Political Islam on Rise a Decade after Suharto: Analysts

A decade after the end of the Suharto presidency, democracy is providing fertile ground for the growth of political Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim country, analysts said.

As the country remembered Suharto’s 32 years in power on the 10th anniversary of his resignation on Wednesday, many see the rising strength of political Islam as a defining characteristic of Indonesia’s reborn democracy.

“Political Islam has become one of the most important factors in shaping the future of Indonesia after the fall of Suharto,” Airlangga University political analyst Daniel Sparingga said.

From the 2002 Bali bombing blamed on Islamic militants to the current debate on the banning of a minority Islamic sect over its so-called deviant views, analysts say the battle between the forces of moderation and intolerance is far from won.

They cite the spread of strict Wahabbist teachings in Islamic schools, the debate among mainstream Islamic parties about Syariah law and women’s rights, and vigilante campaigns against “immodesty” as causes for concern.

But others say the real gains for Islam in Indonesian politics since Suharto have been at the moderate centre, not the fanatical fringe.

These analysts point to the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which has emerged as a major political force in the past four years through a moderate message which appeals to mainstream Indonesian Muslims.

The party is hoping to win 110 seats in the 550-seat parliament in next year’s general elections, compared to just seven in 1999, the year after Suharto’s fall, and 45 in 2004.

In contrast, the United Development Party, the country’s largest Muslim political grouping which was established under Suharto in 1973, did not manage to improve on its 58 seats in the 2004 polls.

Analysts said the PKS owes its success to a softening of its Islamic edges and to its clean image in a country rated as one of the world’s most corrupt.

But many suspect the party, which began as a zealous student movement inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has not fully abandoned its youthful radicalism.

“After they failed to achieve their target in 1999, they made a big and important transformation in strategy,” said Eep Saefullah, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia.

“But it’s obviously for the 2009 elections and it’s limited to the party’s surface.”

Despite its softer rhetoric, the PKS has never opposed Syariah law in Indonesia or spelled out its position on issues such as freedom of religion and woman’s rights.

“The war within (the party) is still going on,” Sparingga said.

Islamic parties helped bring Suharto to power as allies against the powerful communist movement in 1965-1966, but they were quickly brought to heel as the general consolidated his “New Order” military-led regime.

The more radical Islamic parties were simply banned and only the most moderate were tolerated, within a system which allowed opposition but mercilessly crushed any existential threat to the general’s rule.

Now that the shackles have been lifted, some Islamic leaders have sought to capitalize on the post-9/11 tensions between the Muslim world and the West to drum up support for an Islamic state.

It is these organizations that are winning support among the millions of disadvantaged Indonesians who feel left behind by Western-style democracy and globalization.

The most outspoken Indonesian Islamist cleric, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, who spent time in prison for his alleged links to the Jemaah Islamiyah regional terror group, still calls non-Muslims “maggots” and “snakes” and urges his followers to beat up tourists in the streets.

But political analyst Saefullah said even in areas where Syariah law has been imposed at the village level, there was limited support for Islamist fanaticism.

“I don’t see that the local Syariah bylaws are being backed by the population,” he said.

The leaders of the country’s biggest party, the secular Golkar, are watching nervously as Islamic parties like the PKS challenge for the country’s political centre.

Golkar chairman Jusuf Kalla, the country’s vice president, last week urged voters to focus on their practical needs in the buildup to next year’s elections and not be seduced by religious sermonizing.

“Religious leaders often sell heaven very cheaply,” he reportedly said in a speech.

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