May 20, 2024 Last Updated 5:01 AM, May 8, 2024

How Muslims will say 'No'

The Muslim-led United Development Party (PPP) won 23 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections, a significant increase over the past. However, party activists recorded widespread electoral fraud by government officials that they believe robbed them of a much higher share. They demanded the PPP leadership refuse to sign the result.

Under pressure from the authorities, the leaders signed anyway. This frustrated many party supporters, who had hoped that a refusal might lead to a nation-wide rejection of the election result. This, in turn, might have invalidated the entire exercise and thereby constitutionally delegitimised the Suharto government. But the battle is not over yet. There is still a prospect for Islamic opposition in Indonesia, evolving in conjunction with parliamentary opposition from the PPP.

Strictly religious

In Indonesia, there are at least three types of Islamic opposition which could influence oppositional politics. These are the strictly religious opposition, more economically-oriented opposition, and a broader opposition motivated by human rights. Strictly religious opposition means opposing gambling, alcohol, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, abuse of the Prophet Muhammad's name or of words from the Holy Qur'an. It also includes opposing the prohibition on the Islamic women's head dress (jilbab) in public schools, as well as opposing the freedom of other religions to practice.

The mass protest against Indonesia's state-controlled national lottery SDSB a few years ago fell within this type of Islamic opposition. So did the mass rallies in support of the Bosnian and Palestinian peoples, which were driven more by solidarity for fellow Muslims than for upholding the right of self-determination. Another example was the protest against former Information Minister Harmoko, who (it was said) intentionally made a slip of the tongue while reciting verses from the Holy Qur'an a couple of years ago.


Economically-oriented opposition generally objects to the unaccountable way the government uses taxpayers' money. This has been carried out by PPP politicians such as Hamzah Haz. He has called for the implementation of the parliament's budgetary rights, which are stipulated in the 1945 Constitution but have been ignored by the Suharto government for the last thirty years.

PPP politicians have also repeatedly campaigned against corruption. For example Sri Bintang Pamungkas, then still a PPP parliamentarian, called for an investigation into credit scandals involving the textile factory PT Sritex, and into its partnership with a brother of then-Information Minister Harmoko. Also included in this category could be mass protests against the escape of an imprisoned Chinese businessman, Eddy Tanzil, who had been sentenced for embezzling large amounts of state bank credits.

This second type of Islamic opposition is grounded in many PPP politicians from the modernist Islamic organisation Muhammadiyah. They come from the urban small business class, which has been systematically marginalised by Suharto's big business tendency. Suharto has shown disproportionate favouritism towards a handful of Chinese business families and families of the ruling elite.

Village level

However, after more and more intellectuals from Muhammadiyah obtained tertiary education degrees and joined the bureaucracy, their role as social critics was somewhat taken over by leaders of the other main Islamic organisation, the more traditional Nahdatul Ulama (NU). From village level NU branch leaders right up to the current NU national leader Kiai Haji Abdurrachman Wahid, they have become spokespersons for marginalised villagers.

The problems villagers face include industrial pollution into the brackish fish ponds near Gresik in East Java, the planned relocation of large-scale Japanese industries to Madura which may marginalise villagers, as well as the social and environmental impact of nuclear power plants which the Suharto regime plans to build in Central Java.

NU kiai have on various occasions defended the rights of farmers vis-a-vis repressive agricultural policies of the New Order state, such as the compulsory sugarcane planting scheme and mismanagement of rural credits.

After the formation of the Suharto-backed Muslim scholars association ICMI, many Muhammadiyah-educated intellectuals joined up and thus become less and less vocal. In fact, they became strong supporters of the technological 'white elephants' of Research and Technology Minister, Dr Baharuddin Jusuf Habibie, who chairs ICMI. In the case of the Madura Island development project, ICMI intellectuals tried to persuade the kiai of Madura to accept that plan.

This situation may not last long, however. Earlier this year Muhammadiyah's chairperson, Dr Amien Rais, was sacked by Habibie as the chairperson of ICMI's Expert Council. Amien Rais had criticised Suharto for allowing large foreign business interests to control the Freeport copper mine in West Papua and the supposedly lucrative Busang gold mine in East Kalimantan.

