Quo Vadis Civil Islam? Explaining Rising Islamism in Post-Reformasi Indonesia

Alexander R. Arifianto

The successful Defending Islam campaign against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or ‘Ahok’) is clear evidence that Islamism is rising in post-Reformasi Indonesia, which is regretfully not adequately explained in the recent scholarship on Indonesian Islam. The growth of Islamism in Indonesia, which occurred in spite of two decades of democratic transition, indicates many scholars and observers have been blindsided regarding the influence of conservative and hardline Islamist movements in post-Reformasi Indonesia. I argue in this essay that this can be attributed to the predominance of the Civil Islam thesis – introduced by Robert Hefner in his magnum opus Civil Islam (2000) – which came out shortly after Reformasi began in Indonesia in 1998. The thesis immediately became a leading framework adopted by scholars and policymakers alike to analyze Islam in Indonesia during post-Reformasi period.

‘Civil Islam’ was inspired by the thought of Indonesian Islamic intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid, Dawam Rahardjo and Abdurrahman Wahid. These thinkers managed to combine classical Islamic theology and Western social theory to produce commentaries of Indonesian society during the New Order period. These commentaries are designed to reform Indonesian Islam, to move it away from Indonesia as an Islamic state, an idea offered by their conservative predecessors, and to update classical Islamic thought to show its compatibility with modern ideas such as democracy, pluralism, and tolerance.

Robert Hefner’s Civil Islam. It’s thesis “became a leading framework adopted by scholars and policymakers to analyze Islam in Indonesia during the post-Reformasi period”.

However, two decades after Reformasi, the vision predicted by proponents of the Civil Islam thesis – that Indonesian Islam is largely moderate and is compatible with liberal democratic values such as respect for human rights, pluralism, and religious tolerance – has become more elusive, as research shows Indonesian Islam has grown to become more conservative (van Bruinessen 2013) and is increasingly becoming more intolerant toward religious expressions that are contradicting mainstream Islamic beliefs (Menchik 2016). More troublingly, such expressions are not just expressed by new Islamist groups like Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), but also by numerous clerics and activists within NU and Muhammadiyah as well. As I shall elaborate here, Islamists – defined here as “Muslims who are committed to political action to implement what they regard as an Islamic agenda” (Piscatori 2000, p. 2) – have increasingly dominated Indonesian society and politics over the past two decades.

I argue that proponents of the Civil Islam thesis have failed to predict four developments concerning Islam in post-Reformasi Indonesia. Firstly, the proponents of the Civil Islam thesis were elite Muslim Indonesian intellectuals who are also well-versed in Western social theory. Their interpretations on how Islam can be integrated with liberal values such as pluralism and tolerance can be followed easily by Western academics and observers. Besides Hefner, numerous scholars have extolled the virtues of neo-modernist and moderate Indonesian Islam during late Suharto and early Reformasi period (e.g., Barton and Fealy 1996, Liddle 1996).

However, such interpretations are often not shared among mainstream NU and Muhammadiyah clerics and activists, who dominate the leadership of these organizations at the grassroots level. The majority of Islamic clerics still graduated from traditional Islamic schools (pesantren salaf), which promote more literalist understanding of Islam in their curriculum, yet their graduates are more likely to become Islamic clerics (kyai) and preachers within their local communities (Sakai and Isbah 2014). This conservative understanding of Islam might explain why these clerics tend have more contingent and conditioned interpretations of tolerance compared to those shared by Western-educated Islamic intellectuals who promoted the civil Islamic discourses (Menchik 2016). This in turn, explains why many clerics are willing to tolerate and sometimes promote acts of persecutions against religious minorities such as Ahmadi and Shi’a Muslims (Hamayotsu 2018) or support the Defending Islam rallies against Ahok.

Protests against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as “Ahok”), Christian governor of Jakarta, 31 March 2017

The Rise of New Islamic Authority

Secondly, Civil Islam proponents failed to anticipate the further breakdown of traditional Islamic authority in post-Reformasi Indonesia, which is accompanied by the rise of alternative new Islamic authority figures such as televangelists, popular ustadz, and online preachers. Examples of these new Islamic authority figures are Abdullah Gymnastiar, Yusuf Mansur, Bachtiar Nasir, and Felix Siauw, whose rise to fame can be attributed to this phenomenon. These preachers tend to subscribe to more conservative ideological interpretations of Islam, and are developing close relationships with other religious figures from more hardline Islamist groups. For instance, Gymnastiar maintains a close relationship with FPI spiritual leader Habib Rizieq Shihab and JI founder Abu Bakar Basyir and has given sermons in political rallies hosted by HTI (Hoesterey 2016, pp. 45 & 198). Meanwhile, Bachtiar Nasir develops networks with other alumni from the Gontor Islamic school he attended, along with more conservative Muhammadiyah activists, who together played a crucial role during the Defending Islam rallies (IPAC 2018).

