Islamic challenge to Indonesia’s democracy
AGAINST the backdrop of carnage at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel, terrorist attacks on the US embassy in San’a and the Indian embassy in Kabul, and the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Algeria, few places in the Muslim world appear as placid as Indonesia. It’s been three years since the country’s last major terrorist bombing; Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, is on the run. Democracy has blossomed: Parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2009 will be the third consecutive free ballot since the end of General Suharto’s 32-year reign in 1998.
Both the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the principal opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, reflect the principles of tolerance and inclusiveness bequeathed to the country by its founding fathers at independence. The Indonesian press is Southeast Asia’s freest, its cinema the region’s most vibrant.
Beneath the surface, though, Indonesian society is in ferment. Earlier this year, clerical diktats and repeated mob violence forced the government to effectively ban the Ahmadiyya, a beleaguered Islamic sect considered “heretical” by some Muslims for revering its founder alongside the prophet Mohammed.
In June, in an incident rich with irony, members of the vigilante group Islamic Defenders Front, wielding bamboo staves, attacked peaceful demonstrators rallying for religious freedom at the National Monument, an iconic symbol of Indonesian unity. Dozens of district governments have enacted sharia-inspired regulations, including mandatory dress codes, compulsory Koran reading tests for students and couples seeking to marry, and vice squads loosely modeled on those in Saudi Arabia and Taliban-era Afghanistan.
In September, protesters from the Hindu island of Bali took to the streets to force parliament to postpone passage of a so-called anti-pornography bill whose broadly worded restrictions on clothing and artistic expression could potentially penalise Balinese culture and jeopardise its tourism-dependent economy. Bali contributes the lion’s share of Indonesia’s tourism earnings, estimated at $5.3 billion in 2007.
Behind the anti-pornography bill stands the fundamentalist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the dark bloom at the heart of Indonesia’s democratic flowering. Modeled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and fired by the same utopian dream of bringing all aspects of society and the state in line with the allegedly God-given commands of sharia law, the party subscribes to an assertive credo increasingly visible from Morocco to Mindanao: Islam is the solution.
Powered by highly motivated cadres, aided by an image of sea-green incorruptibility and helped along by the disunity and ideological incoherence of mainstream parties, the PKS has taken just 10 years to transform itself from a bit player to a major force in national politics.
Currently it’s the seventh largest party in parliament and holds three seats in President Yudhoyono’s cabinet. Trained party cadres multiplied twelvefold from 60,000 in 1999 to 720,000 in 2007. Earlier this year, the PKS capped a run of local and provincial electoral victories by claiming the governorships of populous West Java and North Sumatra. Armed with this momentum, it stands poised to become the third or fourth largest party in next year’s parliamentary elections.
The PKS juggernaut raises questions about the ability of Indonesia’s moderate mainstream to contain a strident minority whose ultimate goals are at odds with the nation’s founding principles and with the respect for individual rights at the heart of liberal democracy. To be sure, many PKS supporters exhibit a certain idealism; they’re usually more concerned with ending graft in government than with stoning adulterers.
Nonetheless, party cadres and top leaders – often educated in Middle Eastern or Pakistani institutions – hew to the harsh vision of Egyptian Islamists Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna and their Pakistani contemporary Abul Ala Maududi. To them, the faith makes no distinction between religion and politics.
It’s a complete belief system that concerns itself not merely with prayer, fasting, alms for the poor and the Haj pilgrimage, but also with elections, governance, commerce and diplomacy. At an individual level, personal decisions are surrendered to the collective: All women must don the headscarf and embrace segregation. Men are forbidden gold, silk, cigarettes and alcohol.
PKS leaders, aware that their imported ideology goes against the grain of Indonesia’s traditionally open and inclusive ethos, downplay their pedigree by emphasising their anti-corruption credentials. Nonetheless, the party’s claims of moderation are belied by its record.
It has been full-throated in support for Jemaah Islamiyah kingpin Abu Bakar Bashir, who spent 26 months in jail for involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings. It consistently backs sharia values over human rights, supporting the persecution of the Ahmadiyya and stoutly opposing attempts to have sharia-inspired bylaws declared unconstitutional.
It displays a self-conscious attachment to pan-Islamic causes from Palestine to the southern Philippines. In Indonesia, the PKS project sends a disquieting signal to religious minorities, non-conformist women, and secular and heterodox Muslims. For the region more broadly, where economic development has long been based upon political predictability and a pro-Western outlook, it signals a period of uncertainty and flux.
Nor does the PKS need to claim formal power to diminish Indonesia’s prospects. The examples of Egypt and Pakistan, where the Islamist movement has gained social and political clout over the past 35 years without ever taking office, serve as a caution.
In both countries, as in Indonesia, Islamists consistently stoke anti-Western sentiment. Scriptural certainty has gradually stifled science and the spirit of inquiry. Foreign investors shy away from long-term commitments, especially in manufacturing. Non-Muslims live circumscribed and, at times perilous, lives. Terrorism and periodic outbreaks of religious violence are facts of life, and the state’s response is often ineffectual.
The crux of the problem lies in Islamism’s incompatibility with modernity. In the PKS version of women’s rights, for instance, the decision whether or not to wear the headscarf is made by society or the state rather than the individual. Similarly, when it comes to minorities, the party ideology replaces the modern ideal of equality for all with the medieval concept of de facto second-class status as “protected peoples.”
Though the party, packed with engineers and doctors, cultivates a technology-savvy image, its ethos is in fact antithetical to scientific advancement. PKS cadres show not the slightest skepticism toward the unverifiable claims of religion. They overwhelmingly reject the theory of evolution in favor of the crackpot creationism espoused by the Turkish pamphleteer Harun Yahya.
In economics, though the party leadership makes the right noises about free markets, the rank and file is overwhelmingly suspicious of the largely non-Muslim ethnic Chinese business community. In foreign policy, the rise of PKS signals a shift of focus from Southeast Asia toward largely symbolic pan-Islamic concerns.
The early signs are already visible in high profile visits to Jakarta by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the use of Indonesia’s place on the UN Security Council to water down criticism of Iran’s rogue nuclear program.
The jury is still out on whether Indonesia will evolve into a benign liberal democracy or an Islamist-dominated state that permits elections but suppresses individual rights, whether it will regain its focus on the economic betterment of its people or dissipate its energies on the emotive politics of pan-Islamism, whether it will emulate manufacturing-driven Vietnam or commodities-dependent Nigeria.
Unlike most Muslim-majority nations, Indonesia can draw on the strengths of a non-sectarian constitution, a secular elite, an essentially open-minded population and examples of successful multicultural neighbors such as Singapore and Australia. Unfortunately, as recent history shows, these may not be enough to blunt the rise of a shrewd and disciplined movement determined to remake the nation in its image.
Sadanand Dhume is a fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, and the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist.