Religious activism in Indonesia

Updated On: Aug 01, 2006

Besides toppling an authoritarian regime, democracy has also unleashed other forces in Indonesia.

Kept under a lid during Suharto’s 32-year iron rule, several hardline Islamic groups are pushing for an Islamic state based on Syriah laws.  Indonesia’s current system is based on the Principles of Pancasila and its laws are mainly secular. 

However, since the fall of the Suharto regime, hardliners and Islamic fundamentalists have begun to assert their demands for a change in the laws. They have moved against individuals perceived to be working against religious doctrines as reflected in recent events including the stoning of Playboy magazine’s office, public criticisms of Miss Indonesia Nadine Chandrawinata and the attacks on Ahmadiyah, a tiny Muslim sect. With their properties burnt down, Ahmadiyah members are now seeking religious asylum in Australia.

Indonesia’s secular state is under threat and tenuously held together by moderate mainstream Islamic groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) which claims 40 million followers and Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation with 30 million members. But the signs are there that these two groups are going to have a tough fight against Islamic conservatism and fundamentalism. In the national parliament, conservatism has beaten moderate forces as 134 conservative parliamentarians effectively stopped the motion by 56 members to reject Islamic Syriah laws in Indonesia.

The moderates are also losing grounds in local elections and grassroots governance. Out of the 440 regencies (local wards and constituencies) in Indonesia, 30 have already converted to rule by Islamic instead of secular laws. These regencies institute laws like those obligating non-Muslims and female students to cover their heads or the definition of any female hanging out after dark as prostitutes. Many have already been fined or jailed under these redefinitions.

Such hardening religious attitudes may spark more pressures and tensions on the central government. The Islamisation of Indonesia fuels insecurities and unhappiness amongst significant non-Muslim sections of the state, particularly in places such as Bali, who may then demand more autonomy to protect their rights against the tide of rising Islamic demands.   A widening difference between local Islamic laws and secular laws of the central government only add to the tensions and confusion.

Underlying the seriousness of the situation were the results of a survey, conducted from 2001 to March 2006 by the Center for Islamic and Social Studies (PPIM) inIndonesia. The survey found that 43.5 percent of respondents were ready to wage war on threatening non-Muslim groups, 40 percent would use violence against those blaspheming Islam and 14.7 percent would tear down churches without official permits. Between 30 percent and 58 percent approved of amputation of the left hand for thieves and the stoning to death of rapists. Such high levels of intolerance have the potential to facilitate the recruitment of terrorists for extremist groups in the country, becoming breeding grounds for hatred.

With such worrying trends, the Indonesian state has responded with Vice President Jusuf Kalla urging religious scholars and schools to play a greater role in social construction and “spiritual guides” for the people. He appealed to religious groups to carry out practical activist measures to help victims of natural disasters inIndonesia rather than merely focusing on religious doctrines. He also wanted Islamic groups to increase educational programs that cater to the needs of the economy.  Whether these religious groups will take heed of the government’s appeal is yet to be seen.


Opinion: Indonesia in the grip of religious fervour (New Straits Times, 30 July 2006)

Guide the people, Jusuf urges religious scholars (Straits Times, 29 July 2006)

Survey reveals Muslim views on violence (The Jakarta Post, 28 July 2006)