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Why Islam matters in Indonesian politics

The 2014 presidential election has involved prominent use of Islamic cultural and ritual symbols. Warren Goldswain /

Running for president in Indonesia seemed also to entail having to show off one’s commitment to Islam.

The 2014 presidential election featured a prominent use of Islamic cultural and ritual symbols. Both Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto showcased their connection to Islam through public displays of piety. Both also looked for support from Islamic political parties, religious leaders, Islamic boarding schools and mass organisations to increase their electability.

Widodo, more popularly called Jokowi, flew to Mecca three days before the presidential election on a pilgrimage, staving off smear campaigns that he was secretly a Christian of Chinese descent.

Why does Islam play a large role in this election? Was this always the case in the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation?

New Order legacy

Actually, in the 1950s, Indonesia had a more diverse ideological landscape than today. In the 1955 general election, many Islam-based political parties freely used Islam as their ideological foundation and fought to make Islam the state ideology. At the same time, it was common for the Indonesian Communist Party and other secular parties to oppose the Islamic parties.

The rise of Suharto on the heels of the elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 changed the ideological landscape. Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998) also clamped down on political Islam. He merged Islamic parties into one United Development Party (PPP) and forced them to abandon their ideal of formalising and legalising Islam as state ideology. The PPP had to accept Pancasila as its party ideology.

While Islam as a political ideology experienced a setback, it flourished culturally. Indonesia’s young generation of Muslims in the late 1960s and early 1970s played a big role in making Islam a spiritual, cultural and intellectual force in the nation. This can be seen in the tagline popularised by the late Islamic scholar Nurcholish Madjid: “Islam Yes, Partai Islam No” (“Islam Yes, Islamic Parties No”).

From then until the fall of Suharto, Indonesian Islam no longer promoted formal and legal aspirations. It instead emphasised moral and ethical principles, such as justice, equality, freedom and common good. These are universal principles present both in Islam and in Indonesia’s constitution.

Islam became everyone’s

The banning of communism played a role in increasing Islamic sentiments in Indonesian politics. People’s anxiety about social inequality could no longer be channelled through the language of class warfare, as Indonesia’s left was eliminated in the 1965-1966 pogrom. People kept away from leftist ideology due to the stigma created by government propaganda.

As a result, under the New Order, educated Indonesians could only use Islam as a powerful ideological language to protest about social and economic inequality.

People in rural Java, once the base for the Communist Party, continued to adhere to “abangan” Islam, a more syncretic version of Islam in Indonesia. With PKI banned, Islam became the only refuge from their social, economic, political and moral problems. Islam became everyone’s; the dichotomy between “santri” (orthodox Muslims) and abangan seemed to lose its relevance.

A search for meaning

In general, Islam’s force in politics can be explained through the role of religion in human life. Religion is tightly connected to human psychology and culture. Religion involves values, aspirations, a life vision, a search for meaning in one’s existence, fear of mortality, concern about right and wrong, spiritual fulfilment, friendship and wonder at the nature of life.

Indonesians seem to be more open in expressing their Islamic religiosity compared to the 1950s following Dutch colonial rule.

But the important question is: what is Islam’s contribution to the country? How far does Islam correlate with or manifest in the attitudes and behaviours of members of a society in upholding social ethics and politics? Will it translate to rule of law, good governance and social justice, including economic justice? We are still waiting for the answers.

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