Mar 23, 2018 Last Updated 7:10 AM, Mar 17, 2018

Islam in opposition? It's not that simple.

Eighteen months ago Megawati Sukarnoputri (daughter of Indonesia's first president) and her party PDI (Indonesian Democratic Party) seemed set to become a genuine opposition.Even after the events of July 1996, Megawati, no longer the official leader of PDI, continues to be in the eyes of many, not least the foreign media, the voice of opposition in Indonesia. Before the rise of Megawati neither PDI nor PPP were able to become more than token oppositions.

To find mass-based organisations with the extensive networks and the ability to capture the hearts of millions that are necessary for serious opposition it was necessary to look not to the political parties but to Islam.

Islamic masses

Nahdatul Ulama (NU), with a claimed membership in excess of thirty million and an unparalleled, grass-roots, village-based system of traditional religious schools or pesantren, is the most significant mass-based organisation outside of the ruling military regime.

Modernist Muhammadiyah, being largely urban and middle class, can not hope to match NU's pesantren network. Nevertheless, its own system of schools, along with its universities and its hospitals, orphanages and other charitable institutions, spans the nation and inspires the loyalty of a significant sector of modern Indonesian society. Moreover, Muhammadiyah also claims a membership base in the tens of millions.

Together, the two organisations rule the hearts of most of the nation's committed, santri Muslims. And in an era when more and more allegedly nominal abangan Muslims, the rest of Indonesia's 180 million Muslims, are discovering a new sense of purpose in religion, it is reasonable to assume that their influence is not limited just to those from santri families.

Not a threat

Nevertheless, it has been many years since Islam was regarded as a real threat to the ruling regime. Indeed, from its beginning, this decade has been marked by a very different relationship between Suharto's regime and Islam. In the 1990s, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, Suharto has nurtured a relationship between urban, modernist santri and the regime.

In the 1980s, particularly after the rise of Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur as he is known to millions, to the position of executive chairman, the government enjoyed a good working relationship with NU. The urban modernists, however, remained on the outer, especially those with any political aspirations. And so-called Islamic extremists, such as those held to be behind the Tanjung Priok incident of September 1984, continued to top the public enemy list (communists being in short supply).

Underscoring its attitude to 'political Islam', in the early 1980s the government moved to force all organisations to acknowledge Pancasila as their 'sole foundation' (asas tunggal) or else face dissolution. A symbolic move particularly unpalatable to those who were committed to campaigning politically for a greater role for Islam in public life. Most of whom were modernists with roots in Masyumi, the banned modernist political party of the 1950s.


It was somewhat surprising then, that in late 1990 the president moved decisively to promote a new national association for Muslim intellectuals, ICMI. Significantly, the initial impetus to set up ICMI did not come from Suharto. Rather, it was the brainchild of certain Muslim activists who had long been critical of the government. Including some outspoken critics such as Imaduddin Abdulrahim who had earlier been imprisoned because of his activism.

In retrospect the president's move was not so surprising. Some months earlier he had moved to appease conservative Muslim interests by allowing passage of a law elevating the status of Islamic courts (dealing mainly with matters of family law and inheritance) to match those of civil and military courts. Moreover, the president seemed to indicate a personal change of heart at this point by making his first hajj pilgrimage after which he symbolically added Muhammad to his name.

From the outset, there was considerable ambivalence regarding the government's support of ICMI and its general rapprochement with conservative Islam. Nevertheless, the great majority of Islamic intellectuals joined ICMI, or at least allowed their names to be added to its membership list. They were cautiously hopeful that the organisation might serve to leverage concessions out of the government.

Even those in the organisation who were most cynical about the motivations of Suharto and Habibie spoke optimistically about a growing wave of santrification in urban middle class society, and of the realpolitik potential of ICMI to 'shift the centre of gravity' through a ratchet effect.

From the government's, or at least the president's, point of view, the support of ICMI and related policy initiatives were a great success. Many of the government's most ardent critics were now lecturing on the virtues of Pancasila democracy and generally becoming 'good citizens'. At least until recently.


