Indonesia: Primordialism Ain’t What It Used To Be


Dr Julia Day Howell

It is well to remember the paradoxical fluidity of ‘primordial sentiments’ (primordialism being the appeal to cultural ‘roots’ as a basis of political mobilisation) when trying to understand the role of religion in politics in Indonesia today. Indonesia is one of many post-World War II ‘new nations’ that has used religion as a basis for its national identity. In an historic compromise in 1945 between advocates of an Islamic state and so-called ’secular nationalists’ (those in favour of a religiously neutral state), the constitution safeguarded choice of religion founded upon belief in a Supreme God. But it was always clear that if advocates could get the numbers, the legislature could be used to institute an Islamic state.

Under Suharto’s New Order – in order to defuse tensions between ‘strict Muslims’ and ‘secular nationalists’ the pluralist principles of the 1945 Constitution and the Panca Sila outlined in its Preamble were elevated to the level of state ideology.

Now all that is up for grabs. The rebirth of democratic competition following the demise of the New Order opened up the possibility of an Islamic state once again. It was moved up on the political agenda as amendments to the constitution were debated ahead of the August meeting of the Consultative Assembly.

While this might be taken as a resurgence of primordialism and further evidence of growing fundamentalism, the two largest Muslim organisations in the nation, the Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, representing long-standing rural and urban communities of ‘strict Muslims’, came out in February against an Islamic state.

True, regional autonomy legislation has created an environment in which Islamic law can be adopted at lower levels of government, as has been done in Aceh where ‘religious police’ have been recruited to enforce Islamic (syariah) law. This might suggest the capture (at least in Islamic circles in certain regional areas) of political rhetoric by self-styled ‘purists’.

Yet for several decades all state school pupils and university students, that is, those in secular or Western-style schooling, have had to learn about their religion as part of their school curriculum. As a result, even people from lax Muslim backgrounds actually know a fair bit about their religion. In the wake Iranian Revolution (in 1979) and subsequent world Islamic revival, many are keen to practice their faith more diligently.

Similarly, those coming out of Islamic religious schools and strict Muslim backgrounds in the last decades are more culturally familiar than their parents with Western and scientific world views, as more and more of their schools benefit from upgrading and the inclusion of a secular curriculum.

Moreover, in both the Modernist and traditionalist sectors of the Indonesian Muslim community a theological and political liberalism has gained momentum. ’Neo-Modernists’ and ‘Neo-Traditionalists’, like Nurcholis Madjid and former president Abdurrahman Wahid, have interpreted Islamic scriptures to support the pluralist, multi-religious state. Madjid, for example, holds that there is no evidence of an ‘Islamic state’ in the Quran and that it is inappropriate in Indonesia today. Wahid, during his presidency, even called for the abolition of the Ministry of Religion, on the grounds that the state should not interfere in religion. While this did not meet with support, there is now a new push for reform of the Ministry, which has been criticised for bolstering sectarian rivalries. In June, the House of Representatives and leaders of major religious organisations also called for the establishment of a joint secretariat for interfaith unity.

Thus, despite widespread concern about public order and probity, many in the middle and elite strata see religion as a private matter rather than something the state should impose. A telling case was the rejection of a West Jakarta mayor’s instruction that Muslim pupils should wear ‘Islamic dress’ to school on Fridays to increase their morality and curb brawling. The measure was retracted in June in the face of widespread public criticism of the mayor for interfering in the personal affairs of citizens. Students objected claiming that it wouldn’t improve their faith any more than politicians attending Friday services would make them less corrupt. The students just wanted to dress like their friends. Moreover in August, the Consultative Assembly overwhelmingly voted against calls by minor Islamic parties that a requirement for Muslims live by syariah law be included in constitutional amendments. Where then is the great Islam-nationalist divide?

WATCHPOINT: How might a complete redrafting of the constitution under a proposed Constitutional Commission affect the pluralist status quo? How will international tensions act upon religious sentiment in Indonesia?


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