Opinion

Is political Islam in Indonesia
in decline?

Over the past few years, various polls conducted by credible survey institutes have discovered dwindling electoral support for Islamic parties in Indonesia. A recently-released Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) poll, which revealed a drastic decrease in the electability of these parties, is anything but surprising. Although this poll deserves attention, it revealed nothing more than the same results of other previously conducted polls — the unequivocal decline of Islamic parties’ electability.

Some observers such as Andrew Steele (“The Decline of Political Islam in Indonesia” — Asia Times, March 28, 2006) have discussed and signified the fall of political Islam in Indonesia. In addition to the trend of the nose-diving electability of Islamic parties indicated by the polls, they specifically attributed this decline to the shifting political orientation of the nation’s phenomenal Islamic party — PKS (the Prosperous Justice Party) — from endorsing a purist Islamic agenda to that of a more moderate agenda that highlights the importance of building a clean government and combating corruption.

However, when it comes to electoral politics, the tendency of Islamic parties to transform into what political scientists often refer to as “catch-all” parties in an attempt to appeal to a broader segment of voters is not only happening in Indonesia, but also in many parts of the Muslim world. In Turkey, the ruling Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) is widely recognized as the successor of the already-banned Welfare Party that had stronger Islamic leanings. Yet, unlike its predecessor, the AKP translates its Islamic aspiration into common yet appealing watchwords such as “democratization” and “clean government”, striking a chord with people of diverse backgrounds.

In Malaysia, since the 2004 elections the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) has demonstrated readiness to devise a moderate campaign strategy, so as to lure voters from outside its traditional voting base that primarily consists of conservative Muslims, promoting a “PAS for all” motto, endorsing the concept of a welfare state, and muting its Islamic state agenda.

Likewise, the recent outbreak of the Arab Spring in Egypt provided the popular Muslim Brotherhood movement with an incentive to found the current ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that, albeit having a strong Islamic sharia aspiration, predominantly uses slogans that are far from being regarded as radical such as freedom, social
justice and equality.

In all these cases, it seems obvious that the moderation of Islamic parties is an inevitable part and parcel of the current political landscape. In virtually all of the Muslim world these parties are inescapably confronted with a harsh reality that compels them to alter their exclusive and radical political orientation in order to survive increasingly tough electoral competition through winning the hearts of voters outside their traditional voting base. But, does such a trend necessarily imply the end of political Islam in the entire Muslim world, as some prominent scholars in Islamic studies such as Olivier Roy and Asef Bayat have held?

I would argue that the answer depends on the specific features of the societal and political milieu of a polity and its regime to which actors of political Islam are attached. In some Muslim countries like Turkey, demands for the utter implementation of sharia and the establishment of an Islamic state spearheaded by various actors of political Islam might have significantly abated due to certain societal and political circumstances that prompted most of these actors to translate their Islamic aspirations into widely acceptable political messages that could reverberate through many layers of society.

However, as far as Indonesia is concerned, while it has become evident that Islamic parties are gravitating toward the pragmatic center, other actors of political Islam that are referred to by many as Islamic revivalist movements remain committed to voicing their radical Islamic agenda that revolves around sharia and an Islamic state. In contrast to Islamic parties that contest elections and channel their political interests through formal institutions such as the House of Rerpesentatives, such movements as Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Islam Defenders Front (FPI), Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) and Islamic Peoples Forum (FUI) have relentlessly engaged in a plethora of non-electoral activities such as mass protests, public gatherings and petition drives since the end of president Soeharto’s rule in 1998.

Of course, in terms of membership and organizational resources, they are far tinier than the two largest moderate Islamic organizations — Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Nevertheless, these revivalist movements have resources and skills at their disposal that enable them to capitalize on grievances and to mobilize a sizable number of protesters, raising protest issues ranging from social and economic injustice to religious defamation and pornography and putting pressure on the government to accommodate their demands.

Among other things, they have launched incessant campaigns demanding the ban of Ahmadiyah ever since the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa (Islamic decree) labelling the congregation as deviant in 2005. Such campaigns helped facilitate the issuance of the government’s joint ministerial decree in July 2008 that ordered Ahmadis to discontinue the dissemination of their teachings.

Anchored in the belief that eradicating vices such as pornography and obscenity is an inextricable part of Islamic injunctions, they also staged a series of mass protests against the planned concert of the American pop diva Lady Gaga scheduled for last year in Jakarta. Depicting the diva as “immensely symbolic of pornography” and a “Satan worshipper”, they managed to pressure the authorities into not granting her a concert permit.

Many scholars agree that political Islam principally refers to the instrumentalization of Islam as much as a theological reference or as a political ideology on which politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary world, and it is worth noting that the actors of such instrumentalization are not limited to Islamic parties. Islamic revivalist movements, too, serve as the actors of such instrumentalization. Therefore, it would be safe to argue that political Islam in post-Soeharto Indonesia is hardly in decline. It is Islamic parties that are in decline, but not the Islamic revivalist movements.

However, Islamic movements in Indonesia as much as social movement organizations everywhere in the world do not operate in a vacuum. The ebb and flow of their activism is closely contingent on the degree of political openness and circumstances unique to a regime in an environment to which they belong.

Currently, a controversial bill on mass organizations is high on the agenda of the House. While this bill purportedly aims to provide a comprehensive regulatory framework for all matters relating to mass organizations, many analysts in the country believe that it was put forward in response to recent incidents of religious violence involving
certain mass organizations.

Indeed, if the House passes the bill, the future of such revivalist movements will closely depend on the way the details of its content are designed; only if the bill introduces stringent measures to curb their activism for certain reasons, may we expect a decline in their public activism.

The writer, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Budi Luhur, Jakarta, is an Australian Endeavour Award Scholar at the University of New South Wales in Canberra.

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