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What happened in Jakarta after the “king of dangdut”, Rhoma Irama, delivered a sermon that mentioned the religious beliefs of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Joko Widodo? Nothing. It is just business as usual as religious sentiment no longer has an influence in politics.
Almost no one had predicted that incumbent governor Fauzi “Foke” Bowo and his running mate Nachrowi Ramli would be defeated by the Widodo-Basuki pairing in the first leg of the Jakarta election last month.
Apart from the advantage of being the incumbent, Foke is known to have a special relationship with prominent Islamic-based organizations. Foke himself formerly chaired the Jakarta chapter of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim group.
Other candidates nominated by Islamic-based parties, Hidayat Nur Wahid-Didik J. Rachbini, managed only to finish third and therefore do not qualify for the runoff.
The result is not a new phenomenon in Indonesian politics. The pairing of Jusuf Kalla-Wiranto only got 12 percent of the vote in the 2009 presidential election although many key figures from the two biggest Muslim organizations, NU and Muhammadiyah, threw their weight behind them.
Many experts and politicians are convinced that religion plays a big role in politics. Some of them argue that the political system of democracy, having emerged in a particular culture, cannot be duplicated by other cultures.
Democracy is exclusively related to individualism and that is believed to be a unique feature of Western society. That is why democracy is incompatible with Muslim societies.
Islam is believed to be a self-sufficient religion that covers all aspects of Muslim life (Bernard Lewis: 2002).
For this reason Muslim societies, according to this argument, have great difficulties going beyond Islamic jurisdiction. Al-din (religion) and al-daulah (state) are two sides of one coin; there is no separation between them.
From this point of view, secularism, which is the idea of separating religion from the state, is alien to Muslims. Consequentially, a Muslim society, based on its religious teachings, will find it difficult to practice democracy.
There is not much support for this thesis in real political life, including in Islamic communities. It is true that Islamic-based political parties have won the first elections in some of the new democratic countries in the Middle East.
This might reinforce the argument that religion plays a pivotal role in politics, particularly in the Muslim context.
In fact, the parties change all the time. The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwanul Muslimin) in Egypt, for instance, is no longer a monolithic organization.
It has at least three factions, with the biggest one an accommodative faction that has produced the elected president, Mohammad Morsi (Carry Rosefski Wickham: 2011). In addition, it did not exploit ideological issues in its election campaign, but rather matters related to good governance.
The party has been a significant part of the democratic movement in the Egyptian transition of power. It won the election not because of its Islamic ideology, but due to its opposition to the dictatorial regime.
Many years before the Arab Spring, Olivier Roy predicted the failure of political Islam (1994). He identified two camps; Islamism and neo-fundamentalism.
The first refers to a political movement and the second relates to spiritual activities. The second group dominates the Muslim world and leads to the failure of any Islamic political interest.
Islam is not the only entity, but this is sometimes forgotten. Many people think that all Muslims follow Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian jihadist who fought in Afghanistan, who called for a holy war against infidels.
Through his polemic essay titled Ilhaaq bi-Qafiilah (Joining the caravan) in 1987 he asked Muslims across the world to join the fight.
It is an oversimplification to think about Islam in only one way. There are so many groups and identities within Muslim communities (Greg Fealy and Sally White: 2008). In addition, these identities tend to be forgotten with many people thinking only about the ideological debates between Islamists and liberals (Anthoni Bubalo and Greg Fealy: 2005).
The most recent research on Indonesian political behavior found that religion has not had a crucial role in the three general elections of Indonesia’s reformation era (Saiful Mujani, R. William Liddle and Kuskrido Ambardi: 2012). Some Islamic-based political parties were established at the beginning to gain votes from the Muslim electorate, but they have put up a mediocre performance compared to the nationalist and secularist parties.
For example, the United Development Party (PPP) exploited its opposition to Ahmadiyah, a minority sect in Islam, and managed only to win 5.32 percent of the vote in the 2009 legislative election.
When religion, particularly in the Muslim context, has hardly played a major role in politics, it is difficult to understand why religious sentiment should be used to discredit a certain candidate in Jakarta’s gubernatorial election.
It means people who make use of such issues have not learned the lessons of Indonesia’s political experience.
Promoting religious sentiment can be suicidal for, if not actually backfiring on, the user. It would be better for them to promote secular issues, such as good governance, corruption eradication and bureaucratic reform.
The writer is the manager of the Liberal Islam Network and was awarded an Australian Development Scholarship (ADS).