The linkages of these popular preachers with conservative and hardline Islamist groups explain why they can easily be mobilized together in joint mass actions such as the Defending Islam rallies sponsored by the latter groups. More crucially, the rise of Islamic televangelists, popular preachers, and other authority figures, further reduces the authority of traditional Islamic ulama represented by NU and Muhammadiyah clerics, who suddenly have found themselves and their ideas losing relevance, especially among young middle-class Muslims.

Even within moderate groups like NU, the emerging ulama who are gaining broad popular followings tend to be young, Middle Eastern-educated kyai with more conservative theological interpretations who rejects the moderate, pluralist, and inclusivist principles advocated by the late Abdurrahman Wahid and other moderate-leaning ulama within the NU. They include Idrus Ramli, Buya Yahya, and Abdul Somad, who founded NU Garis Lurus (“True Path NU”) – a faction within the organization that seeks to roll back the progressive and pluralist theology instituted by Abdurrahman Wahid and is also promoted by the current NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj, now known as Islam Nusantara. The fact that young ulama affiliated with NU Garis Lurus are among the most popular traditionalist preachers today is potentially troubling for the future prospect of NU as a moderate and pluralist Islamic organization as they are likely candidates for future leadership positions within the organization.

Thirdly, conservative and hardline Islamists are savvier than their moderate counterparts in propagating their ideas in a free marketplace of ideas in a democratic, post-Reformasi Indonesia. One mechanism where hardline groups managed to effectively promote their ideas to win over new recruits is campus da’wa organizations. Islamist propagation organizations sponsored by the Tarbiyah Movement – now the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and HTI rapidly grew during the 1980s and 1990s, while their small, secretive nature helped them to escape constant surveillance from Suharto’s security apparatuses (Arifianto 2018, p. 6). They gained popularity because young Muslims from relatively secular or non-pious Islamic backgrounds began to seek deeper understandings of Islam by attending da’wa events sponsored by these organizations.

After the post-Reformasi period, Islamist campus da’wa groups increasingly uses their dominant position within state universities as a vehicle to change the mindset of young Indonesian Muslims toward a more exclusivist interpretation of Islam. Groups like HTI thrive in state teacher-training universities (formerly the Indonesian Teachers Training Institute – IKIP), where they have targeted students who are about to become public high school teachers to become their cadres (Arifianto 2018, p. 13). Many of these teachers presumably managed to pass on their exclusivist ideas among their pupils; resulting in recent opinion polls which showed that up to one in four Indonesian public high school students are expressing their support toward the idea of an Islamic caliphate regularly promoted by HTI (The Jakarta Post 2017).

Campus da’wa is just one means by which the hardliners managed to spread their exclusivist ideas to potential followers. Various Islamist groups affiliated with Tarbiyah, HTI, and Jama’ah Tabligh movements are also active in sponsoring new forms of da’wa, ranging from Friday da’wa activities in large state institutions, companies, and shopping malls (Tempo 2017, pp. 64-65). The internet and social media sites have become new outlets for hardline groups to propagate their messages over the past decade or so, through internet sites such as Arramah.com and VOAIslam.com and others are gaining popularity among internet users looking for religious content. These sites offered literalist, orthodox interpretation of Islam that are being articulated in clear and simple manner – often in under two to three minutes – by Islamist preachers specializing in online da’wa such as ustadz Khalid Basalamah. The success of these groups in outsmarting their moderate counterparts through their control over the internet as well as more conventional propagation outlets such as campus da’wa – help to explain why more Indonesian Muslims, especially young middle-class millennials, are following more conservative interpretations of Islam than their predecessors.

Mass prayer in Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, completed in 1978.

An Unholy Alliance

Fourth and finally, Civil Islam thesis proponents underplay the growing alliance between high-level elite politicians and clerics affiliated with the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), both at national and local levels. These elite clerics and politicians are aligning themselves with hardline Islamist groups such as FPI in order to further their ambitions (Hadiz 2016, Hamayotsu 2018). There is clearly an extensive effort by hardline Islamist groups to develop alliances with politicians, civil servants, and security officials who are sympathetic to their agenda or at a minimum want to utilize their support to further their political goals.

FPI has been developing networks with high level officials since it was founded in the early 2000s. Retired TNI Chief of Staff Wiranto (now Coordinating Minister for Political, Security, and Legal Affairs) and Police General Nugroho Djajusman were thought to be the organization’s chief patrons during its early years (Wilson 2015). These linkages are being maintained by the TNI and the National Police’s current leadership. General Gatot Nurmantyo, the recently replaced TNI Chief of Staff, reportedly has close relations with Habib Rizieq and other senior FPI leaders (McBeth 2017). At the regional level, FPI has developed extensive relationships with regional police and TNI commanders as well, which reportedly has helped it to avoid legal troubles whenever it launched a strike against a targeted religious minority.