The government's actions in ousting Sukarnoputri Megawati from PDI through a heavily contrived 'internal coup' met with widespread anger. In late July 1996 this anger spilled over into the worst demonstrations seen in Indonesia in two decades. This ill feeling was further fuelled by the government crackdown on press freedom that began with the closure of the leading news magazines Tempo, Editor andDeTik two years earlier.

So, when earlier this year, Amien Rais, chairman of ICMI's board of experts, and also chairman of Muhammadiyah, spoke out candidly about his concerns about the Freeport mine operation in Irian Jaya, many applauded his bold stand.

Amien was concerned about the high level of foreign profit taking, and the involvement of 'certain business interests'. Just as the ousting of Megawati from PDI had transformed her into a popular 'martyr', so too the inevitable sacking of the recalcitrant Amien galvanised public opinion, particularly within the ranks of ICMI and Muhammadiyah.

The reluctant support for the government, or at least the silencing of criticism, that had been achieved through ICMI was washed away in a landslide of r esentment. It was hardly surprising that the May election campaign was marked by widespread unrest and the phenomena of 'Mega-Bintang', the symbolic and spontaneous linking of Megawati, as an iconic opposition figure, with the PPP campaign.

Gus Dur's peace move

Whilst, for a host of reasons, PPP failed to significantly increase its share of the vote, the scale and intensity of expressions of support for PPP during the campaign suggested that Islam was once again becoming the locus of political opposition.

Complicating the picture were two other factors, namely the many 'spontaneous' eruptions of 'ethnic' and 'religious' unrest throughout the country, and the complicated rapprochement earlier in the year between Gus Dur, NU and the regime. Abdurrahman had been a consistent and bold critic of the Suharto regime, particularly since 1993 when his personal relationship with the president soured, in part because of his outspoken comments about ICMI and the dangers of sectarianism.

Unexpected strategic manoeuvring has for decades been a standard NU ploy in negotiating the often tricky terrain of realpolitik in modern Indonesia. So it is not entirely surprising that such a maverick figure as Gus Dur should occasionally surprise even his friends as he negotiates space and leverage for himself and NU in extremely difficult circumstances.

Nevertheless, many observers fear that Gus Dur's attempts to buy a (temporary) peace with the regime will mean that it is even more likely that Indonesian society, already tense and resentful, will witness political anger being channeled along sectarian lines.

Genie out?

With the genie of 'political Islam' out of the bottle, some would argue, Indonesian society is in danger of becoming increasingly polarised, with neither the government, through ICMI, nor NU being able to check the dangerous slide.

But is the genie out of the bottle? The situation is complex. We should be wary of simplistic assessments. I would like to draw attention to four factors that I believe mitigate the gravity of the situation. First, the tenor of santri Muslim society in Indonesia is influenced by a widespread liberalism. This liberalism is, in part, the product of an enduring cultural orientation, but it has also been reinforced by modern education and dissemination of liberal ideas over the past two decades. This is particularly true of the traditionalists in NU, but also broadly true of the modernists, including most of those within ICMI.

Second, Indonesia faces a relative scarcity of true fundamentalism. This was true even in 1984, when in the face of significant resentment towards its drive to make Pancasila the dominant paradigm, government forces alleged that Islamic extremists were behind major riots in the Tanjung Priok port district of Jakarta. Evidence for large-scale agitation by Islamic extremists is just as difficult to find in relation to outbreaks of unrest earlier this year.

Third, whatever the success of Gus Dur's gamesmanship in, as it were, 'calling off the hounds', it is inconceivable that NU will not continue to be a moderating force in Muslim society. Indeed, it is possibly now going to be more, rather than less, effective in this role.

Finally, it is important not to overlook the inherent conservatism of the armed forces Abri in these matters. Abri remains the most powerful institution in Indonesian society, one which will undoubtedly exercise a key role in directing the transition to the post-Suharto era. And despite having experienced a significant santrification within its ranks it is not about to begin now experimenting with giving ground to militant political Islam.

Does this mean that we should discount the threat posed by sectarianism? Not at all, it is just that it is not that simple.

Greg Barton teaches studies in religion at Deakin University, Geelong, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 52: Oct-Dec 1997

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