By Farooq Sulehria
May 20, 2017
Indonesia has recently been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. In the most recent case, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the governor of Jakarta, has been jailed on the charge of committing blasphemy.
While his sympathisers viewed the allegation as a political ploy, the faithful in Pakistan might have questioned the faith of Indonesian Muslims. At home in Pakistan, a governor was gunned down by his own bodyguard in 2011. The slain governor is mentioned in hushed tones while his holy assassin draws huge crowds in his final resting place. It seems Indonesia needs a few more years to catch up with our Islamic republic. Meanwhile, various sections of the global press have justifiably interpreted Purnama’s conviction as a sign of Indonesia’s Islamisation.
The ‘Shariahfication’ of Indonesia has occurred at a time when the country is emerging as an inspiring example of the successful transition to democracy. On the one hand, elections have been conducted in the country every five years since 1999 while on the other the Muslim vote bank has shrunk progressively with every fresh round of general elections. This appears to be paradoxical – especially when the current scholarship on Indonesia holds ‘Islamist’ parties responsible for moving Indonesia towards Islamisation.
The puzzle is, at least partly, solved in Michael Buehler’s recently published book ‘The Politics of Shari’a Law: Islamist Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia’. Buehler, who teaches at SOAS in London, has documented Shariah legislation in the post-Suharto period to argue his case. The findings are indeed suggestive. At least 443 Shariah regulations were adopted at the sub-national (the provincial and district levels) in Indonesia between 1998 and 2013. Around 67 percent of these regulations were enforced in six provinces, which encompass half of the country’s population.
Ironically, between 1999 and 2009, 1000 sub-national elections were held and ‘Islamist’ parties managed to bag a majority of the votes in only two districts. Subsequently, neither of the districts embraced Shariah. In fact, the districts promulgating Shariah were not headed by ‘Islamists’ who assumed power by way of entryism or through coalition governments. Rejecting the current scholarship that assigns Indonesia’s Islamisation to the growing influence of ‘Islamist parties’, Buehler shows that the move towards Shariah enforcement in Indonesia is the work of “opportunist Islamisers” who are anchored in the mainstream secularist parties.
According to Buehler, the Shariahfication of Indonesia is not ideologically-driven but rather fuelled by sheer political expediency. The source of this expediency is the political shift marked by Suharto’s ousting. Under the Suharto dictatorship, the regime was able to maintain an elite unity through a monopoly of top jobs. The top positions were allotted to individuals from elite families in lieu of loyalty. After Suharto was overthrown, decentralisation and various democratisation measures – including regular elections – forced the elite “to ‘reach out’ and ‘reach down’ in the political arena, which made them more receptive to societal pressures from below”.
It is the ‘Islamist’ groups, and not the fundamentalist parties, that have the bargaining capacity and position to cast this influence. The math is simple: ‘Islamist’ groups provide votes, money to mobilise voters and a fatwa of pious credibility to politicians who are otherwise tainted by sex scams and financial corruption. This fatwa helps politicians build what Buehler describes as “cultural capital”.
The “opportunist Islamisers” in turn introduces Shariah legislation. The existence of this opportunism can be gauged from the fact that Shariah has mostly been introduced during the first term of these “opportunist Islamisers” instead of their second term. This is because they cannot be re-elected beyond two terms.
In this marriage of convenience, fundamentalist parties do not fit the bill because the political parties in Indonesia lack the organisational capacity to operate at the grassroots level across the gigantic archipelago. Second, fundamentalist parties are themselves competitors in the electoral arena and have watered down Islamisation in their manifestos to attract votes.
In a country where an average of 100 sub-national elections have taken place every year since 2005, various ‘Islamist’ groups along with “opportunist Islamisers” have assumed a pivotal role in Islamising the country.
The similarities between Indonesia and Pakistan are abundant in this regard. From the ‘socialist’ Bhutto to the capitalist Sharif to the celebrity Khan, Pakistan has been lavishly blessed with “opportunist Islamisers”. Even the ‘Daughter of the East’ had no qualms in building a coalition government in Punjab with a sectarian outfit.
Ironically, the “opportunist Islamisers” characterised by Buehler in the Indonesian context can be abundantly found across the Muslim world. In fact, he explores how the state and the rulers in Muslim countries have flirted with religion to gain legitimacy, popularity and build social base. As a result, Buehler’s meticulously researched and provocatively challenging work isn’t just appealing for scholars and students of Southeast Asia but equally useful for anyone interested in Islamic fundamentalism.
In view of these strengths, any minor criticism will be trivial. However, a couple of points deserve attention. First, Buehler does not concisely and concretely conceptualise ‘Islamist’ groups and ‘Islamist’ parties. Often, in journalistic and academic literature on Islamic fundamentalism – an expression I personally prefer – terms such as ‘political Islam’ and ‘Islamisation’ have been used loosely. Oliver Roy, the otherwise fashionable French expert on ‘political Islam’, is an extreme case in point.
On this count, Buehler’s otherwise rigorous work is not very precise either. For instance, his claim (on page 21) that Islamist movements have almost always targeted the state in their lobbying effort since “the main goal [has been] to establish a state based on Islamic law” does not appear to be too nuanced. For instance, Islamic movements in Muslim-minority countries do not aim for the Islamisation of the state. India, as the third largest Muslim nation in the world, comes to mind as a country where a huge Deobandi movement advocates secular state everyday while their Pakistani cousins have given birth to the Taliban. The diasporic movements in Europe and North America constitute another example. Likewise, Lebanon’s Hezbollah is another interesting case study.
Buehler’s characterisation makes it difficult to differentiate between the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s AKP. Space constraints do not allow for an extended exploration of this. Therefore, I will briefly highlight two elemental features of Islamic fundamentalism: capturing the state to implement Shariah and returning to a ‘golden past’. As a result, the Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda can be considered members of the fundamentalist freemasonry – regardless of the differences in their violent and peaceful, evolutionary and revolutionary methods – while the AKP does not (despite Erdogan’s recent tomfoolery).
Second, the term ‘secular parties’ has been used randomly in the context of the Muslim world. With the exception of communist parties who once enjoyed a mass base in some Muslim countries, including Indonesia, truly secular parties have yet to emerge in the Muslim world – barring a few minor exceptions. There is a tendency in scholarly literature to view Bhutto’s PPP, Kemalism, Ba’athism or variants of Arab nationalism as secular projects.
The fact is that the PPP was not merely an “opportunist Islamiser”, as Buehler hints in his study; it was a populist party founded on the principle of: ‘Islam is our religion’. Likewise, Kemalism and Ba’athism were top-down projects imposed without an iota of liberal democracy. That they later proved to be “opportunist Islamisers” is yet another story. Secularism sans democracy is a form of irreligious dictatorship.
With the hope that a future edition of this research will offer a more nuanced debate on the above concepts, we can conclude by saying that Buehler is spot on when he claims that “the findings presented in [his] book refute arguments about the decline of political Islam in Indonesia”. Purnama’s sentence is an unfortunate endorsement of Buehler’s sad but realistic perspective.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor.