significantly limited (Porter 2002:2). Two of the most influential voices throughout the Independence struggle and early independence were the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. Still two of the most powerful groups within Indonesian civil society today, both groups have limited Political Islam, although not entirely, by solidifying Islam and its importance within civil society.  

In contrast to other states that have large Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic organizations within Indonesia rarely get involved within the political process at an organizational level. Although having such a large membership basis, political parties do consist of members form different organizations and organizations can influence voting habits at times, however this rarely occurs publicly. After the fall of Suharto both Muhammadiyah and Nathdlatul Ulama did attempt to get involved within the political scene however their was little interest amongst their members thus both organisations became reasonably neutral and gave up political ambitions and affiliations. 

The modernists, who follow the orthodox Santri practice of Islam, are primarily members of Muhammadiyah, who claim to have over 30 million members (Brown 2003:235). Modernists are more interested in a purist form of Islam derived from the Arabian Peninsula and challenge local, primarily Javanese customs. Before independence they were eager to implement western political and social practices and many ‘so-called’ modernists went to Europe and Egypt to be educated. The socio-religious organization is extensively involved within civil society in both a religious and non-religious manner. Members of Muhammadiyah primarily support the secular nature of the Indonesian state and are opposed to Political Islam however aspects of the organization support the creation of a stronger ‘Islamic society’ within the framework of Indonesia’s state ideology (Ramage 1995:7). 

The traditionalists, who follow what Clifford Geertz calls the Abangan practice of Islam, are primarily members of Nahdlatul Ulama (Porter 2002:40). Traditionalists were predominantly rural farmers however since urbanization are now found within cities. They primarily incorporate local religious practices into their Islamic faith and emphasize clerical teachings, religious boarding schools and social justice. Brown states the former leader of Nahdatul Ulama, who is also a former Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, argued strongly against making Indonesia an Islamic state (Brown 2003:235). Wahid was also a vocal critic of Political Islam, with Ramage explaining he was a, “…leading proponent of secular democracy in Indonesia” (Ramage 1995:45). Nahdlatul Ulama and its leadership have constantly supported Indonesia to be a democratic civil society that is basically non-Islamic and not that of a military state (Nakamura 2001:31). Although there has been a long rivalry between both Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiah on interpretations of the Koran and Islamic practices, as demonstrated in the July edition of Tempo early mentioned, both organizations fundamentally support the state ideology and respect the diversity of Indonesia thus significantly limiting Political Islam.

The lack of significance Political Islam has within Indonesian society and politics can be contributed to the presidency of Sukarno. Although society was fragmented with ideas and thoughts in how Indonesia should be politically, President Sukarno supported secular nationalism and was determined to have it as the leading political philosophy of the state (Pringle 2010:65). For many Indonesians ethnic or regional identity, such as Javanese, Balinese, or Sumatran was as important or at times more crucial than ideology or religion. President Sukarno’s own personal circumstances demonstrated the diversity of the archipelago and how unity was possible, having been born in Bali, was a nominal Muslim, and had a Hindu wife. During his presidency Sukarno confidently and effectively limited both a growing insurgence from the Indonesian Communist Party and Islamists who wanted an Islamic state. Sukarno also solidified the military as the guardian of secularism, unity and diversity, although at times through oppressive and ineffective ways. An example of Sukarno demonstrating the importance of national unity was his opposition to the growth of communism. Military operations such as the ‘Madiun Affair’, the military clashing with communist supporters in Madiun, left a lasting legacy on those who wanted to diverge away from the foundations of the Indonesian state (Pringle 2010:72). The Madiun Affair was used by President Sukarno to demonstrate to Indonesians that extreme ideology was dangerous and a threat to the newly formed diverse state. 

Ideologically opposite to communism and in disagreement with the foundations of the state, was the rise and threat of Darul Islam. In what started as a small group of Islamists who supported Indonesia becoming a Islamic state soon expanded to include areas such as Aceh and West Java, with tens of thousands of members. Violence broke out throughout the country and once again the military was used to limit the influence of Darul Islam with an estimated 15,000 deaths, primarily in Aceh province. The significance of Durul Islam and the impact it has had on Political Islam was immense. It was used as an example by President Sukarno as a potential danger to the very fabric and nature of Indonesia, that could lead to a significant amount of separatist movements. It is also important to note Durul Islam is often referred to as ‘Islamic extremism’ within Indonesia and is now linked to groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah. This link limits Political Islam within modern day Indonesia by forging links, although limited, between elements of Political Islam and aspects of Durul Islam. President Sukarno’s legacy on Political Islam is considerable, primarily in how he treated those who acted against the secular nature of the state and against nationalism, unity and diversity (Monash Asia Institute 2008:52). Many within both academic and political circles within Indonesia today share President Sukarno’s belief.

