May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Opponents of Islamic Law

Jennifer Donohoe

Democratisation and decentralisation in Indonesia have created a space for regional aspirations to resurface. These changes, however, have allowed not only the voices of moderate democrats to emerge, but also those with more radical aspirations. The Suharto regime suppressed proponents of Islamic law in Indonesia through a combination of violence, intimidation and prohibition. Recently re-emerging Islamist movements promoting the formal use of Islamic law by the state are finding that they now face opposition both from the government and from various civil society sources. Their opponents include women’s organisations, inter-religious forums and broad sections of the Islamic community. Government responses have become more open and tolerant, an improvement on overt state oppression. However, this has at times led to implicit approval of the violence sometimes associated with these movements.

In South Sulawesi, the main proponent of Islamic law is the Committee for the Enforcement of Islamic Law (Komite Penegakan Syariat Islam, KPSI ). The KPSI proposes a broad program of Special Autonomy for the province, including formal implementation of Islamic law and governance under the ultimate control of an unelected Council of Ulamas (religious scholars). The KPSI believes that Muslims are required to follow the letter of Islamic law, under Islamic governance wherever possible. For the KPSI, only Islam can solve endemic corruption, the lack of legal certainty, and what they perceive as a decline in public morality brought about by globalisation and secularism.

The KPSI has a comparatively small membership of approximately 3,000 followers. However, some of its leaders are influential local businessmen, politicians and academics. This membership, combined with the KPSI’s strong and sometimes aggressive tactics have resulted in the organisation receiving a disproportionate amount of public and government attention. It also receives some support from Islamic student groups and similar Islamist movements both in Indonesia and abroad. The KPSI has eight fields of struggle broadly covering political, economic and social concerns; of these, the laskar (paramilitary) for Islamic law enforcement has caused the most problems, both in terms of violence and intimidation against the community, and in terms of reducing the KPSI’s legitimacy. With each violent act, the KPSI contradicts its claim of being involved in a democratic and constitutional struggle. This is particularly unfortunate for those members of the KPSI who do not support its violent sections and truly believe Islamic law can improve social welfare in the province.

Laskar Jundullah, the KPSI’s militia wing established in September 2000, has frequently been employed to intimidate the KPSI’s local detractors. When initially pushing for provincial parliament (DPRD) support for its Special Autonomy package, members of the KPSI repeatedly forced their way into the DPRD building accompanied by laskar members. In addition, members of the KPSI have been linked to both local and international terrorist acts. Agus Dwikarna, commander of Laskar Jundullah and Vice-Chair of the KPSI, was arrested in the Philippines on terrorist charges in mid-2002. Later that year, several Laskar Jundullah members were involved in bombings in Makassar of the McDonalds and a car dealership. South Sulawesi Police Chief Inspector, General Firman Gani told local reporters that while investigating the McDonalds bombing, the police had found evidence that Laskar Jundullah members were also planning to attack churches in the province. Although officially based in Makassar, Laskar Jundullah’s military headquarters is actually located in Poso, Central Sulawesi. ICG reports Laskar Jundullah involvement in conflicts in both Poso, and Maluku. There is also ample evidence that some KPSI and Laskar Jundullah members have links to regional and international terrorist networks Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI) and al-Qaeda.

For its part, the local government has made some efforts to consider the KPSI’s socio-political claims, whilst condemning the violent actions of some of its members. The governor’s office responded to the KPSI by forming a team to investigate popular opinion on Syariah Islam and the possible effects of its formalisation. The authorities felt there was not enough information to act decisively on the issue without accurate data.

The results of this research show that the majority of the population is still confused about Islamic law and the effect it would have. The team found that 86.22 per cent of Sulawesi’s population did not agree with the formalisation of Islamic law at this time. Almost 30 per cent of respondents did not think that the local population had sufficient knowledge of Islamic law to make an informed decision. Generally, the government’s team found that the majority of respondents thought that the best way to implement Islamic principles is through education and participation, rather than through formalisation and legislation.

Although South Sulawesi is a majority Muslim province, there is a significant Christian minority: 8.73 per cent of the population is Protestant and 1.75 per cent is Catholic. In some areas, such as Toraja, the majority of the community is Christian. For ýhristians, the KPSI’s program is disturbing, as it would essentially position them as second-class citizens. Under the proposed Islamisation program, Christians would be barred from some leadership positions in the province, even to the extent of being unable to become state school teachers.

Despite this, South Sulawesi’s interfaith organisations have reacted in a restrained manner by inviting KPSI members to participate in dialogues about their proposals. The members of one such organisation, the Inter-congregational Dialogue Forum (Forum Dialog Antar Ummat, Forlog), felt that while the KPSI did not take them very seriously and merely presented its usual political rhetoric, it was important for them to put a human face to the committee. Inter-religious groups have not forcefully opposed the issue of formal Islam in South Sulawesi, in part because of their non-confrontational principles, but also because of intimidation they have received.