Realising the growing power and influence of hardline Islamist groups – especially during election seasons, these elites are increasingly forming opportunistic alliances with the latter groups in order to win support from them and tapped in their members as their potential supporters. However, alliances between Islamists, MUI clerics, and elite politicians have created numerous setbacks for the long-term prospect of moderate, civil Islam in Indonesia. This can be seen from the enactment of approximately 440 local shari’a regulations in over 100 Indonesian regions (Pisani and Buehler 2017) since Indonesia began its political decentralization in 2001. At the national level, new public morality laws have been approved or are being considered by the parliament. This includes the 2006 Anti-Pornography Law and the introduction of clauses that will severely criminalise non-marital sexual relationships in the upcoming revision of the Indonesian Criminal Code (KUHP), which is expected to be passed by the DPR sometime before its current term ends in 2019 (Peterson 2018). With these developments, the prospect of a civil Islamic principles and discourses prevailing in a democratic, post-Reformasi Indonesia, is becoming more elusive nearly twenty years after it was first articulated.

While some scholars (e.g., Qurtuby 2018) remain optimistic regarding the future prospects of civil, moderate Islam in Indonesia, based on the above observations, we can no longer view Civil Islam as the most dominant theological discourse within Indonesian Islam. While the prospect of further Islamization of the Indonesian state remains remote, it can no longer be ruled out completely in a climate of rising Islamism in Indonesia. The Islamists’ success in staging the Defending Islam rallies shows they are a force that can no longer be ignored in contemporary analysis of Indonesian politics.

Alexander R. Arifianto
Research Fellow, Indonesia Programme, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


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  1. A very cogent presentation of key elements in the rise of conservative and intolerant Islamism and the weakness of civil Islam. But are these developments the cause of the phenomenon, or just manifestations of it? What has stopped proponents of civil Islam from using the same methods to propagate their views? Is it just operational ineffectiveness, or it is that there simply isn’t the audience for their ideas? In other words, are there deeper trends in societal attitudes that are making more Indonesians to tune into the messages of the Islamists and ignore those of civil Islam? Is it just that the Islamist know how to pander to their “base”, or is it that their “base” is growing bigger for wider reasons?

    • Dear Stephen,

      Thank you for your comments and questions. These are thought provoking and merits further discussion & research.

      Of course there is only so much you can say in a 2,000-words essay. However, a number of recent studies utilizing survey research have clearly shown there’s indeed a growing conservatism among the Indonesian Muslim population that creates substantial “consumer-based” for hardline Islamist organisations and preachers.

      One is the study done by Mietzner and Muhtadi (2018) which shows significant support for both ‘Aksi 212’ and FPI, esp. among the upper-middle class Indonesians, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10357823.2018.1473335?journalCode=casr20&

      The second study is done by ISEAS in a survey released last year which among others found that more than 80 percent of Indonesians agree with the statement that Muslim women should wear veils and appx 40 percent agree with the statement that Islamic law should be implemented as both national and local laws/regulations, ). https://www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/TRS10_17%20(002).pdf

      Why do civil/moderate Islam proponents fail to counter the Islamist messages? There are a number of potential answer to these questions. First is that moderate Islamic groups like NU and Muhammadiyah are preoccupied in politics as many of their clerics and activists are running for public offices and currying favors with the national & local governments. This leaves a space for more conservative groups to mobilize the public through religious activities. This was clearly seen in my study on Indonesian Islamic campus preaching groups cited in the above article as well as here, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14799855.2018.1461086

      Another explanation is that moderate groups like NU are also experiencing growing conservatism within their own ranks, as was seen in the involvement of rank-and-file NU activists in the persecution of Ahmadi and Shi’a minorities (https://www.aljamiah.or.id/index.php/AJIS/article/view/578/342) and the growing popularity of NU Garis Lurus and its affiliated preachers like Uztadz Abdul Somad (http://www.newmandala.org/nadhlatul-ulama-home-hardliners/)

      Of course, further research needs to be done to answer this question as well as the others you have raised. But there’s a strong indication that growing Islamism in Indonesian can be seen on both the “demand” and the “supply” side, with more preachers and groups hardening their rhetorics toward more orthodox positions & less tolerant Islamic interpretations because of the growing conservatism among their potential audiences/customers.

  2. Thank you Stephen for your comments and questions, and thanks also to Alexander for a very detailed reply.

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