The Politics of Sharia Law: Islamist Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia

Urwah Saari

International Development Analyst

The period of study was 1945-1998. ‘Jakarta Charter’ was not included in the constitution, and a secular constitution for Indonesia was adopted. A ‘new order’ military dictatorship in 1965 saw the perpetuation of the secular-nationalist elites’s domination of the bureaucracy and military. Although movements based on ‘political Islam’ or Islamist movements were convenient allies of the rulers up to 1965, largely to keep a check on leftist movements (socialist and communist forces), the rulers soon oppress and suppress ‘political Islam’ for the most 1965-1998.

Following Suharto’s fall from power in 1998, the was a wave of ‘Islamisation’ or ‘creeping Shariasation’ in the political and social spheres, driven by Islamist parties and movements. Naturally the secular state opposes. Furthermore, following Aceh’s peace agreement in August 2005, Islamist movements continued to rise which resulted in increasingly stricter public observance of a certain (hardline) version of Islam. Today there are virginity test for girls, anti-LGBT rules and rhetoric, no dating after dark, tightening of alcohol consumption, stronger Ahmadi and minority sects persecution, and stricter observance of Aceh’s hudud code and other Shariah-inspired regulations.

However since 1999, Islamist parties failed to gain power, or in fact on the decline. The adoption of shariah law is ‘clustered’ by region or district instead of following a national trend. Although Orthodox Islam is popular among non-aristocratic elites, they are more attracted to meritocracy instead of automatic affiliation with Islamist movements.

On the other hand, many (but not all) of the more hardline Islamist movements post-1998 have direct links – which are often familial – to Darul Islam Rebellion 1948-1962. In fact it was suggested that the military revived Darul Islam in many forms, including Jemaah Islamiah, for various reasons.

In the post-1998 democratisation, Islamist movements have been influential, but not Islamist parties. Even so, Islamist movements failed to penetrate the formal political system although they have a strong following at grassroot level.

The secular-nationalist elites maintained monopoly on power especially at national level, especially so when Bush administration in the US designated Indonesia and SEA as the second front in the ‘war on terror’. Yet they still need local allies whose ideology and orientation are not often aligned to theirs. By allying themselves with Islamist movements, the elites moderate and control sphere of influence of the latter and benefit from their grassroot reach. In return Islamist movements benefit from political representation at national level.

By contrast, Islamist (political) parties do not have the social capital, economic capital and cultural capital compared to Islamist movements. The latter also are more comfortable with alliances with secular-nationalist elites instead of being with Islamist parties.

CONCLUSION: Changing power relations among elites dominating the state have forced them to ‘reach out’ and ‘reach down’ in the political arena. They have also become more receptive to demands of societal groups (for Shari’ah to play a greater role) but only if such groups provide information and resources that state elites can use to gain and maintain power. Not all Islamist actors that mobilise (Islamist movements) also influence politics (or take part in it). Islamist parties are not the transformation belt of Islamist agenda. State elites mediate the influence of groups in the society.


Indonesia can be divided into 6 clusters in terms of ‘Shari’ah implementation’. In some clusters, the local Islamist movements and political mobilisation have direct link to Darul Islam eg: in South Sulawesi. In other areas eg: West Java there is no direct link. Acheh is different because the ‘Shariasation’ happened after (former president) Gus Dur gave autonomy as an incentive to achieve peace.

Is there a link between moderate Islamist movements and violent groups in the street demonstrations against Ahok Nov 2016 – Jan 2017? No link (as far as research goes). The massive demonstration is just a direct effect of mass transformation of the political landscape. The above-ground pro-Shariah movements often have no link to Salafist, jihadidist movements. Despite their preference for God-given laws, they are practical about the practical reality of a democracy (which Indonesia is).

Is there a link between Islamist groups and the underworld? Often the more underground Islamist groups are involved in the black economy, some run un-Islamic rackets of smallcrime, some are thugs. Eg: JAT has both clandestine wing and above-ground wing.

Arab Spring spillover effect? Some violence-prone ISIS sympathisers do join some of the more hardline movements. HT and FPI, among many, have become more sympathetic to ISIS policies. However this is a small trend which is unlikely to see mass transformation from Islamism to extremism.

Islamisation in Indonesia is not part of an internatinal movement or trend, but rather part of the local democratic process. Rise of the middle class and their preference of ‘civil Islam’ is quite independent (chapter 5 of book) from the development of of local Shari’ah impementation (at cluster level or otherwise). West Java vs Sulawesi. Mehdi Hasan argued that Islamist movements have forced democratisation on themselves. Also the secular-nationalist elites often use religion as (political) capital instead of committing to being real Islamist.

What are costs of ignoring these groups? Islamist movements tend not to back the right politician, thus explaining their failure to gain power despite their popularity (eg: Yasin Limpo).

