Prominent Indonesian Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid once declared “Islam Yes; Islamic political party No!” Voters in contemporary Indonesia seem to agree with this basic sentiment. Despite the recent Islamic revival that has dramatically increased public expressions of piety, Islamic political parties have failed to gain any significant electoral traction in Indonesia. In fact, between the 2004 and 2009 national elections, support for Islamic parties actually decreased from 38 percent to approximately 28 percent. Yet during those same five years, the Islamic political parties that failed to win at the ballot box mobilized enough political and popular support to pass one of Indonesia’s most divisive pieces of legislation—the Anti-Pornography Law. These seemingly contradictory elements of Indonesian politics provide starkly different impressions of Islam’s political role. Does a weak showing in the country’s electoral politics indicate the imminent demise of Islam in Indonesian politics? Or does the politically adept maneuvering of Islamists—who seek political power through legislation about bodily discipline—foretell gloomy days ahead?
Explanations for this paradox depend largely on where we look for “the political.” Political scientist Greg Fealy has described Islam in Indonesia as a mosaic. If we spend too much time focusing our gaze on one single area, he observes, we lose sight of other patterns elsewhere in the mosaic. To understand political Islam by ballot box alone is to miss the cultural undercurrents that have direct bearing on Islam and politics in Indonesia.
The anti-pornography bill was not only a political battle waged inside the parliament building; it was also a media drama that played out in the newspapers, televisions, and on the Internet. Human rights and women’s advocacy groups vehemently protested an early version of the bill, which stipulated that women would be prevented from leaving their homes during certain evening hours. From a different vantage point, the mostly Hindu island province of Bali threatened to secede, arguing that the article prohibiting “revealing” clothing in public would wreak havoc on the island’s tourism industry, still sluggish after devastating bomb attacks in 2002 and 2005. Whereas many non-Muslims worried about the “Islamization” of Indonesia, proponents of the bill lamented the “degradation of national morality.”
Popular Muslim television preachers were among the bill’s most vocal supporters. Eager to parlay their celebrity appeal into political clout, TV preachers Ustad Jefri Al-Buchori and Arifin Ilham helped to lead the so-called Million Muslim March to rally public support for the anti-pornography bill. Celebrity preacher and self-help guru Abdullah Gymnastiar led a sophisticated multimedia campaign to promote the bill through television, radio, the Internet, text messages, and public rallies. All of these popular preachers, in step with the political strategy of the Indonesian Council of Ulamas, invoked the religio-political language of moral crisis in an attempt to control the terms of political debate. Unable to win an election, Islamic groups flexed their moral muscle in the public sphere. From the pulpit of his Sunday afternoon television program, Gymnastiar characterized those against the bill as “having no shame” before God or country. Nearly every single political party, anxious not to appear “un-Islamic,” voted to support the anti-pornography legislation.
The political participation of a new generation of media-savvy religious leaders reveals a sentiment quite different from Nurcholish Madjid’s liberal aspirations. As one proponent of the Anti-Pornography Law put it, “Islamic political party No; Political Islam Yes!” Whereas utopian visions of the international caliphate may not resonate with Indonesian voters, it appears that political Islam—as played out on the public stage—is alive and well. What remains to be seen, however, is whether those who engage in the politics of piety also have the moral courage to champion Indonesia’s more pressing issues of poverty and corruption.
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