The Politics of Islam, Indonesia’s Ruling Elite and Democracy

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

Malik Miah

Civil Islam, Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia
by Robert W. Hefner
(Princeton University Press, 2000) 286 pages, $17.95 paperback.

THE CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALIST Rev. Jerry Falwell is convinced that Islam is a horrific religion and knows in his heart that it can never be civil. Upset with President George W. Bush’s plan to provide social service funding to all religious groups, Falwell opposes giving money to Islamic groups.

“The Muslim faith teaches hate,” said Falwell in an interview with, an interfaith Web site. “There’s clear evidence that the Islam religion, wherever it has majority control, doesn’t even allow people of other faiths to express themselves or evangelize or to exist in their presence.” (Reported in San Francisco Chronicle, March 8)

Pat Robertson, another Christian fundamentalist, said it bluntly: the government should not support “religious groups that are outside the mainstream.” The president of the American Jewish Committee, Bruce Ramer, agrees. “The notion that hate groups like the Nation of Islam could be included in President Bush’s initiative to finance faith-based groups is appalling.” (See letters to the editor, New York Times, March 12)

The Bush government, showing its true colors, has refused to condemn these bigoted attacks, which contradict the Constitution and particularly the First Amendment. The separation of religion and the state was not simply making religion a private matter. It had a dual purpose of keeping the state off the back of all religions, “and” preventing religions from using the state as their agent.

Of course, all religious fundamentalists seek to use the state to advance their own religions. For example, Hindu chauvinists in India seek to use the state against Muslims and other religions (as discussed extensively by Soma Marik in her essay on the state and communalism in our previous issue, ATC 91).

Against all such aims, the goal of democrats in all societies is to keep religion and other personal beliefs as private.

Civil Islam in Indonesia

Robert Hefner, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, discusses the issue of religion, democracy and the state in Indonesia. His book is about the relationship of Islam in Indonesia with its 210 million people (ninety percent nominal Muslims) to the political elites.

Hefner’s main point is that Islam and civil society can be compatible. But it will require what he calls a civilized state.

“The current circumstances that lead some Muslims to embrace a democratic ideal,” he explains, is based on the simple fact “that Muslim politics is not monolithic but, like politics in all civilizations, plural.” (7)

Events in Indonesia since 1998 show this diversity. After the long-time ruler Suharto was pressured by popular protests to step down as president in disgrace in May 1998, the former general turned over presidential power to his protégé and vice president, B.J. Habibie. Habibie attempted to appease the popular anger for change, but refused to arrest Suharto or move against the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) high command.

Habibie did agree to an UN-sponsored self-determination referendum in the illegally occupied territory of East Timor and organized the first democratic elections a year later. But he refused to move against the institutional corruption, cronyism and nepotism of the state.

Not surprisingly, Habibie lost the popular vote, coming in second to Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

Strong opposition to Megawati by the conservative Muslim parties and organizations led the National Assembly (MPR) to make a compromise selection as president. The Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, head of the largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) who came in third in the popular vote, became president in October 1999.

How the ruling elite picked Wahid is one reason for the ongoing political crisis today. His mandate was limited, thus allowing the rightist forces to continue to keep their power and privileges. The basic political and economic infrastructure of the New Order state remains intact.

Golkar (Suharto’s party apparatus) and the provincial civil service administrators (mostly former military men) still rule. Their uprooting will be key to the democratic transformation of Indonesia.

Suharto and his family remain in Jakarta. Much of the heavily reported ethnic and religious violence, many believe, has the ugly hand of the Suharto family and cronies, especially his supporters in the TNI, behind it.

The Chinese Scapegoats

In fact, the only big Suharto crony figure to be sent to jail is a Chinese Indonesian. Targeting ethnic Chinese is a common tactic of the ruling elite in order to deflect popular anger from themselves and their privileges.

Chinese Indonesians have never held much political influence because of their community’s relatively small size. Yet since independence ethnic Chinese (3 percent or 7 million people) have been targeted as scapegoats by the ruling elite.

While President Wahid has allowed many Chinese customs and the language to be openly used again, the national assembly has not repealed some 62 discriminatory laws. Moreover, the criminals in the military who were behind anti-Chinese violence and rapes in Jakarta’s Chinatown of Goldok before Suharto’s fall in 1998 have never been prosecuted.

The top military officers who organized the violent militias in East Timor in 1999 are also still free. None have been arrested or prosecuted.

