The Faces of Islamic Politics

Vedi R. Hadiz

The popular imagination with regards to Islamic politics has lately been focussed on ‘radical’ Islamic groups that appear intent on establishing states run on the basis of Islamic law as well as being vehemently opposed to virtually all things associated with the ‘West’. This focus has been reinforced by media reports, as well as much scholarly and semi-scholarly discussion, that have indirectly served to conflate the agenda of such groups with the violence associated with terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda. However, the reality is that not all groups that could be considered ‘radical’ espouse violence and terrorist activity, and fewer still demonstrably work under the umbrella of Al Qaeda. In the case of Indonesia, that conflation has become even more pronounced due to the occurrence of intermittent but bloody bombings since 2002, associated with the actions of bands of terrorists linked to the loose Jemaaah Islamiyah network operating in Southeast Asia, strongly believed to be linked to the Osama Bin Laden-led organisation. In fact, the Indonesian case shows the existence of radical Islamic entities that pursue the electoral route to power, as well as at least one paramilitary group (Lasykar Jihad) whose leader displayed open disdain for Al Qaeda’s confrontational stance toward the Wahabi-propped Saudi monarchy, suggesting diversity within Islamic politics, even within radical strains, that is sometimes too easily ignored. 

Elsewhere, I have pointed to the necessity of historically and sociologically understanding the emergence of what is loosely termed as ‘Islamic radicalism’ in Indonesia. I have advocated infusing the mostly political culture-based literature with insights gained from some of the research on a range of societies in the Middle East and North Africa (Halliday 1979, Skocpol 1982, Ayubi 1995, Lubeck 1998, Halperin 2005, Colas 2004, Bayat 2007). These have been more political economy-oriented as well as historical-sociological in their concerns (Hadiz 2008). I have suggested that such an exercise would involve less analysis of religious doctrine or culture than of the socio-historical contexts that have given rise to varying types of political Islam. Following this suggestion, analysis would be focussed on the historical moulding of Islamic ideologies, politics and on the shifting social bases of political Islam in different societies. Islamic politics would be assessed in relation to such developments as the outcomes of the social conflicts of the Cold War-era, the evolution of state power since early post-colonialism, changes in the social landscape related to different phases of capitalist development and to the societal contradictions emanating from greater incorporation into global capitalism. In some ways, such an approach takes its cue from Rodinson (2007; 1966), who four decades ago attempted to explain the underdevelopment of capitalism in the Arab world through a host of historical, sociological, political and economic considerations, which together trump those that have to do with religious doctrine as such. 

In this essay, however, I would like achieve the more modest aim of showcasing some of the varieties of Islamic politics in Indonesia beyond the traditional and rather unhelpful dichotomy of ‘moderate’ versus ‘radical’. I hope that this might strengthen the point which should be continually made that Islamic politics is a much more diverse and complex phenomenon than is usually granted by analyses churned out by terrorism experts whose security-oriented concerns have virtually usurped research on the subject in Indonesia and elsewhere in recent years (Hamilton-Hart 2005). Nevertheless, these differences do not point to a battle of ideas within Islam taking place in a social vacuum. It should be kept in mind that they have developed in relation to the socio-structural contradictions and changes alluded to earlier. 

