Religious pluralism and the failure of political Islam
Paolo Affatato 5 December 2017

Are Indonesian democracy and pluralism being endangered by the revitalization of radicalism and the increasingly invasive presence of extremist Islamic groups? Is political Islam exploiting the country’s democratic processes to gain power in increasingly more regions (in accordance to the so-called ‘democracy trap’ theory? Could there be a Caliphate on the rise on the Indonesian archipelago’s horizon? Such are the questions that animate debate on Indonesian Islam, that interest civil society, cultural circles, the political arena and the mass-media, as well as international analysts.

They are questions that make the Indonesian Islamic intelligentsia and the leaders of religious minorities nervous and, on the other hand, implicate politicians, the government and social institutions. However, these compelling questions have not excessively worried scholars as renowned as Azyumardi Azra, professor at the “Syarif Hidayatullah” State Islamic University in Jakarta and currently adviser to Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

According to Azra (who spoke recently at a seminar organised in Rome by the Italian Foreign Ministry, entitled “Pluralism and integration in Indonesian and Italian society: prospects, opportunities and challenges”), political Islam’s potential attempt to use democratic means to change the state’s structure, and impose a theocratic model such as the Caliphate, is destined to fail miserably in Indonesia. Regardless of it having the potential to inspire occasional violent episodes, even the propaganda disseminated by ISIS-related jihadist groups will not be able to change the nation’s social and political equilibria, nor will it develop into an Islam Nusantara, a typically Indonesian vision and form of the Prophet’s religion.

Democratic means for coming to power

Circulating among analysts in both Eastern and Western countries is an observational report based on real data. The Indonesian groups considered to be the expression of political Islam are well-known and increasingly present in news reports. They include the Front Pelembe Islam (FPI), the Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia (GNPF-MUI), the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, as well as a number of movements and factions that belong to civil society’s larger Muslim organisations, such as Muhammadiyah.

These groups have begun to make their aspirations public through an adoption of democratic means in order to reach a governing of society in accordance to a restrictive interpretation of Islam. Previously, political Islam has had very little participation and presence in Indonesian democracy. Occasionally, these groups would even have openly opposed the democratic system itself. When a general election had been held in 2003, the FPI leader preached that supporting democracy was as bad for Muslims as eating pork. Furthermore, political groups permeated by the Wahhabi ideology have never been capable of creating a political coalition leaving them incapable of mobilising masses or having any significant influence on society.

Following the fall of the Orde Baru and the Reformasi, radical Islamic groups that have tried to expand their influence to the public sphere have always been labelled as “minority movements opposed to democracy and pluralism”, “deviant groups”, hostile to the tolerance and national ideology of the Pancasila (the ‘Charter of Five Principles’ at the core of the constitution).

However, there has been quite an evident change of direction in the past two years. A series of large protests and mass mobilisations, marked by the slogan Aksi Bela Islam (“Action in the defence of Islam”) seem to have given political Islam a greater momentum and public approval.

In the large assemblies held by its supporters there have been demands for ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘equality in the eyes of the law’, calling for the principles that characterise the rule of law and democracy. Paradoxically, political Islam has also instrumentally appropriated itself of the Pancasila in a manner that suits its objectives. It has thereby found a way of defending itself from allegations of having “attacked Indonesian unity” and given their inconvenient opposers, such as Christian minorities, a bad name (Catholics, for example, have been accused of polytheism for believing in the doctrine of the Trinity and therefore violating the Pancasila).

These clever manoeuvres have allowed for groups aspiring to state Islamisation to achieve a greater degree of recognition within Indonesian society, in spite of a clear ambiguity in their narrative. Faced with this rise in Islamist influence, the government and civil society have continued to repropose a negative portrayal of such groups, denouncing them as ‘anti-democracy’ and as a threat to the nation. This has resulted in a new law being formulated, backed by Joko Widodo’s government and passed by parliament, which gives it executive power to ban mass organizations without having to refer to courts of justice. However, such decisions may even turn out to be counter-productive and, according to some observers, may fuel the ‘victim paradigm’, allowing followers of extremist groups to further justify remaining united and strengthening their identity.

The solidity of pluralism

Faced with such a scenario and the troubled prospects for the future of Indonesian society and Islam, Azyumardi Azra does not deny that the country is crossing a delicate phase in its history but downplays any alarmism. The scholar has chosen to place his trust in the particular nature of Indonesian Islam, defined by a paradigmatic structure of coexistence, pluralism and inclusion. Furthermore, at a political level, at a political level, he observes that Indonesian citizens have tended to vote for and guarantee the success of non-Islamic political parties, proving that the strictly religious element of a party is not decisive in their choices. In this sense the nation’s democratic and pluralist conscience remains a guarantee.

Azra reminds us that Indonesia is a multicultural state, with its over 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups and over 700 languages spoken in the various areas and islands. It is the Pancasila that inspires the national motto ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (“unity in diversity”) which presupposes, absorbs and resolves ab origine the issue of religious pluralism. The motto in itself implied that plurality is a real datum at its core, even in so far as considering an expression of a divine plan. Within this framework, the issue of pluralism is not only addressed in terms of a diversified and complex society, consisting of different races and religions, but also from a perspective of the creation of a genuine involvement of such diversities in the social fabric.

Pluralism thereby becomes a precious organisational element in the social fabric, from which peaceful coexistence stems thanks to political and social mechanisms with a balancing effect on all of society’s communities.

Azra notes that religious pluralism has four important characteristics: the active involvement of different individuals; an active search for reciprocal understanding and a profound respect for differences; a fruitful debate between the subjects involved and, lastly, dialogue experienced with priority given to listening, mental openness and a desire to share. According to Azra, these are the characteristics of Islam Nusantara (the Islam of Indonesia), which, following the wasatiyyah, ‘the middle way’, consists not only of geographical and cultural soundness. The scholar explains that such soundness is based on Islamic orthodoxy that consists in uniting Ashʿarism’s theology, the Shafi judicial school of thought and Sufism. The cohesion of these three elements characterises Islam Nusantara: the Ashari theology emphasises an attitude of moderation between revelation and reason, while the Shafi school, affiliated to Sufism, renders this expression of Islam both inclusive and tolerant. With the cohesion of these three elements, according to Azra, the orthodoxy of Islam Nusantara has become a consolidated tradition, founded and dominant since the 17th century.

Indonesian Islam, well-represented by vast social organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah which, albeit with a different emphasis, adhere to the same philosophical and religious paradigm, has all the requisites for the creation of an authentically Islamic civilisation that is also authentically respectful of every human being. In doing so, Azra observes, it would resist the temptations of political Islam or the vulgar terrorist propaganda of organisations such as Islamic State. The nature of Indonesian Islam is too powerful to be overturned, he debates, but it needs to be consolidated. Its power, according to Azyumardi Azra, lies in its nature and in the character of mass Islamic organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which are independent from the state and power systems. They have large and small mosques, schools, madrassas (religious schools), colleges and universities, hospitals, social and community aid centres, cooperatives and other economic activities. There are no such community organisations in other countries in the Muslim world that have such characteristics, wealth and capillary social forms.

Consolidating Islam Nusantara, concludes Azra, would mean taking action to prevent radical infiltration and having political and religious leaders speaking clearly against intolerance, radicalism and terrorism. All this must be done without underestimating the need to work on strengthening Indonesian Islam which, in this way, could assume the role of a guide in the progress of global Islamic civilisation and become a real and implementable model that is fully compatible with democracy and human rights.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Credit: Juni Kriswanto /AFP