Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Radical or reformist?

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Bernhard Platzdasch

Unlike the Suharto era, Indonesia now has quite radical Islamic groups operating in the open. Among them, the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) is infamous for unleashing paramilitary gangs on 'iniquitous' nightspots. The Sunni Communication Forum (Forum Komunikasi Ahlusunnah Wal Jamaah, FKAWJ) fights for Muslims in Maluku. The Liberation Party (Hizbut Tahrir) is a branch of the Middle Eastern movement of the same name. It calls for the Indonesian nation-state to be abolished and replaced by the classic model of an Islamic state, the caliphate. Both FKAWJ and Hizbut Tahrir bluntly reject democratic models as a Western invention, incompatible with Islam. The campus-based Hizbut Tahrir shows restraint in its actions, but the other two frequently operate in a grey area of the law (see accompanying article).

The Islamic Defenders Front and the FKAWJ draw their mass support from poorly educated lower income classes. Somewhat unconvincingly, unlike the blunt anti-pluralism of FKAWJ and Hizbut Tahrir, the Defenders proclaim a nebulous democratic agenda. Still, all these groups are similar in their fierce anti-Western and anti-Zionist propaganda.

Recent news coverage outside Indonesia has frequently expressed concern that a strident and anti-democratic Islam is on the rise in Indonesia. This view is not to be dismissed completely, but it is over-drawn. As we shall see, there is a widened range of Islamic parties and movements in Indonesia, but it overwhelmingly supports the country's stumble toward democracy. Groups such as those described above stand outside the party spectrum. They make up a small radical fringe inclined to violence and intimidation to achieve its goals.

Less removed from the mainstream are some important Muslim student organisations. The most notable among them is the Indonesian Muslim Student Action Union (Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Muslim Indonesia, Kammi). This group was a significant force during the 1998 protests that initiated the change of regime. Rooted in the Islamic neo-revivalist movement on campus, and ideologically tied to the teachings of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Kammi is a major source of party workers for the Justice Party (Partai Keadilan, PK).

Both Kammi and PK are the expressions of a new generation of Muslims who promote an 'uncompromising' purification of Islamic belief and strict adherence to religious morals, while simultaneously pushing for political modernisation.

Despite its Islamist tone, they advocate a reformist agenda that is largely devoid of exclusivist propaganda. Indeed, all the electoral parties adhering to what we may call 'formalist' Islam support democracy and the rule of law as the preferable political system. The most important are the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP) and the Crescent Moon and Star Party (Partai Bintang Bulan, PBB), besides the just mentioned PK. The new vice-president, Hamzah Haz, comes from this side of politics (PPP). While a relatively small number of groups operate at the margins or outside of what is legally tolerable, in most cases religious militancy has made common cause with politically moderate positions. The formalist parties are in many ways part of the more reform-willing forces in parliament. They support the need for democratising amendments to the constitution, and want to reduce the role of the military.

Formalist Islamic groups (as opposed to more cultural ones) adhere to a literal understanding of Islamic doctrine and its adoption into private and public life. They seek a formal acknowledgement of their religion, ie. by the state in the constitution. A striking aspect of formalist Islam is its religious conservatism or militancy. At a glance, the rise of new Islamic organisations and the return of ideological stridency point to a substantial change within Indonesian politics. In fact, the appearance tends to belie the reality.

The recent developments are above all logical symptoms of a newly liberalised political system. The New Order disfavoured Islamic parties, and made all parties adopt Pancasila as their sole ideology. But the breakdown of state control following reformasi allowed Muslims to adopt Islam formally as the ideology of political organisations. When the Pancasila requirement was dropped in 1998, new Islamic parties sprang up and thus created a perception of political Islam on the march. Today these parties have a more distinct 'voice' than at any time since Sukarno introduced his authoritarian 'Guided Democracy' in 1959.

However, the emergence of these new parties should only come as a surprise to us if we were to assume that the New Order's ideological monopoly had succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of ideologically aware Muslims.

In any event, formalist parties proved to lack mass support. Nearly ninety percent of the Indonesian population is at least nominally Muslim. But in the 1999 general elections formalist Islamic parties won a mere sixteen percent of the total votes. And this was a dramatic drop compared to the 43.9% in the last free elections, back in 1955. It is certainly a major obstacle for the realisation of any more militant goals in the near future.


So what are the formalist movements offering Indonesia? At bottom lies the idea that Islam should be an all-encompassing 'way of life'. Virtually unheard under Suharto, demands for the full implementation of Islamic law (shariah) are very much in vogue these days. The message is spread through numerous overtly Islamic journals that gained new momentum from the collapse of ideological censorship.

Yet Islam's shift toward stridency is more symbolic than aimed at a policy impact. The clearest proof of this is the reemergence of the Jakarta Charter issue. This is the 'classic' formalist theme.

During the constitutional debates in 1945, 'seven words' were briefly incorporated into the constitution, but soon thereafter deleted. These seven words later became known as the Jakarta Charter, and their 'illegal' deletion a cause celebre for formalist Muslims. They were a supplement to the first principle of the national ideology Pancasila, the one that declares belief in 'the One Supreme God'. The Jakarta Charter remains widely understood as obliging the state to implement Islamic law among Muslims.

After being hotly but fruitlessly debated for many years under Sukarno, the Jakarta Charter question was outlawed under Suharto as destabilising. But the Charter experienced a sudden comeback in the wake of last year's annual session of Indonesia's highest decision-making body, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). It was raised there by the PBB and PPP parliamentary factions.

PK, part of an alliance with Amien Rais' secular-based National Mandate Party (PAN) in the Reform Faction, chose to stay neutral. Interestingly, although PK did not support the issue in its role as the smaller member of its faction, internally it favoured a more sweeping concept. While PBB and PPP both followed the traditional wording of the Charter, PK was suggesting an alternative version which would give the state legal force to implement not only Islam, but also religious teachings among all five officially registered religions. This is an unworkable proposal, considering that Christian religions do not give the state authority to enforce religious doctrine.

In any case, the MPR discussion went nowhere. Calls for the Jakarta Charter remain vague as to their scope and practical implementation. The issue has never been explained to most Indonesians. There is little substantial debate on ideological concepts and principles. There is also remarkably little open ideological dispute between Islamic political parties. This hardly makes the Charter a convincing ideological alternative. Outside parliament, the volume of the 'shariah' calls is not matched by an accordingly influential position of its promoters.

The Charter issue is as much driven by immediate political needs as by religion. While in essence promoting it remains an expression of religious obligation, there were strategic reasons to promote it as well. For example, to consolidate support from militant Islamic groups. The struggle for the Charter in 2000 occurred at a moment of mounting tension between the Abdurrahman Wahid government and parliament. It served to counter the president's announcement earlier in 2000 that he wanted the ban on communism lifted - a step formalist Muslims perceived as an undisguised provocation.

For almost four decades, ideology in Indonesia was manipulated by the state. The Jakarta Charter and other ideological formulations are an Islamic comeback from within society. They draw widespread public attention for that reason. But their substantial meaning is often overrated. First and foremost, they touch an emotional nerve. Many Muslims see a formal statement of party ideology as an essential testimonial to their religious identity. As such, it does not function in the same way as the platform of a Western political party. Nor does it have much immediate impact on that party's policy outlook. During various recent party congresses, the Islamic identity statement was often discussed quite separately. Ironically, it appeared to have no effect on the organisation's statutes or policy positions.

Bernhard Platzdasch (bernhard@coombs.anu.edu.au) is researching Indonesian Islam for a PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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