Political Islam in Indonesia – A Threat to the Pancasila State?

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This essay argues that despite the rising Islamic manifestations among Indonesian society and the majority Muslim population, these conditions not do threaten the monotheistic nature of the Indonesia state espoused by the national philosophy – Pancasila. The secular-national parties’ victory led by the Democratic Party during the 2009 April General Election clearly affirms the view that the Muslim majority do not “see voting as ‘confessional behaviour’, explicitly linked to their faith” (Fealy 2009, Kadir 2004, Hefner 2000). Further examination of the election results also revealed uneven levels of support among the heterogeneous Islamic political parties. Until these disparate parties are able to consolidate their support bases, establish common political agendas and design viable socio-economic policies to attract the Muslim voters, their presence would not threaten the Pancasila state.

This essay begins with an introduction to Pancasila with a focus on its monotheistic nature, followed by the development of political Islam under Soeharto’s rule. Third, I will provide an introduction to the various Islamic political parties that have emerged following the demise of Soeharto’s regime. After which I will provide an analysis of the Islamic parties’ performance during the recent 2009 April General Election. Based on the latest voting trends, I will finally conclude if political Islam poses a present threat to Indonesia’s national philosophy.

The Indonesia’s national philosophy, Pancasila, consists of five principles. The first principle “Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa” states that “the State shall be based on the belief in the one and only God”. Similarly in Article 29 of the Indonesia Constitution which set out the status of religion in the state, no single religion was officially acknowledged. In addition, “the government is [also] required to follow a policy of neutrality towards all religions” and “afford equal right to all citizen regardless of their religious persuasions” (Salim 2007). These two examples highlight the basis for monotheism and religious plurality to exist in the Indonesian state where non-Muslim form the other 13% of the population (Kadir 2004).

As the nation’s dominant religion, Islamic groups has always been featured extensively in Indonesia’s historical and political landscape. Islamic mass organisations such the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah had a history of political activism in the country ever since the independence and anti-communist movements. After seizing power from Soekarno in 1965, Soeharto saw these Islamic organisations as political challenges to his newly acquired state authority. Therefore he sought to “sideline all Islamic parties … and subjected all political activities to stringent state control” (Means 2009). Soeharto required all organisations to assert their acceptance to the national philosophy of Pancasila. During that period, he also sanctioned new an Islamic political party and state agency such as Partai Muslimin Indonesia (Parmusi) and Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), in efforts to further diffuse the Islamic vote and community leadership. For much of his rule, Soeharto was generally able to curb the influence of political Islam and but not totally emasculate its existence.

In 1999, following Soeharto’s resignation, Indonesia embarked on the electoral democracy path. The democratisation process led to a flurry of Islamic and Muslim-based political parties particularly after years of political marginalisation under Soeharto’s rule (Kadir 2004, Ufen 2009). More than twenty political parties contested in the 1999 General Election. By and large, these Islamic political parties fall under two broad categories: Islamic and Muslim-oriented parties (Kadir 2004, Ufen 2009). The Islamic parties officially proclaim their Islamic identity with the clear agenda to apply Shariah laws across the societal and political realms. Only Muslims are admitted into these parties. This list includes the United Development Party (PPP), Moon and Crescent Party (PBB) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

On the other hand, parties such as the National Awakening Party (PKB) and National Mandate Party (PAN) belonged to the Muslim-oriented category. These parties draw their support mainly from the Muslim communities, but they also espouse a “religion neutral state ideology” (Pancasila) and are inclusive towards non-Muslims along their membership (Kadir 2004). The large number of Islamic political parties’ existence illustrate the divisions and diversity of opinions among the Indonesian Muslims.

With an overwhelming Muslim population (87%), there is the hypothetical risk for the “tyranny of the majority” situation to occur in Indonesia (Salim 2007). What if the Muslim constituents decide to vote in overwhelming numbers for Islamic political parties? It could be seen as a mandate for these parties to apply Shariah laws across all spectrums of the state and society. The non-Muslim minorities would be numerically helpless to oppose it. However, thelow-level of support for Islamic political parties from previous elections persisted into the 2009 April General Election seem to offer some respite.

Despite evidence of growing conservatism and Islamic influence such as the 2008 Anti-Pornography Bill and the increasing numbers of Shariah provincial bylaws, the overall support for Islamic political parties actually fell to their lowest level in the 2009 April General Election since the post-Soeharto years (Fealy 2009). When this trend is viewed together with the Democratic Party’s runaway success in the same election, it became clear that Muslim constituents are not voting solely on their religious belief. There are two possible reasons for this occurrence: the constituent’s personal socio-economic concerns and the existence of serious internal divisions among the various Islamic political parties.

Over the last two years, Lembaga Survei Indonesia (Indonesian Survey Institute) surveys revealed the constituents’ “shrinking confidence in Islamic parties’ ability to address pressing socio-economic issues” (Fealy 2009). Compared to previous administrations, Indonesia achieved a period of stable economic growth under Yudhoyono’s first presidential term. Yudhoyono was politically acute to include members of Islamic political parties into his cabinet. The combination of his ability to deliver steady economic growth and inclusion of ministers from Islamic political parties in his cabinet enables him to capture the confidence of the majority moderate Muslims.

Second, over the recent years, serious internal cracks have emerged among the three of the four largest Islamic political parties. Since 2004, PKB was headed by four different chairmen and has been involved in legal exchanges with other rival groups. The PPP suffered from faction divisions and inapt leadership due to personality and sectional differences. The PAN was deeply divided among over its nomination for the 2009 July Presidential election. These splits do not aid the parties’ causes but has resulted in further alienation from their support bases.

This essay has demonstrated that there not strong correlation between rising religion fervour and its challenge to the Pancasila philosophy. It also highlighted that at the polling booth, the majority of the Indonesia Muslim constituents would both consider both the secular-nationalist and a wide range of Islamic political parties partially the parties’ abilities to address socio-economic issues. For the reasons, it is currently safe to assume that current state of political Islam in Indonesia does not threat the Pancasila state.

Fealy, Greg. “Indonesia’s Islamic parties in decline” Inside Story. May 11 2009. http://inside.org.au/indonesia%E2%80%99s-islamic-parties-in-decline/ (accessed October 27, 2009)

Hefner, R.W. “Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000

Kadir, Suzaina. “Mapping Muslim politics in Southeast Asia after September 11” The Pacific Review, vol. 17, no. 2 (2004): 199-222.

Means, Gordon P. “Political Islam in Southeast Asia” 93-118. Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2009.

Salim, Arksal. “Muslim Politics in Indonesia’s Democratization: The Religious Majority and the Rights of Minorities in the Post-Suharto Era” in Indonesia: Democracy and the Promise of Good Governance, McLeod, Ross and MacIntyre, eds., Singapore: ISEAS, 2007

Ufen, Andreas. “Mobilising Political Islam: Indonesia and Malaysia Compared” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, vol. 47, no. 3 (2009): 308-333.