The aim is pursued via a discussion of three fairly recent works (two published in the Indonesian language and one in English) on discrete manifestations of Islamic politics in Indonesia today. All have been written by Indonesians, and all of whom are Muslim males. The first work is a book by M. Imdadun Rahmat, which analyses the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS; Justice and Prosperity Party), certainly the most successful of the Islamic-oriented parties of Indonesia’s fairly recent democratic era so far. The author is a graduate of the Arabic Institute of the University of Muhammad Ibnu Saud in Saudi Arabia and an activist of NGOs linked with the Indonesian mass organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, which has traditionally been rural-based, syncretically inclined — and regarded as a bastion of Islamic ‘moderation’ in the country. The second book, by Noorhaidi Hasan, discusses the now defunct Lasykar Jihad, a once feared paramilitary group that famously sent fighters to strife-torn Ambon and its surroundings about a decade ago to defend Muslims in armed conflict against their fellow Ambonese Christian neighbours. The author is a rising younger Indonesian academic who received his PhD in the Netherlands and whose book was published by Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Programme. Hasan’s work is of course better known internationally than the other two because of the language in which it was written. The third book, by Eko Prasetyo, is different in that it does not discuss a particular organisational entity, and is concerned with Islamic politics of a thoroughly different ideological ilk. It is an appeal for a kind of Leftist Islamic politics – and brings back to mind the once thriving but now virtually extinct social category of the Muslim as Leftist. The author is an NGO activist in Central Java, and is well known among student groups there. 

It should go without saying that the ‘kinds’ of political Islam showcased in these works do not exhaust the range of variety that exists. Attention could have been given, for example, to the Indonesian ‘branch’ of the Hizbut Tahrir, a ‘pan-Islamic’ organisation formed in Palestine in 1953, with a presence in numerous countries, and which aims to revive the Islamic Caliphate. Though Hizbut Tahrir traditionally eschews the use of violence, it has remained a bane of security analysts, perhaps especially those working on Central Asia, where the organisation has a considerable profile (e.g. Cohen 2003). Some readers familiar with Indonesian Islamic debates, furthermore, may notice the omission of the tendency known as ‘Islamic liberalism’ – invariably favoured by the proponents in the West of Islamic ‘moderation’ and ‘enlightenment’. Made up of younger intellectuals mostly based in Jakarta who pronounce Islam’s inherent compatibility with democracy and free markets, their public profile has been high because of good access to the Indonesian and foreign media. 

The first book, by Rahmat, presents the dilemmas of the pursuit of the electoral route to power. The PKS – especially in its original incarnation, the Justice Party (PK) – once heavily promoted the cause of establishing a state based on Islamic law. It has a particularly fervent following among religiously-inclined sections of the Indonesian urban middle class. However, poor results in the 1999 elections – undertaken just a year after the resignation of the dictator, Soeharto –appeared to have stimulated some important repositioning. Influenced by the experience of the AKP, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, which took power in that country in 2002, the leaders of the PKS came to substitute issues like good governance, integrity, and anti-corruption for overt Syariah promotion. The party probably reasoned that religious overzealousness had alienated large sections of the electorate to which it might otherwise appeal, notwithstanding the widely held view that Indonesian Muslims have become more pious in recent decades. 

The book gives a detailed account of the ideological and political impulses that were instrumental in the establishment of the PKS, as well as shifts and changes within the party from its inception. The author shows the influence of the thought of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on the activists that would lead the PKS, as well as that of networks linked to the defunct Masyumi Party in Indonesia – banned in 1960 for alleged complicity in regional rebellions. He also shows the role of those associated with the conservative Dewan Dakwah Indonesia, established by former Masyumi leader and Soeharto foe, the revered Mohammad Natsir. 

The most interesting parts of the book deal with the period from the 1970s, when small groups of students began to organise themselves in the nation’s institutions of higher learning in the form of groupings known as usroh – a term denoting family units. It should be noted that this took place during a period of intense state control over campus organisation life, and therefore, such groups effectively became a substitute for more traditional forms of student activity. The semi-secretive cell-like entities, which recruited cadres through prayer meetings and religious discussions, proliferated greatly by the 1990s and soon constituted what became known as the Tarbiyah (educational) movement. The latter was the immediate precursor to the establishment of the PK and the PKS. The movement’s strong base in university campuses was demonstrated through the mobilisation in the late 1990s of KAMMI (Indonesian Muslim Student Action Union), the Islamic-oriented cross-campus student organisation that was part of the wider student protest that helped topple Soeharto in 1998. It is notable that KAMMI all but broke off relations with many of its counterparts in the student movement, however, over support for Soeharto’s immediate successor, the engineer-technocrat, B.J. Habibie, who had recently fashioned an image for himself as a protector of Islamic interests. 