Is it safe hedge in terms of political policy? Islamist movements in South Sulawesi demanded for Shari’ah law but shifted towards a broader partnerhsip with the government. In return it received government funding for social programmes in the region. Since 1998, the rise of Islamist movements have been met with equally pragmatic evolution of the state to fit into the new landscape. Today, politicians find better ways to organise themselves through alliances but at the same time sideline or marginalise Islamist movements in the power equation.

(Continued) At the same time they cannot ignore the Islamist movements (particularly their demand for greater Shari’ah implementation) because it would give rise to local vigilantism. For example, FPI received money from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Is the general trend worrisome, especially in anti-Ahok demonstration? Probably not. Indonesian police generals pushed back protesters in gubernatorial election (that Ahok contested). It is nothing as worrisome as it is in the US.

What are the economic underlying these Islamist movements? There are usually very provincial, local entreprises supporting these movements. By all accounts they are nothing too impressive. FPI (a few more) solicit donations from local business people. There are also partnerships with police at both national and local levels. Business are diverse, ranging from local restaurants, used car, recycling businesses, etc. There also also project-orientated funding by the likes of Qatar Foundation, Kuwait Foundation and other Middle Eastern sources. One positive outcome from this is these local movements are quite successful at pulling people out of terrorism into local vice police (or preventing them from getting involved to begin with). This is a strong pull factor for big actors to continue supporting them.

On more clandestine groups? Some run protection racket that also protects minorities like Ahmadi/Qadiyani or Shiah (among other unintended outcomes). It is also important to note that there are 2 groups of Ahmadi, one views founder was a prophet after Muhammad, another only as a scholar. Modest vivendi to maintain the balance. However, this did not prevent certain groups, believed to be running on Saudi money, to campaign against ‘deviants’ in local elections which resulted in violence against minorities.

Not these groups all are vigilante thugs extorting money from minorities in return for protection. Some very sincerely Islam-based. Many thrive on young intellectuals but Salafist. Despite everything, Hizbut-Tahrir find support among urban middle class. Things are more complex than it seems.

Why did we arrive at this point? This is mostly an effect of the 1965 settlement, where the Islamist groups then were used to help the army massacre against leftist, communist, socialist groups; only for the army to turn on them later. Today it is not clear what actually motivates them. What is clear is that the elites continued to ‘moderate’ the local Islamist movements, mostly motivated by achieving election victories. However, this has proven fragile (by evidently fluidly changing allegiences) and may be abandoned for more convenient partners.

Any lesson? First and foremost, social movements in under-democratised country are not conducive. For them to have impacts, all organs of state and the necessary democratic machineries must be functional and mature.

Another challenge is it is difficult to get straight answers if foreign researchers are doing groundworks. Local respondents answer questions in very peculiar way eg: hijab is good for women to save cost on hairfressing, modest dress is aimed at reducing skin cancer risk, with almost no reference to Islamic law (whereas we know their real motivation is to implement Shari’ah according to their interpretation). Bias towards foreigners make research very difficult.

The army seemed to have revived Darul Islam out of desperation. Anti-Ahok movements potrayed the military as friends, and the police as the enemy. One reason for convergence in Ahok’s case is both racial and religious (him being a Christian Chinese). Some went as far as fanning the under wrong sentiment that Chinese capital being used to revive communist proliferation. There as also been a ‘proxy war’ which spreads an impression that the West is trying to weaken young Indonesians through ‘Western’ agenda eg: LGBT, liberalism, etc.

Which version of Islam is dominant in Indonesia? Initially Yemeni, Gujarati scholars brought Islam with strong Sufi and Shiah elements. On the Sunni side, the Shafi’i school dominates, but tariqat elements have strong hold. Shiah community is very small, maximum of 2.4m-4.0 million people. Even Bali bombing was as such (a Hindu area was chosen) because it was supposedly in relatiation to Hindus killing Muslims in Gujarat riot. There is a nebulous interaction and inter-relatedness between one and another between all the religious and political groups which cannot be easily explained.

NEWS: (Indonesian)

NOTE: A large section of this report is prepared under the Chatham House rule. Unless otherwise stated, the identity of each participant is not disclosed and any point in this report cannot be attributed to any specific individual.

DISCLAIMER: The above note is a rough summary of the discussion, and is not an authoritative account nor it is an accurate representation of what the speakers actually said or stood for.

THE POLITICS OF SHARI’A LAW at School of Oriental and African Studies
Monday 20 February 2017 at 19:00

– Dr Michael Buehler, writer if the book, Department of Politics and International Studies
– Dr Sidney Jones, Director, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jakarta, Indonesia
– Dr Chris Chaplin, Cambridge graduate, PhD on Wahabi movement in Jogjakarta. Research Fellow, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, The Netherlands.

# @Urwah Saari