President Suharto’s haphazard ability to both limit yet enable Islam’s growth during his presidency has had a lasting impact on the lack of significance Political Islam has within Indonesia today. President Suharto believed diversity found within Indonesia was a threat rather than a national asset (Pringle 2010:85). Although believing communism was the number one threat to the state, President Suharto believed Political Islam was a danger and threat to state security, thus he initially repressed Islamic groups. However towards the end of his rule, against a backdrop of unpopularity and to ensure the continuation of his rule, President Suharto reluctantly enabled and empowered Islamic groups to operate, whilst significantly controlling and monitoring them. Although it initially gave Suharto more support, it somewhat backfired as the ‘control’ aspect insulted many Islamic leaders giving Islamic fundamentalism support. During the 1980’s Suharto allowed Islamic Universities, Islamic banks, intellectual Islamic debate, and Islamic media to form. Although there was a rapid Islamic expansion, the very nature of it was moderate and primarily not political, thus making Suharto seemingly confident. The non-political nature of the growth of Islam was primarily due to the fact its leaders understood they had freedom outside of the political realm, only. With the lifting of restrictions, growth in Islamic education and the ability for religious leaders to travel to Saudi Arabia and other areas within the Middle East, enabled radical Islamic youth movements to gain significant support thus resulting in another attempted suppression of Islamic groups by President Suharto. The growth of Islam and the potential influence it was beginning to have on political and private life once again enabled nationalist movements to gain support and although only minimally, assisted in Suharto’s downfall. 

Political Islam has also been significantly hindered due to the education system and the way the state influenced educational outcomes. Education under Sukarno and Suharto was controlled and limited, with Islam given little respect or room to grow, other than the previous loosening of restrictions Suharto allowed. Within the last ten years there has been a considerable amount of transformation within educational institutions, especially within Islamic institutions. Islamic institutions are no longer only for the exceptionally religious and those who were religiously marginalized. This is primarily due to educational reforms that were implemented after the fall of Suharto. Islamic institutions are now able, and at times required, to offer subjects in all fields, including sciences, thus creating a problematic discourse for some Islamic intellectuals due to the lack of separation between the sciences and the religious within Islam (Bustama-Ahmad 2011:45). Azyumardi Azra explains, “Natural sciences are of course already based on universal principles. If certain theories in the social sciences and humanities are Western-based, then the need is not to ‘Islamize’ them, but to develop theories that are based on Muslim social and cultural realities” (Bustama-Ahmad 2011:45).  Another distinct aspect of Islamic institutions within Indonesia is the diversity they inhabit. Local Islamic Universities primarily represent the beliefs of the communities they are found within (Bustama-Ahmad 2011:54). The majority of Islamic educational institutions are run by those who are religiously moderate and not politically inclined. Although it is yet to be determined if graduates from Islamic institutions are more conservative yet respect the Indonesian ideology. There is little reason to believe this will enable Political Islam to gain support, as the educated are primarily nationalists before they are Muslim.   

The role the military plays within Indonesia is vast and critically important when discussing the lack of significance Political Islam has within Indonesia. Since independence the Indonesian military has played a large role in securing the state Ideology and promoting secularism (Federspiel 1973:407). They have used excessive force numerous times in order to limit those on the left (communists) or right (Islamists) of the political spectrum. It could be argued at times the military balanced the rule of both Sukarno and Suharto and ruled along side both Presidents. However recently there has been much debate to what extent the military is now needed within the political realm, since Indonesian is a vibrant democracy. In 1998 political veteran Amien Rais stated, “One of our greatest challenges now is to sideline the military from politics. They have dominated our political system, our society, our economy for too long…It is now time for us civilians to take charge and reform the foundations of this nation” (Mietzner 2009:1). Although now relatively sidelined, the military still plays an important part, be it in image, of protecting the secular nature of the state, and at times, will remind certain individuals of this. 

There are some contradictions within Indonesia, and this discussion speaks of Indonesia ‘in-general’. The semi-autonomous region of Aceh has had a constant battle with the Indonesian state, in its desire to practice, what it calls, a more purist form of Islam. Arguably Aceh's desire to be independent is even more important than its interpretation of Islam. More recently Aceh has enforced some practices that many see as draconian and anything but that of secular, however due to the uniqueness of the Aceh case, I will not attempt to analyse the situation in this post. It is also worth stressing that the uniqueness of Aceh and its historical relationship with the Indonesian state and previous colonial power, means the rest of the Indonesian archipelago is vastly different and can not be compared to ongoings in Aceh - the Aceh issue will not spill over to other areas. It is also not fair to state, "But Mat, what about Aceh and some of their laws and regulations...", I do not believe one can compare, in general, this situation to a broad discussion on Political Islam in Indonesia. More on Aceh to come...       