While Rahmat’s book is among the most informative of recent work on the PKS, it is also typical in terms of what is usually omitted. Authors like Rahmat, indeed, are inclined to portray the PKS as a party that genuinely developed from an authentic grassroots movement. While the grassroots dimension is undoubtedly important, it remains peculiar, to discount the significance of growing elite links that had been developing in the 1990s between grassroots activists and pockets of upwardly mobile state bureaucrats and engineers from within the growing Muslim new urban middle class that would be cultivated by Habibie. The middle class Muslim was emerging noticeably from Indonesia’s economic growth under the New Order, prompting Soeharto in his later years in office to seek their support, as seen in his patronage of the vehicle, ICMI (the Association of Indonesian Intellectuals) — chaired no less than by Habibie himself.

The book by Rahmat ends before the 2009 elections took place in Indonesia, in which the PKS still did relatively well, but only improved marginally from its previous performance in 2004. The question now is whether the PKS faces an increasingly difficult dilemma. On the face of it, the repositioning after 1999 had been a key to its comparative electoral success, which has brought such concrete things as cabinet seats and important positions in parliament. But could the PKS actually go any further and win power in AKP fashion? Castigated by some for the dilution of its original pro-Syariah orientation, it would not be surprising if there emerges an internal push for the reassertion of a more distinctive Islamic agenda. However, the experience of 1999 might still be sufficiently chastening to prevent this, and we really get too few clues from Rahmat’s book about what the future holds for the PKS’ intricate balancing act and how it might be affected by further shifts in the party’s social base. Moreover, unlike the AKP, it would be hard for the PKS to transform itself into a party of both Islam and sections of the bourgeoisie-proper, which is still mainly ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, a factor that is unexplored by Rahmat’s cultural politics-based analysis. 

The second book under discussion here, as mentioned, is on the now disbanded Lasykar Jihad. The author, Noorhaidi Hasan, has provided a genuinely important contribution to the study of radical Islamic politics in Indonesia. It is likely that his book will be considered by many as the seminal work, certainly on Laskyar Jihad, if not on the more general phenomenon of Islamic paramilitaries in post-Soeharto Indonesia. The book, not surprisingly, begins with a discussion of the political environment that gave rise to Lasykar Jihad, but also steps back to trace its origins in Salafi groupings and communities. The book substantively ends with an examination of Lasykar Jihad’s foray into the bloody and protracted communal conflict in Ambon, which could be the part which would interest most readers. 

In between, the book addresses the personal history and career of Lasykar Jihad’s erstwhile leader, Ja’far Umar Thalib, from his early life, including some of his formative experiences as an anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan, and the way in which the Lasykar Jihad grew into an effective vehicle of political mobilisation and action. Hasan also more than just alludes to the existence of links between Lasykar Jihad and the Indonesian security forces – something which is quite well known among observers – but still an irony given the military’s role in suppressing Islamic groups during the period of the Soeharto dictatorship when Islam was considered the greatest potential threat to his rule following the elimination of the communists in the 1960s. The point that could have been made more strongly here is that Indonesian Islamic radicals can easily portray themselves as being simultaneously nationalist (like the military) by adopting rhetoric against Western imperialism (which after all, goes back to the anti-colonial period during which modern Islamic politics first emerged). Although Hasan more than just dabbles in social movement theory in the process– and indeed his intention is to provide a theoretical exposition for the emergence of Lasykar Jihad — it is really the rich empirical detail and nuances of the author’s case study in these sections that immediately catches the eye of the reader. 