Economic Islamic opposition goes back to the independence struggle before World War II, when Islamic organisations opposed the Dutch colonial regime's policy of favouring the Eurasian upper class and the 'Foreign Oriental' (Chinese, Arab and Indian) middle class. Muhammadiyah, established in 1912, fought the Dutch policy by creating their own schools, hospitals, and businesses in the cities. Many rural kiais, meanwhile, were involved in peasant rebellions against Dutch-controlled sugarcane plantations and sugar mills.

Human rights

Finally, the third type of Islamic opposition is where Indonesian Muslims have joined hands with non-Muslims, including the children of members of the banned Indonesian Communist Party PKI and its affiliate organisations, to fight for broader human rights concerns which do not exclusively cover Muslim interests.

Contrary to the mainstream view, which does not regard this type of opposition as 'Islamic', anybody who reads the literature published by Islamic non-government organisations in Indonesia will have to agree that there is nothing 'un-Islamic' about all these human rights campaigns. They are promoted both by the more 'conventional' literature from older mass organisations and the more 'radical' publishers such as Mizan in Bandung and LKIS in Yogyakarta.

Many activists with explicit Islamic backgrounds, members of Islamic organisations in their student years, have been involved in a variety of pro-democracy campaigns. They take up issues ranging from free speech to more sensitive ones such as the right to self-determination for the people of East Timor, West Papua and Aceh.

The list of Muslim opposition figures also includes some figures from the ICMI camp. Dr Amien Rais, for instance, has criticised the nepotism of the ruling Golkar party in appointing its candidates for the 1997 elections. He also suggested that the political parties should determine the criteria for the next presidential candidate.

Dr Nurcholish Madjid, or Cak Nur, former leader of the Islamic students association HMI, who still sits on the ICMI Expert Council, has called for the two non-ruling parties, PDI and PPP, to become explicit opposition parties. He himself has joined the election watchdog KIPP. Cak Nur is also a member of the National Human Rights Commission. Dr Sri Bintang Pamungkas, the leader of an illegal political party, PUDI, who was expelled from PPP after his involvement in anti-Suharto rallies in Germany, has never been expelled from ICMI.

HMI members in East Java helped defend imprisoned East Timor activist Jose Antonio Neves in 1994. In Central Java they joined protests against pollution at Tapak and against a nuclear plant. In Riau they joined anti-logging protests, and in North Sumatra they worked to oppose child labour abuse.

In most social justice and environmental campaigns in which I have been involved, I have worked closely with Indonesian Muslim activists working in secular, Islamic, and inter-religious organisations.


Having broadened the perspective, we now need to examine several inner constraints on the effectiveness of an Islamic opposition in Indonesia. By focusing mainly on specific religious needs, the Islamic opposition, especially its first type, has created insecurity among non-Muslim minorities. The more so since non-Muslim places of worship such as Christian churches and Buddhist/ Taoist temples have been attacked during anti-government protests. This insecurity has caused many voters from non-Muslim backgrounds to flock into the Golkar camp or to boycott the elections.

It would be impossible to return to a civilian-dominated political system if non-Muslim minorities still feel the need for military protection. By attacking non-Muslim places of worship, residences and work places, groups involved in the first type of Islamic opposition have undermined their claims that Muslims can live peacefully with non-Muslims.

On the international level, Islamic opposition has mainly focused on supporting Muslim minorities vis-a-vis non-Muslim majorities, such as the Palestinians, the Bosnians, the Moros and the Patanis. Meanwhile, they have rarely defended the right of Muslim minorities fighting for independence from Muslim majorities, such as the Sahrawi in West Sahara, whose country was annexed by the Kingdom of Morocco in 1975, or the Acehnese, who are still struggling for independence from Indonesia.

The first type of opposition activists have blindly upheld the image of the Suharto regime as the global defender of oppressed Muslims, while being unaware of the regime's contradictory international policy towards those fellow Muslims. For instance, many of these activists have been totally unaware of the Suharto regime's clandestine dealings with Israel's government by buying Israeli Uzi guns and other weapons through the Mossad-linked arms trader, Shaul Eisenberg.

Many Indonesian international Islamic solidarity activists also seem to be unaware of the role Habibie-led aircraft manufacturer IPTN has played in channeling German BO-105 helicopters to Saddam Hussein to kill fellow Muslims in Kurdistan, Iran, and Kuwait. Nor of IPTN's current support for the Burmese military junta, which has oppressed Burma's Arakan Muslim minority.


The first type of Islamic opposition, which is carried out through ad hoc extra-parliamentary coalitions using mass action tactics, has rarely been followed up with critical reflection about the results of their campaigns. This ad hoc process has made it easy for the Suharto regime to ride the Islamic bandwagon while carrying out un-Islamic practices.

