Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

A conservative turn

Liberal Islamic groups have prompted a backlash.

Greg Fealy

There has been much recent debate about the conservative trend in Indonesian Islam. The foreign media and more secular Indonesian press closely cover events that appear to confirm this trend, including the forced the closure of unregistered churches and attacks on ‘heretical’ sects by militant Muslims; the election of conservative national boards for Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah; and the introduction of local government ‘Islamic’ regulations setting out dress and fraternisation codes, banning the retail sale of alcohol, and requiring religious observations for Muslim school children and public servants.

Often this conservatism is blamed on the rising influence of puritanical forms of Middle Eastern Islam. While there is some truth to this argument, another rarely mentioned driver is the role of liberal Islamic groups. Paradoxically, in the past two years liberal groups have set back the very cause they are seeking to promote: the ‘reform’ of Islam in order to create, as they see it, a more tolerant and enlightened Muslim community. By pursuing a more confrontational approach, liberal groups have alienated many mainstream Muslims and provided opportunities for conservatives to mobilise against them. The result has been growing disapproval of liberal reform within the general Muslim community and greater activism from emboldened militant groups.

Liberal Islam

What is currently known as ‘liberal Islam’ is the latest manifestation of a reform movement whose origins can be traced back to the early ’70s. Initially this movement used the term ‘pembaruan’ (‘renewal’ or ‘reform’) and was led by intellectuals and activists such as Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, Djohan Effendi and Ahmad Wahib.

From the outset, the movement sparked controversy with its attempts to critique and transform Islamic thinking and practices. The reformers believed that Indonesian Islam had lost its intellectual creativity and reflectiveness and had instead become mired in unproductive political battles with the New Order regime which ultimately harmed the interests of the Muslim community. They began re-examining Islamic teachings, producing new interpretations to address contemporary issues facing Muslims. Reform-minded scholars produced works on gender, human rights, the environment, democracy and inter-faith dialogue, based largely on new understanding of the Qur’an and other sources of law, but also drawing on an array of Western thinking.

Reformers also launched new forms of Islamic activism and predication. They formed NGOs, research centres and outreach organisations, aiming to engage sections of the Muslim community previously distant from organised Islam as well as supporting their intellectual pursuits. The best example of this was Nurcholish Madjid’s Paramadina Foundation in Jakarta, which attracted strong support from middle class professionals and senior regime officials. It played a key role in popularising new thought on Islam and in ‘gentrifying’ Islamic activism. Another influential example of this movement was Nahdlatul Ulama’s ‘kembali ke khittah 1926’ (‘return to the 1926 charter’), which saw the organisation leave formal politics and devote itself to socio-religious activities. This spawned numerous NU-linked NGOs which worked on programs ranging from grassroots empowerment, poverty alleviation and maternal health to democratisation, rights advocacy and gender equality.

This reform movement has greatly enriched and broadened Indonesian Islam’s intellectual and cultural discourse, and weakened the nexus between pietism and political Islam. Unlike in the 1950s, many devout Muslims today do not vote for Islamic political parties. Furthermore, the reform movement has strengthened the pluralistic character of Indonesian Islam.

In recent years, many of the vanguard Islamic reform organisations have declined or disappeared, and the quantity (and arguably, quality) of new ideas has diminished. The most prominent of contemporary groups is the Liberal Islam Network (JIL), which was established in 2001. Key figures in JIL include Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, Hamid Basyaib and Luthfi Assyaukanie. JIL has enjoyed generous foreign funding, particularly from the Asia Foundation. JIL produces widely syndicated newspaper features and radio programs as well as a high quality website ( www.Islamlib.com ) and internet discussion group. More recently, reform-minded scholars and young activists within Muhammadiyah have founded the Young Muhammadiyah Intellectuals’ Network (JIMM). There are also a range of lower-profile liberal NGOs, such as Rahima, P3M and LKiS, which promote new Islamic thought.

