Apr 20, 2021 Last Updated 11:19 PM, Apr 19, 2021

Symbols and signs

Symbols and signs

Jeremy Menchik

On 30 March 2009 the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) held an election rally in Gelora Bung Karno, Central Jakarta. The stadium was packed with enthusiastic supporters waving flags, dancing to dangdut music and cheering on Indonesia’s largest Islamist political party. Both the foreign and domestic press have depicted the election day showing of the PKS, as well as the even less impressive results of the other Islamic parties, as demonstrating the failure of radical Islamic parties in the world’s largest Muslim democracy. Yet the message from the political rally suggests that this characterisation is worth reconsidering.

Pluralism, as defined by the Oxford American Dictionary, is a ‘condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc, coexist’. The political symbols found at the rally suggest that PKS cadres are not hard-line extremists bent on imposing a narrow interpretation of syariah on all Indonesians, but are rather pious Muslims striving to reconcile diverse ideologies including nationalism, pan-Islam, and deep respect for personal piety.

Such hybridity has a long history in Indonesian politics, dating from the first national election in 1955. At that time the large Islamic organisation, Muhammadiyah, was the leading member of the modernist Islamic party Masyumi. Both were firmly nationalist. Yet, like the PKS, their nationalism was Islamic. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the other major Islamic political party, was likewise more than simply a party supportive of syariah. NU was more concerned with defending its traditional institutions than promoting an Islamist ideology, which its leaders quickly demonstrated through their alliances with secular nationalist parties, especially the Sukarnoists. Characterising nationalism as necessarily secular ignores Islamic parties’ beliefs, as well as the crucial role of Muslim groups in the Indonesian nationalist movement.

Is PKS today any less of an amalgamation of views than NU and Masyumi were in the 1950's? Evidence from the rally suggests not, although certainly the substance varies. PKS cadres blend ideologies and styles: Islamist, nationalist, individualist pop-culture hipster, pan-Islamist, democrat, soccer-fan, and even communist revolutionary. These photographs illustrate the diversity of views found under the PKS banner.


PKS is more than a political party; it is part of a movement to implement the teachings of Islam by encouraging righteousness in all spheres of life. Above, male and female prayer clothing with the PKS logo.


PKS’s efforts to appeal to Jakarta youth have led to some unexpected combinations of images. Above, a PKS football fan in front of the Indonesian comedian Benyamin Sueb, posing as Che Guevara, the famous Latin American revolutionary. Hats popular with young Indonesians and fashionmongers. A campaign button for Twiwasaksana, a successful candidate for the Regional Peoples’ Representative Council, atop a Rastafarian peace flag.


Like other Islamist movements, PKS draws on imagery from the global umma (Islamic community). Above, jackets with PKS logos and Palestinian Hamas emblem. A young PKS supporter with a Palestinian flag and military jacket. Notice the Taliban patch above the right chest pocket and an army logo on the top left side.


Nationalist appeals were ubiquitous alongside PKS flags, Palestinian flags, slogans against corruption, and sympathy for the victims of the Situ Gunung flood disaster.


The rally felt more like a party, or a lively football game, than the gathering of an extremist religious group. Above, the field at Gelora Bung Karno, where young male supporters danced, oblivious to the speeches from the stage. PKS ran one of the most innovative campaigns of the season, distributing informational DVDs, running whimsical television advertisements, publishing collective campaigns to bolster all candidates rather than just individuals, and speaking directly to voters by knocking on one million doors. Such creativity may help to explain why PKS was the only established party to gain votes amidst the domination of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party.     ii

Jeremy Menchik (menchik@wisc.edu) is a PhD candidate in the political science program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently based in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

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