In this reviewer’s opinion, however, the most thought-provoking parts of the book are contained in the chapter that immediately precedes the story of the Ambon conflict, where Hasan grapples with the question of the social base of the Lasykar Jihad. Hasan finds that while some of the Lasykar Jihad’s members were quite well educated and distinctly urbanised, the majority were individuals who originated from more rural background and from families that have more recently become urbanised. Moreover, if some had family lineages that related to social organisations considered ‘modernist’ as well as ‘puritanical’ (which is possible because modernism in Islam is partially about ridding the religion of mystical folk beliefs), many also came from those that have traditionally been more syncretic, or, following Geertz’ typology, abangan in cultural orientation. Hasan’s data therefore suggests that the Lasykar Jihad’s constituency comprised of an admixture of the urban and newly or partially urbanised, of the middle and lower class, and of those educated through the secular school system as well as through traditional Islamic educational institutions. In some ways this part of Hasan’s book recalls the effort in the work of the late Najih Ayubi (1993), which also offers a sociological exploration of the backgrounds of those drawn into what is commonly considered to be radical Islamic groupings. 

It should be remembered that Lasykar Jihad was just one among a motley group of Islamic-oriented paramilitaries that emerged after 1998. One of the most infamous is the FPI – which continues to be active today in conducting raids on ‘dens of vice’ in several cities—and whose genesis can be partly traced to the Pam Swakarsa, a paramilitary set up to protect the New Order from student demonstrators in 1998. Writing on such organisations, long time observer of Indonesian Islam, Van Bruinessen (2002), who was, incidentally, Hasan’s thesis supervisor, suggests that they are largely constituted of urban street toughs rather than by the particularly pious. This assertion brings up the point that mobilisation in the name of Islam has been effective in drawing in a considerable number of individuals from among the masses of young Indonesian urban or newly urbanised males — un- or just barely employed– who live rather dire existences in the rough surroundings of some of Indonesia’s major cities. The absence of competing, viable socialist or social democratic alternative ideologies and mobilisation vehicles, a legacy of the New Order, is likely to be a factor accounting for such effectiveness, whether or not religious inclinations pre-existed in these individuals. 

Taken together, the books by Rahmat and Hasan show that different political strategies and organisational vehicles can be assumed by the promoters of the radical Islamic agenda. They offer important glimpses into the sorts of impulses that contribute to their development. However, they remain rather insufficiently historical and sociological. Why did urbanised and semi-urbanised Indonesian students of the 1970s to 1990s become attracted to the activities of religiously-oriented campus-based groups in the first place? Why have sections of the Indonesian urban middle class more broadly, but also its proletariat and lumpenproletariat, found appeal in organisational vehicles based on religious agendas and exhortations? A significant part of the answer could probably be found in the socio-structural transformations and contradictions that have accompanied the development of Indonesian state and society, especially with the rapid advance of capitalism since the advent of Soeharto’s New Order, which coincided with the height of the Cold War. After all, it was such a context that determined what kinds of ideological and cultural resources would be available to those who questioned, dissented against — or for whatever reason felt excluded by — the social order for many decades to come. 

The last book, by Eko Prasetyo, is relevant to the present discussion in this respect. As mentioned earlier, this book is different from the other two in that it does not address the development and role of a particular organisational entity, and because it does not deal with groups that are generally considered to be under the rubric of ‘radical Islam’. By contrast, Prasetyo’s book, which is the earliest to be published of the three, takes up the ideological task of demonstrating the compatibility of Islam with anti-capitalist, pro-social justice and egalitarian social movements. 

If the author can be regarded in any way as being representative of these small groups of Islamic Leftists, it must be made clear that they remain deep in the political wilderness in Indonesia today. They certainly do not embody an influential political tendency. This is not surprising, given confrontations between Islamic political forces and the state on the one hand, and the forces of communism on the other, which had led ultimately to the cataclysm of the 1960s, and which so profoundly still affects Indonesian political discourse. The Islamic Left, however, does have important historical roots that are rather easy forget in today. It is well known, for example, that the Indonesian Communist Party grew out of the Sarekat Islam, widely regarded as the first mass organisation in the Dutch East Indies, and that for a time, Islam and the Left were more or less united against the exploitative nature of colonial capitalism. Islamic Left tendencies also existed in Arab societies and Iran. 