Recent liberal Islam controversies

In the past few years there have been numerous controversies involving a number of liberal Islam groups. Three in particular stand out. The first revolved around an article called ‘Refreshing Islamic Understanding’ by Ulil Abshar-Abdalla in Kompas (18 November 2002), in which he argued, among other things, that ‘that there is no such thing as “the law of God” … only general universal principles.’ The article provoked a furious reaction among conservative ulama (religious scholars). A number of groups demanded that the police charge Ulil with blasphemy and that the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI) declare JIL to have deviated from Islamic teachings. The strongest reaction came from the Bandung-based Forum for Islamic Community Ulama (FUUI), which stated that Ulil’s writings fell into that category of offences for which the maximum penalty was death. (It was later revealed that several JI-affiliated militants planned to kill Ulil but abandoned the attempt after an ulama declared that only a religious court could impose a death sentence.)

A second controversial issue was the attempt by a number of Paramadina intellectuals to develop inter-religious jurisprudential codes (‘fikih lintas agama’). Islamist groups denounced this as a distortion of Islamic teachings and an encouragement to apostasy.

The most recent and most significant controversy was that surrounding the changes to Indonesian Islamic family law proposed in the ‘Counter Legal Draft on the Islamic Law Compilation’ (CLD-KHI), produced within the Ministry of Religion’s Research and Development Division in October 2004. Most attention focused on those sections of the draft which called for the banning of polygamy, equal inheritance rights (Islamic law gives male legatees double the inheritance of females), and equal rights to initiate divorce and reconciliation (existing Islamic law limits the rights of women to divorce their husbands). The CLD-KHI provoked an immediate reaction among not only conservative groups but also mainstream Islamic organisations, with many calling for action to be taken against its creators. Later that month, the Minister of Religion withdrew the draft.

Conservative turn

These controversies have helped to swing opinion within the larger Islamic organisations such as NU and Muhammadiyah against the liberal agenda. Whereas many of the leaders of these groups had previously been tolerant, if not supportive, of liberal ideas, they now openly opposed them. The CLD-KHI, in particular, had a galvanising effect, not only because of the radical nature of its proposals, but also because it had originated in the Department of Religion. Many senior NU and Muhammadiyah ulama declared the proposals contrary to God’s commands and criticised liberal intellectuals for advocating sinful behaviour. One prominent NU Islamic scholar said, ‘I had no problem when they [liberal activists] said it is not wise to have more than one wife. But now they want to ban polygamy altogether. Why, it says in the Qur’an that a man can have up to four wives. This is the word of God. Who are they to say it is illegal to do this?’

The anti-liberal backlash was apparent at the five yearly congresses of NU and Muhammadiyah, held respectively in 2004 and 2005. JIL and JIMM activists were sharply criticised by branch delegates and leading liberal figures were either not re-elected to the executive boards or were shunted into marginal positions. Both organisations have since pursued largely conservative agendas.

The conservative MUI has become more emphatically reactionary, declaring last year that ‘liberalism, pluralism and secularism’ were contrary to Islamic teachings.

Moreover, smaller, more militant conservative groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) and Holy Warriors Council of Indonesia (MMI) have sensed the change in Islamic community attitudes and have mobilised to take advantage of this. They have protested against, and sometimes attacked, ‘heretical’ sects such as Ahmadiyah and Lia Aminudin’s ‘Kingdom of God’, and have threatened to shut down JIL’s headquarters in East Jakarta. They have also pressed the police and local administrations to close unregistered churches and take strong action against ‘deviant’ religious groups.

These events indicate a narrowing of religious space in Indonesian public life over the past two years, for which the more outspoken liberal groups must take some responsibility. Their provocative actions have helped to spark a conservative backlash and provided ammunition for their opponents. Other reform-oriented NGOs complain that the controversies created by JIL and the CLD-KHI have stigmatised Islamic liberalism and set back long-running programs to foster change among Muslim groups.

It must also be acknowledged that other factors, such as the ‘war on terror’, the Iraq war and globalisation, have contributed significantly to this conservative turn in Indonesian Islam. This trend is by no means irreversible and should not be seen as presaging a fundamental change in the character and outlook of the Islamic community. However, if liberal Islam is to regain the initiative, it will need greater tactical acuity and sensitivity to community attitudes.

Greg Fealy (greg.fealy@anu.edu.au) is Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Indonesian

Inside Indonesia 87: Jul-Sep 2006

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