Some commentators argue that the 2014 presidential election saw a rise in the desire for Political Islam within Indonesia. They argue that because there was a slight rise in votes for  broadly Islamic based parties, that Political Islam is making a comeback into the political arena. However these observations are overly general and neglect to understand the division found within Islamic parties within Indonesia. There is little consensus or agreement amongst Islamic based political parties. The top five Islamic parties in Indonesia are the PKS, PBB, PPP, PKB and the PAN, however only the PKS, PBB and PPP openly argue for Islamic agendas to return to the political sphere. The other two are more nationalistic in practice and have members of other faiths within their ranks, and their popularity in the 2014 election demonstrate moderate Islam is much more acceptable to the majority of Muslims within Indonesia. If put together, the amount of votes the five ‘so-called’ Islamic parties received was significant. However all five parties have significantly different ideologies, are plagued by corruption and scandals, and fail to attract attention from the vast majority or Indonesians, who primarily vote for nationalistic and secular parties. Although there is space for ‘Islamic Parties’ there is a strong desire for Indonesia to remain the same, and little consensus amongst Islamic Parties in how they can further influence politics within Indonesia. 

It is clear that Political Islam has not become a significant force within Indonesian politics and society. There is also credibility to President Yudhoyono’s words mentioned at the beginning of this article, “In Indonesia, democracy, Islam and modernity go hand in hand effortlessly together”. This is primarily due to the limitations on Political Islam due to the national ideology and past historical events. Both the Dutch and Japanese occupations, the vibrancy of civil society, President Sukarno and Suharto’s rule, the role of the military and education within Indonesia have all limited Political Islam and enabled Indonesia to be the state it is today. The 2014 elections also demonstrated that due to the vibrancy and diversity found within Islamic parties, and the lack of consensus and agreement, Political Islam and its dominance is not inevitable in Indonesia.  

Indonesia is vibrant, diverse and complicated, yet at its core, democratic. The vast majority of Indonesians disapprove extremist ideologies and practice and significantly endorse the secular nature of the Indonesian state. Those who constantly condemn Islam, in a generalised and broad simplification, are being influenced by enormously biased media organisations and governments who use the condemnation of Islam as political capital. It is always worth having an in-depth look at what you are condemning, as Indonesia demonstrates, the county is by no means extreme or growing in extremist ideologies.

National Monument, Jakarta. 

Brief Bibliography for those inspired to continue to research the topic: 

Brown, C. 2003. ‘A short History of Indonesia’. Allen and Unwin. Sydney

Buehler, M. 2009. ‘Islam and Democracy in Indonesia’. Insight Turkey 11:4 51-63

Bustama-Ahmad, K. 2011. ‘Islamic Studies and Islamic Education in Contemporary Southeast Asia’. Yayasan Ilmuwan. Malaysia

Federspiel, H. 1973. ‘The Military and Islam in Sukarno’s Indonesia’. Public Affairs 46:3 407-42

Geertz, C. 1985. ‘Cultural and Social Change: The Indonesia Case’. Man 19:511-532

Hefner, R. 2000. ‘Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia’. Princeton University Press. Princeton

Hirschkind, Charles. 1997. ‘What is Political Islam’. Middle East Report 205 12-14

Kurzman, C. 2002. ‘Introduction: The Modernist Islamic Movement” in Charles Kurzman (ed), Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A sourcebook. Oxford University Press. Oxford

Mansurnoor, I. 1990. ‘Islam in an Indonesian World”. Gadjah Mada University Press. Yogyakarta

Mietzner, M. 2009. ‘Military Politics, Islam, and the State of Indonesia’. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Singapore

Monash Asia Institute. 2008. ‘Muslim Politics and Democratization in Indonesia’. Monash Asia Institute Publishings. Clayton

Pepinsky, T. 2012. ‘Testing Islam’s Political Advantage: Evidence from Indonesia’. American Journal of political Science 56:3 584-600

Platzdasch, Bernhard. 2009. ‘Islamism in Indonesia: Politics in the Emerging Democracy’. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Singapore

Porter, D. 2002. ‘Managing Politics and Islam in Indonesia’. Routledge Curzon. London

Pringle, R. 2010. ‘Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity’. University of Hawaii Press. Hawaii. 

Ramage, D. 1995. ‘Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam and the Ideology of Tolerance’. Routledge. New York

Tamara, N. 2009. ‘Indonesia Rising: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power’. Select Publishing’s. Singapore

Yudhoyono, S. 2007. ‘Key Note Address: 40th Annual Conference on International Association of Political Consultants. Office of the President of Indonesia. Jakarta. 12 November 2007. Cited 13 September 2012.

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