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The Islamic factor in Indonesian politics


After months of street turmoil and parliamentary drama, Indonesia returned to relative calm with the removal of Abdurrahman Wahid from the presidency last month. His tumultuous 21-month rule was marked by moves to open up political freedom in the world’s fourth most populous Muslim country. But Gus Dur, as he is popularly known, proved increasingly unreliable, alienating the cabinet and even his former supporters.

When Wahid was elected president in 1999, he was greeted by the western media as an unknown quantity, but an acceptable one, particularly as he was known to be friendly towards Israel. Now that he has fallen, he has become a ‘Muslim cleric’. Few Islamic activists were taken in by his Islamic facade; many remembered his fondness for nightclubs and western music. Other Muslims were less discerning, however, and Wahid’s Islamic credentials were a considerable factor in his popularity. This popular support may have been misguided, but it reflected an important reality of modern Indonesian politics: the failure of Pancasila, the pagan state ideology introduced by the late Ahmad Sukarno, to secularise or even de-Islamise Indonesia’s public life.

The reason that Wahid was elected to the presidency instead of Megawati Sukarnoputri in 1999, despite Megawati leading the largest party in parliament, was not that Indonesia could not accept a woman president. Far more important was public awareness of her preference for Christian advisors, whose scorched-earth policy in Aceh, and numerous other policies offensive to Muslims, were unacceptable to the vast majority of Indonesians. Despite the secularising attempts of Indonesia’s rulers, Islamic awareness has always been a key factor in Indonesia’s politics. By the end of the Suharto era, even his own party, Golkar, had realized the stupidity of trying to make Pancasila the basis for public life in the country, and Suharto was forced to appoint B. J. Habibie, a well-known Muslim intellectual, his vice president. When Wahid could not deliver, Megawati’s succession became inevitable. But parliament could not ignore the potential Muslim backlash, hence the election of Hamzah Haz, a prominent Islamist, as vice president.

In Indonesia, as elsewhere, Muslims are committed to seeking solutions to their problems in Islam. This, however, is unacceptable to the West, which is not, and never has been, interested in democratic reform in the Muslim world, only in economic exploitation. It also knows that these aims can only be achieved by marginalising Islam. Although the history of the Christian missionary agenda in Indonesia goes back to its Dutch colonial era, the west long ago realized that it was impossible to uproot Islam from Indonesia. They resorted to the next best thing: de-Islamisation of the Indonesian polity and the promotion of Pancasila, even though Islam is the only common factor binding Indonesia’s various ethnic groups, who speak different languages and have different customs. The weakening of this common bond has been a major contributory factor to Indonesia’s many problems today.

Much of Indonesia’s misery has also stemmed from the role of Christians, encouraged and promoted by rulers since Suharto. The role of the Christian missionaries and their foreign supporters is well documented, not least by Tapol, the London-based Indonesian human rights organization. So too are the roles that Christians in senior positions in Indonesia’s government and military have played in Aceh and other areas. The butchery by then-army chief Benny Murdani, a committed Christian, at Tanjung Priok in September 1984 is just one example.

Pancasila is effectively dead, although its ghost will continue to drift around Indonesian public life for some time. The rise of Megawati, however, surrounded by Christian advisors, is cause for concern, not least that the army may increase its political power. She has been welcomed by the west, confident that its interests will be promoted. Whatever else one may say about Wahid’s reign, however, Indonesia has undoubtedly gained in terms of political freedoms. This may ease the emergence of an Islamic movement with the potential to offer genuine Islamic solutions to Indonesia’s problems, and provide the country’s Muslims with the leadership and guidance they expect from Islam and deserve for their commitment to it. Until such a movement emerges, the Muslims of Indonesia, like those in many other parts of the Muslim world, will search in vain for Islamic answers to problems of others’ making.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 12

Jumada' al-Ula' 26, 14222001-08-16

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