Two glaring examples of this unreflective process are the anti-Monitor and anti-SDSB campaigns, both in the early '90s. They attacked the Catholic publisher of the Jakarta tabloid Monitor, Jakob Oetama, and its Catholic editor, Arswendo Atmowiloto, because it had in their eyes insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Yet no Islamic organisation investigated the role of then-Information Minister Harmoko, who was a co-shareholder in the same tabloid.

Until his departure from his powerful Information Minister position, no Islamic organisation ever questioned Harmoko's conflict of interest in owning shares in media enterprises under his jurisdiction. Nor did they question the ethics of earning dividends from a tabloid which had not only insulted the Prophet Muhammad but also insulted all Indonesian women with its lucrative, near-pornographic cover photos.

As far as the anti-SDSB campaign was concerned, no Islamic organisation has ever demanded an independent investigation into the actual amount and use of the funds generated by this national lottery. Foreign press reports as well as my own sources have stated that two sons of Suharto, Sigit Harjojudanto and Hutomo Mandalaputra Suharto, were beneficiaries of the SDSB funds, together with Henry Pribadi, a wealthy Sino-Indonesian businessman. Sigit later used his SDSB fortune to build his five-star Bali Cliff Resort hotel in Uluwatu, southern Bali.

This comes to another major limitation of Islamic opposition in Indonesia. The movements outside parliament to defend the honour of Islam in Indonesia, as well as in the world, were rarely linked with the economic opposition within it by Islamic parliamentarians. Sri Bintang Pamungkas was probably the only PPP parliamentarian to take the pains of building links with opposition movements outside parliament, Islamic as well as non-Islamic.


The next limitation is one experienced by the third type of Islamic opposition. Due to the fear of being branded as 'sectarian' or 'primordial' by fellow activists, these Islamic human rights activists have rarely raised public concerns about Islamic human rights violations in Indonesia.

I have rarely heard, for instance, Muslim human rights activists in the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, YLBHI, who shared with me a strong concern for the violation of West Papuan cultural rights, express a similar concern about the prohibition against the wearing of the Muslim head dress jilbab in public schools.

I have also rarely heard Muslim human rights activists leading YLBHI, which espouses liberal democratic ideas, to call for the rehabilitation of all banned Muslim political parties and mass organisations. These include Masyumi, Parmusi, the Islamic Youth Organisation (Pelajar Islam Indonesia, PII) and the Islamic Farmers Organisation (Serikat Tani Islam Indonesia, STII).

All these political organisations were banned by Jakarta governments for different reasons. Masyumi was banned by Sukarno, together with the Indonesian Socialist Party PSI, for allegedly being involved in the regionalist PRRI rebellion of 1957. Parmusi was banned by Suharto for fear it was a reincarnation of Masyumi. STII was banned for refusing to merge into the government's farmers organisation, HKTI, while PII was banned for refusing to adopt Pancasila as its organisational philosophy, which was part of the 1985 package of five repressive political acts.


I believe there is a great prospect of Islamic opposition in Indonesia, provided all three types of opposition are embraced and developed in a balanced way. This in turn depends not only on how each type will develop, but also on the close interaction between the three streams of Islamic opposition, as well as between oppositions outside parliament and those within it belonging to different ideological and religious persuasions.

As an Indonesian pro-democracy activist in self-imposed exile, who has worked closely with several strands of Islamic opposition, I strongly believe in this cooperation as a condition sine qua non, for long term and short term reasons. The long term reason is to increase the quality of Islamic opposition in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.

The short term reason is to end the Suharto dictatorship and to transform the Indonesian political system towards a more democratic, open, and tolerant system. This will be one where religion is not imposed by the state on its subjects, where all banned political parties - whether the Indonesian Communist Party, the Indonesian Socialist Party, the Islamic party Masyumi, the People's Democratic Party PRD, the United Democratic Party PUDI or the two Christian political parties Partai Katolik and Parkindo - have the right to exist, side by side with any other political party that people want to establish, under a multiparty system.

Newcastle, June 16, 1997

In respectful memory of Ali Shari'ati, Iranian pro-democracy martyr and Islamic liberation theologian, martyred in London on June 19, twenty years ago.

Dr George Aditjondro teaches sociology at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 52: Oct-Dec 1997

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