By Ary Hermawan
August 23 2013
Does Islam, 15 years after the fall of the New Order, remain a powerful force in Indonesian politics?
It is safe to say that political Islam is weakening, but the faith itself, as it appears, still plays an influential role on the political stage. There are plenty of cases in which the secular parties use anti-Shia/Ahmadiyah sentiments to lure Muslim voters, who either call for or condone what appears to be a state-sponsored inquisition against the “heretics”.
With the latest Pew survey showing that 73 percent of Indonesian Muslims support Sharia law, we are perhaps justified to suspect that politicians, aware of declining public trust in them, are set to sell sharia during elections. We are thus facing our worst nightmare: The unholy alliance of political corruption and Islamic extremism.
As the world’s most populous Muslim country, Islam, whether you like it or not, will remain a significant part of the Indonesian people’s political life. The question is: Will it continue to be a pebble in the shoe for our seemingly fragile democracy? Will it pose a perennial threat to our civil liberties?
The problem with Islam is that some Muslims believe their faith is detrimental to democracy. These Muslims, presumably small in number but extremely noisy thanks largely to media sensationalism, will continue to undermine our democratic values. Indonesia’s future very much depends on how we contain their influence, and seeing the news lately, we are not doing very well.
For decades, we rely on Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, to nurture tolerance among Muslims. But the two groups have been losing ground to the radicals in the fight for influence. In certain cases, the two groups even ended up being complicit in acts of intolerance themselves.
This is hardly surprising. As leaders of Muhammadiyah and NU became more political after reformasi, the two have, according to analysts, become less influential socially and culturally.
We then pin our hope on the Liberal Islam Networks (JIL), co-founded by Muslim scholar and Democratic Party politician Ulil Abshar Abdalla. In recent years, JIL has been seen as the antithesis of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), which is widely seen as the face of Islamic intolerance in Indonesia. But the two are basically two sides of the same coin. They promote the same Islamic scripturalism (JIL may deny this accusation) to justify their beliefs, be they religious pluralism or religious fascism.
While JIL was established to counter the radical interpretation of Islamic scriptures, the aggressive, if not offensive, liberal Islam campaigns they launched have inadvertently fueled Islamic radicalism.
It does not help that JIL activists are seen as “elitist intellectuals” who often speak in an elusive and confusing language just to provoke public discussion, which sadly has often only produced derision against them.
As debates on religion always end up in circular arguments, I am doubtful we are able to curb the budding radicalism by simply offering friendlier and more democratic interpretations of Islam. I believe the reason why political Islam is not selling well in the country is that most Indonesian Muslims are basically practicing their religion nominally. They are the backbone of Indonesia’s secularism. The majority of Indonesian Muslims, in my view, do not need scriptural justification to embrace democracy. They just do not take political Islam seriously.
These groups do not identify themselves with JIL or FPI. In urban areas where social media culture is burgeoning, they could be identified by their derision toward FPI and cynicism toward JIL. They practice Islamic rituals without delving too much into the technicalities over how women should dress or whether the creation of an Islamic state is a must.
But they are often forgotten in the country’s political discourse, derided by foreign observers for their silence on the rising intolerance and seen by Muslim scholars as prey to radical ideology. In fact, they were the ones who prevented the Islamists from holding power in the country after Soeharto’s downfall, sparing us from experiencing what Egypt is experiencing today.
I am not saying Indonesians are “good” or “bad” Muslims. I just want to highlight the fact that most Indonesians are apathetic to political Islam and that the country’s future will not be determined by who will prevail in the ideological battle between radical and liberal Muslims.
What matters the most is to ensure that democracy really works for us, that it could bring prosperity to the majority of Indonesians, regardless of their beliefs. That said, our enemy number one is not the radical, who is politically weak, but the power-hungry politicians who have empowered the former to further the latter’s political agendas.
The answer to what appears to be politically driven intolerance in Indonesia is not more campaigns for peaceful Islam, but political reform and our ability to elect true statesmen as our leaders. At the end of the day, what the people really want is justice and prosperity. Debates over who is right about Islam — Sunni or Shia, liberal or conservative — are irrelevant.
Ary Hermawan is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.