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Islamic challenge to Indonesia’s democracy

By Sadanand Dhume - posted Monday, 27 October 2008

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-Qaida 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-Qaida’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 South-East 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 modelled 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 US$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. Modelled 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 12-fold 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.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Sadanand Dhume is the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, a book about the rise of radicalism in the world’s most populous Muslim country. Click here to read an excerpt. Click here to view his website.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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