On the other hand, pro-democracy activists and regional nationalists continue to be harassed and murdered by the army and paramilitary militias in Aceh and Irian Jaya (West Papua) where the people seek self-determination.

The peoples of the Moluccans, Kalimantan, Sumatra and Java (the most populous island) are also targeted for challenging the powers of the local and Jakarta-based rulers.

So while much has changed since Suharto’s fall, much hasn’t. The power battles within the elites are still at center stage. Independent pro-democracy organizations remain small.

The new ruling elite (many of those who were on the outs under Suharto) seek to use the anger of the people for their own interests while not challenging the power of the wealthy.

Role of Islam and the Political Crisis

The role of Islam in Indonesian politics can only be understood within this fluid, ever-changing context.

“The logic of Soeharto’s rule,” Hefner explains, “was not blind opposition to political Islam but a determination to centralize power and destroy all centers of civil autonomy and non-state authority.” (93)

Suharto used Islamic groups to destroy the left and Communist Party (PKI) after his 1965-66 CIA-supported seizure of power from the founding president, Sukarno. He turned against these same forces in the 1970s, including the Nahdlatul Ulama, President Wahid’s mass Islamic group, which had provided many of the shock troops after the 1965 coup to massacre suspected leftists and communists.

When it became politically useful again, Suharto turned toward orthodox Islam in the 1980s and `90s. He did so when some Muslims began actively embracing democratic ideas and joining secular and non-Islamic democratic forces.

“Muslim democrats,” Hefner notes, “like those in Indonesia tend to be more civil democratic or Tocquevillian than they are (Atlantic) liberal in spirit. They deny the need for an Islamic state. But they insist that society involve more than autonomous individuals, and democracy more than markets and the state.” (13)

Nevertheless, Suharto saw these Muslim democrats as a potential threat even though they did not seek an Islamic state. He organized his own “regimist Islam” to counter the democratic Islamic forces. In 1990 he supported the formation of ICMI (Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals) led by his crony B.J. Habibie. He also backed an Islamic officers’ group in the TNI who didn’t trust ICMI.

Hefner describes the method of Suharto as based on corporatism and on incorporating Islam, nationalism and mysticism to advance and protect that power. “Whether in politics (as seen in the fusion of political parties, business organization, or religion,” Hefner explains:

“(T)he basic principles of integralism, as practiced in the New Order, have always been clear. Competing interests and social organizations are urged toward mutual “consultation” and “consensus” through their incorporations into a forced union. Once inside this administrative corral, the association’s members are prevented from exercising any real initiative. As with Habibie in ICMI, the state decides who is to lead the organization. And it is the leader’s job to make sure that association members do not stray too far from state guidelines. Independent-minded associates are barred from leadership positions. Those who continue to challenge the system are expelled, harassed, or, when necessary, imprisoned. (153)

These maneuvers had one objective: to weaken the influence of traditional Muslim leaders and organizations (NU and Muhammadiyah in particular), and to divide and defeat his enemies.

What is a Civilized State?

Hefner argues that civil Islam is dependent on having a “civilized state.” Civil Islam, he explains, is not a static concept but is based on the political power relations that exist in society. What he calls a civilized state is one with transparent laws, including the place of religion, which are accepted by its citizens.

Islam is only one element to how the state functions. The key issue is whether the citizens believe in the laws and how they affect them. Islam has its religious laws, according to which the rules of the state are defined by the clerics. But as in all societies, who the clerics are and what they believe define the laws.

In Afghanistan, for example, the ruling clerics’ interpretation of the Koran says women can’t go to schools. In Iran the Islamic clerics who run the state believe the opposite. In Indonesia, the traditionalists see the place of Islam differently than the modernists who want a strict Islamic state.

The ideology of democracy is different from religion. It is a concept based on the right of the majority to decide the laws. The debate in most societies is over how many rights, if any, minorities (political, religious, others) should have. It is not automatic that minorities will have many rights.

The history of the United States is an illustration: Early democracy applied to whites-only. Native peoples and African slaves were legally excluded as citizens. Another example is Israel, whose basic laws guarantee rights for Jews within the state that Arabs (even when citizens) are denied. Yet Israel is a democracy.

The conflicted perception of democracy in Islamic societies, Hefner explains, is not fundamentally different — and that’s why there’s been a half century battle within Indonesia’s ruling elites over what type of democracy should exist, and where religion fits in.

The Dutch colonialists simply suppressed political Islam while encouraging religious figures and Islamic institutions. The secularist Muslims who forged the independence movement in the 1940s, led by President Sukarno, promoted a non-political Islam.

Sukarno and the nationalists drew up the five principles of pancasila. The key point being that the Indonesian nation is founded on the “belief in God” — thus allowing equal treatment of all faiths.

Modernist Islamic forces opposed this stance. They sought to add the phrase “with the obligation of adherents of Islam to carry out Islamic law [shariah].” The point was to have different laws for each community in society, while the ultimate goal was to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state and make other religious groups second-class citizens. (Notice again the parallel with the “construction of communal identity” in India discussed by Soma Marik, ATC 91.)

Sukarno’s concept was radical in that it fused nationalist, Muslim, Marxist, liberal democratic and populist Indonesian ideas. It included the traditional mysticism of the Javanese countryside as well as the major religious beliefs.

The pancasila of the early founders was neither anti-Islamic or secular in the Western sense, but a pragmatic recognition that the only way to unify such a diverse islands/state and maintain the unity of the new republic required a rejection of a dominant Islamic way.

The principles of pancasila allowed the new republic to base itself on the laws giving most power to the president and its main backer, the military. Thus the outer islands have always suffered from the direct rule and control of Jakarta, including the loss of vast wealth (Aceh and West Papua for example) and political rule where Javanists became the main overlords of local peoples.

The political parties too — including the nationalists, Islamic parties and communists (PKI) — were subordinated to the president. The founding 1945 constitution, still in force, centralized most power under the executive branch.

The problem for Indonesian Islam was conforming to what was seen as a Western-type secular state (under Sukarno and Suharto) with their worldview of Islam and politics — where the two couldn’t be separated.

The founding fathers’ wisdom was to base the state on pancasila (respect for all religions) and not give priority to Islam, though most of the leaders were nominal or devout Muslims. The president and military, however, did not respect democracy or civil society. They abused their power for their own interests. The only counter force was the political parties, especially the PKI until 1965, and apolitical and “regimist Islam” afterwards.

Ruling Elite not Monolithic

The ruling elite, Hefner explains, was never as monolithic as it appeared to the outside world. The Muslim groups, while pushed out of favor under Suharto, still remained powerful as religious institutions.

Wahid’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) continued to use its pesantren (Qur’anic schools) in the countryside to grow and increase its influence. Wahid, as head of the 40-million-strong organization, had a base of support to maneuver against the regime. It’s why Suharto failed to drive him out as head of the NU.

The NU today has its own youth-led militia, Banser, which has taken to the streets in support of Wahid against attempts by the Muslim Central Axis Alliance (led by the more modernist Islamic groups, parties and groups aligned with Golkar and other remnants of the New Order) to force the president to resign.

These conflicts between Islamic groups have a social and historical basis in Indonesian society. There have been two kinds of generally identified Muslims, Hefner explains, “those committed to a more or less normative profession of the faith, known as santri, and those who spiced their piety with Javanese customs, known as abangan.”

“The conflict,” Hefner further explains, “between Javanists and reformist Muslims did not pit parochial traditionalists against cosmopolitan modernists. It set two rival visions of religion and nation against each other. This was to become the basis for an enduring political argument.” (15)

Fear of the Masses

The ruling elites, including Wahid and his Muslim opponents, fear the independent action of the masses. They prefer maneuvering among themselves and using the public anger for their own ends. The elite of all stripes rejects overthrowing the old constitution and uncivil methods of the state.

Only the small leftist groups like the People Democratic Party (PRD) and militant student alliances call for the banning of Golkar and oppose “fake reformers.” The PRD goes further in advocating the establishment of a transitional provisional government.

The military, which still is all-powerful, continues to jockey to protect its historic dual function (dwifungsi) role. It pledges loyalty to President Wahid while supporting efforts to weaken Wahid. Their representatives in the national assembly even supported a censor motion by Golkar and conservative Muslim alliance against Wahid.

In a “postscript,” Hefner observes: “Although its leaders [Suharto and his cronies] have been removed from the heights of government, advocates of state terror remain ensconced in segments of the military and bureaucracy. The dismantlement of their shadows network of vigilantes and gangsters will be one of the greater challenges facing democratic Indonesia.” (213)

So, is civil Islam possible?

While I agree with Hefner that it is possible, it will require a radical democratic revolution where the dispossessed take state power. Only then will the Suharto family and cronies be arrested, prosecuted and put behind bars for their crimes against humanity, and the people enabled to determine ethnic and Islamic relations in their democratic state.

ATC 92, May-June 2001