By Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir
November 29 2013
The phenomenon of political Islam in Indonesia has grabbed the attention of many due to rampant cases of religious extremism.
This also leads to worries about the possible adoption of Islamic credentials for the whole of society, which is deemed a threat to Indonesian democracy.
However, the idea of political emancipation with Islam as its ideology is irrelevant in the sociopolitical context of Indonesian society.
There are two reasons why political Islam in Indonesia will never really emerge as a threat. First, it is related to the supremacy of cultural Islam in the public sphere along with Indonesian political history.
The idea of cultural Islam considers Islamic values as merely ethical and cultural norms, rather than foundations of political institutions or state practices.
Cultural Islamic groups separate religion from the state, but unlike the liberals, they avoid taking religion out of the public sphere or simply placing it as a private matter.
The principles distinguish cultural Islam from political Islam. Included in cultural Islam are the country’s two largest Muslim groups, Nahdlatul Ulema (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which focus more on socio-cultural issues such as education and health than on efforts to establish an Islamic state or enforce Islamic law.
Undoubtedly, their sphere of influence in the country also becomes a stumbling block that political Islamic groups have to face.
The contest between political Islam and cultural Islam in Indonesia has been going on since the early days of independence, when there was a polemic over whether the word “Islam” had to appear in the state ideology of Pancasila or not. The founding fathers’ decision to uphold pluralism marked the beginning of the defeat of political Islam in Indonesia.
Pressure on Islamic groups continued under the New Order regime of Soeharto, who adopted a de-politicization policy, especially in the first two decades of his rule.
The political Islamic movement went underground and remained marginalized. Included in this group are Darul Islam and firebrand organization Jemaah Islamiyah, the latter of which until today is still a threat to national security.
Although the last decade of the New Order saw it appeared to befriend political Islam, the political contest was won by cultural Islamic groups in their coalition with nationalist groups, as was evident with the victory of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri in the 1999 election.
Afterward, even though lots of Islamic parties emerged at the beginning of Reformasi, one by one they faded. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) as the largest post-reform Islamic party only won 8 percent of the vote in 2009, and now lacks confidence in its Islamic agenda by declaring itself an open party.
The Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and other hard-line Islamic groups, which emerged in the post-New Order era and are often associated with cases of religious violence, are mostly not rooted in the Islamic movement of the past.
The majority of regular members, recruited from among the urban proletariat, as stated by Wilson (2012), are concerned primarily with social issues, like how to get decent jobs, than they are about enforcing Islamic law. Their emergence can hardly indicate an upsurge of radical political Islam.
On the other hand, we can see that in the last two decades there have been symptoms of growing religious expression in Muslim society. Hence, the second failure of political Islam in Indonesia was related to those symptoms coined by Olivier Roy as post-Islamism; re-Islamisation operated only at the social level and did not entail the unification of religion and politics (Roy, 1999 in Ismail, 2006:161).
The ideological slogan of the Ummah (the community of Muslim believers), previously defined as a transnational community and since the 1980s in the Arab World internalized within the bounds of the nation-state, is now only relevant at neighborhood level.
Therefore, the trans-nationalization of Islam as echoed by Hizbut Tahrir is irrelevant as it contradicts that sociological and political fact.
The symptoms of post-Islamism may explain why the Islamic expression of Muslim communities in Indonesia is growing, but Islamic political parties have not gained a significant place in the political arena.
In this context, the symbols of Islam become contested cultural commodities. Here then come phenomena like fashionable veils, celebrity preachers, Islamic housing and Sharia banking. Nevertheless, the seizure of the symbols happens not only in the socio-cultural realm, but such symptoms are also captured by the political elite in the realm of politics to mobilize support.
Such tendencies ultimately lead to the Islamisation of political space. Yet, Islamisation does not come from political Islamic movements, but rather from the political pragmatism of elites who merely politicize religious symbols to satisfy their constituents.
Therefore, recent religious violence by state actors is more a phenomenon of the politicization of religion by political elites rather than the strengthening of political Islam.
According to a study conducted by Robin Bush (2008), most Islamic laws come from political elites that have affiliations with nationalist parties rather than Islamist.
In other words, the “Islamisation” of political space by enacting Islamic law has less to do with Islamism, but much more to do with pragmatism. It means that excessive concerns over the threat political Islam poses to Indonesian democracy are unfounded.
Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir is a lecturer of sociology at Jakarta State University (UNJ) and a research associate at LabSosio, the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Indonesia.