Women’s organisations have experienced similar intimidation but nonetheless have been more vocal in their response to the KPSI. Women often regard the issue of Islamic law enforcement with strong apprehension. Formal implementation of one particular interpretation of Islamic law has in many cases led to the violation of women’s basic human rights [See Suraiya Kamaruzzaman in this issue]. Leaders of the KPSI have made their standpoint on women clear by focussing on issues of women’s morality. They insist that women must behave modestly and emphasise morality as the most important issue for women. A group of female activists in South Sulawesi formed a coalition, KAPS (Koalisi Aktivis Perempuan Sulsel, in opposition to the KPSI’s proposal. In their opinion, religion is a personal issue, and Muslims should be allowed to follow whichever interpretation of Islam they are comfortable with. They have also requested that the provincial parliament acknowledge opposition to Islamic law in South Sulawesi, and not just the vocal pro-Islamic law lobby. The KPSI further irritated KAPS members by calling them ‘overly-emotional’ and claiming that their opposition was baseless. By falling back on clichéd gender stereotypes such as women’s ‘irrationality and emotiveness’, the KPSI only further exposed its discriminatory beliefs.

Whilst the KPSI has easily overcome opposition from civil society organisations, it has been more difficult for it to face opposition from the Islamic community itself. Representatives of the two largest Islamic social organisations in Indonesia, NU (Nahdlatul Ulama) and Muhammadiyah, attended the first KPSI Congress but have since withdrawn their support. These two organisations have formally rejected the need for Islamic law to become the basis of Indonesian law. They focus more on the Islamisation of existing institutions and following Islamic principles. The two organisations also had concerns over the KPSI’s use of violence and its narrow view of Islamic law, neither of which is consistent with NU or Muhammadiyah philosophies.

Well-known local Islamic scholars have also voiced their opposition to the KPSI’s program. Qasim Mathar, professor of Islamic philosophy at the Alauddin State Islamic Institute (Institut Agama Islam Negeri, IAIN) in Makassar, publicly announced that he would change his official religion to Christianity were Islamic law to be formalised in South Sulawesi. As a scholar of Islam, he supports applying Islamic principles to everyday life and even lawmaking. Qasim, however, believes that the Koran teaches that in an Islamic society the aspirations of others must also be considered. He sees discussion, consensus and democratic principles as part of the teachings of the Koran. Formalisation of Islamic law would be dangerous, as it would relinquish control of people’s public and personal lives to the state. Qasim also opposes KPSI’s proposal to grant power of veto over all provincial legislation to an unelected Council of Ulamas. For this Islamic scholar, an unelected body such as this is not only undemocratic but also un-Islamic.

Recently there has been a noticeable decline in the KPSI’s violent actions in South Sulawesi. It is becoming more moderate in conveying its aspirations and less dependent on intimidation. This change may be partially due to the increased threat of terrorist incidents in Indonesia itself. September 11 provided Islamist organisations with increased support due to the perception that the US was about to launch a campaign against the Muslim community. The Bali bombing and later terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Makassar, however, brought the terrorist threat closer to home. As a result, Islamist organisations have been subject to closer scrutiny and have lost much of their high-level support-base. The KPSI’s reduced use of violence may also be traced to the election of a new governor, H. M. Amin Syam. The previous governor, H. Z. B. Palaguna, was openly supportive of KPSI members, including Agus Dwikarna, which led to implicit acceptance of their use of violence and intimidation.

Reactions to the KPSI in South Sulawesi have been both rational and composed. Rather than responding to violence with violence, the local government has done its best to consider the claims of the KPSI and its detractors. Civil society critics have generally also expressed their opposition in a democratic manner. Both civil society and government reactions show an intelligent and responsible use of democratic institutions. As a result, moderate KPSI members have also been able to voice their opinion without fearing the consequences.

The government needs to focus more, however, on the support bases of these types of organisations. Indonesians are deeply concerned about corruption, lack of legal certainty and economic problems, and as a result are easily attracted to alternatives regardless of their democratic value.

Many of the KPSI’s arguments are based in logic and aim to improve conditions in South Sulawesi. Local and central governments need to attempt to understand different civil society perspectives and wherever possible support the underlying social changes proposed. By satisfying social, political and economic needs the government will be better able to address the violence associated with Islamist movements.

Jennifer Donohoe ( is a research assistant for the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) and the Indonesia-Japan Economic Cooperation Working Team, Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 79: Jul - Sep 2004

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