Prasetyo’s book offers a reminder of this legacy. As such, the author starts off with a passionate appeal for the affinity between his interpretations of Islamic doctrine with certain facets of Marxist thinking. This is done via an exegesis of the works of such luminaries of contemporary Islamic thinking as Hassan Hanafi and Ashgar Ali Engineer, but also the Muslim Brotherhood icons, Hassan Banna and Sayid Qutb. In the process, he establishes that Islam is a religion that favours the emancipation of the suffering and the exploited, and that it is, moreover, revolutionary in orientation. For him, Islam is not a religion that favours the corrupt and the rapacious, though the latter often make use of it (for example, to smash the Left). In this connection, the Iranian revolution of 1979 is, interestingly, portrayed not just as an Islamic revolution, but one against tyranny and exploitation, and as such gets certainly too much sympathetic treatment – given the Islamic Republic’s turn against its Leftist allies just a few years later. 

Not surprisingly, the book continues with an examination of the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism, generally and in its manifestation as global neoliberalism. The author quickly moves from the thinking of the 1920s Indonesian Communist Party, through Tan Malaka, Sutan Sjahrir and many others, to the thinking of non-Indonesians ranging from Ho Chi Minh to Antonio Gramsci. The mission throughout is of course to show how the ideals that underlie their thinking and analyses are compatible with the tenets and concerns of Islam. The book just about ends with a searching exercise of thinking about ‘how to’ begin a Leftist Islamic revolution, partly through an examination of the role of intellectuals, including intellectuals immersed in the ideals of the Islamic religion, in raising the consciousness of the people against the hegemony of capitalist ideology and power. Here, the ideas of Paolo Freire appear influential in shaping that of the author. 

It is not too difficult to envisage that this last book would be fairly open to criticism from Left, Right, and Centre for the rather too convenient summarising, and mixing and matching of the complex ideas of other people that the author is prone to undertake. Still the book is a remarkable and fairly imaginative exercise in placing the concerns of Islamic political thought into broader debates about society and politics that today would not necessarily accommodate Muslim thinkers. This shows that Islamic politics is a product of the modern world, not a 7th century desert society. But for all of its Leftist concerns for the social problems engendered by capitalism, more so than the two previous books discussed, Prasetyo’s is oddly almost completely idealist in nature. It virtually ignores the social-structural contradictions and historical processes that would (or would not) make a Leftist brand of Islam politically viable in Indonesia or elsewhere. What were the social conditions, for example, that made possible the broad alliance led by Khomeini in Iran – encompassing mullahs, bazaaris, sections of the middle class and peasantry, workers and Leftist organisations? It remains rather too unclear as well which groups would constitute the social base of a Leftist Islamic movement and why – beyond references to the vague and generic ‘exploited’ masses? Yet, Prasetyo’s book is creditable for raising the point strongly that Muslim leaders in Indonesia – rather than denying the existence of terrorism, as they are sometimes prone to do – should in fact make an effort to understand the social processes that may produce the Muslim as terrorist . 

In summary, we have discussed three books that highlight different facets of Indonesian political Islam, two of which have to do with ‘radical’ tendencies that favour some form of a state based on Islamic law. The strategies chosen by the entities representing these tendencies have been significantly different, however. The third book discusses a wholly different kind of radicalism – an interesting vestige of a previous era – which has yet to experience serious resuscitation. But they also show a few of the limitations of the study of Islamic politics. For example, the books by Rahmat and Hasan do not really conclusively tell us whether democracy will tend to soften radical tendencies in Islamic politics. Democracy made possible the PKS, but it also provided the setting for groups like Lasykar Jihad to thrive, though their genesis is traceable to the Soeharto period. All the books, including the Left-oriented one by Prasetyo, tend to lack the kind of close attention to social-structural transformations and contradictions that have been helpful in advancing the study of Islamic politics elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Vedi R. Hadiz
National University of Singapore

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 11 (December 2009)  


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