Islamic Politics in Indonesia: Domestic Challenges, Cross-National Inspirations

By Vedi Hadiz | Professor of Asian Societies and Politics - Murdoch University - Australia | Nov 21, 2014
Islamic Politics in Indonesia: Domestic Challenges, Cross-National Inspirations
A PKS rally in Medan, 2014.

The essays in this series deal with transregional linkages between the Middle East and Asia. As a whole, the series explores the "vectors" of religious transmission and the consequences of or implications of such interactions. More ...


At the height of harsh authoritarian rule of the Suharto era, Islamic political activism was often the focus of the most intense of state repression. Because the Indonesian Communist Party had been destroyed in the 1960s, only Islamic organizations possessed the potential to mobilize substantial grassroots support. Thus, they were considered a particular threat to the centralized and rigid authoritarianism of Suharto’s New Order regime.

With freedom of organization and association being severely curtailed, many Indonesian Islamic political activists found inspiration in the Muslim Brotherhood. Accordingly, university campus-based activists in the 1980s were semi-clandestinely organized within groupings that adopted the structures as well as methods of recruitment and political socialization that had been tried out particularly in Egypt.  This made sense because they were attempting to nurture a social movement while steering away from the long arm of an extensive and often brutal state security apparatus, much like their Egyptian counterparts. Collectively, these activists formed what became known as the Tarbiyah (educational) movement.

At the close of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, the Tarbiyah had become sufficiently well organized to give rise to Indonesia’s main democratic-era Islamic political party, the PK (Justice Party), which became the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party). While earlier experiences no doubt continued to influence movement leaders’ world views, another source of inspiration, that of Turkey’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), came to overtake that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.[1] It is no coincidence that the social positions of Tarbiyah leaders were already diversifying, with religious scholars increasingly joined by students who had graduated to become owners of small or medium businesses, civil servants, and professionals.

Having developed new social interests that could no longer be pursued through mainly underground political activity, Tarbiyah leaders at the helm of the PKS have been increasingly prone to mimic the propensity of the AKP to emphasize adherence to democratic methods of contesting power and political inclusiveness. This has been to the detriment of promoting an Islamic state, even if such an ideal continues to resonate with many at the grassroots level. Though to a much more limited extent, some have extolled the virtues of free market economic competition to go along, somewhat paradoxically, with political Islam’s traditional concerns for social justice.[2]  Such a shift also made sense because the Muslim Brotherhood could not have provided many lessons in succeeding within an electoral democracy, as much as it had provided useful guidance for surviving authoritarianism. 

Islamic Politics and Models of Democratization

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world as well as a functioning, albeit corruption-ridden, democracy. That democratic politics is well entrenched in the country is widely considered to be remarkable given the many prior decades of authoritarian rule as well as the checkered record of Muslim-majority societies when it comes to democratization. Significantly, the Indonesian democratization experience was even proposed as a benchmark for the Arab world, particularly Egypt, prior to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013.[3]

Not surprisingly, however, it was the so-called “Turkish model” that gained the most traction among Islamic parties and movements in the Middle East in the early heady days of the “Arab Spring.” Unlike in Indonesia, where Islamic political parties like the PKS have continually failed to win state power, the AKP had ruled Turkey for almost a decade when the likes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were ousted in 2010 and 2011.  It hardly mattered that the Turkish party calls itself “conservative” rather than “Islamic” due to domestic political exigencies or that it has been accused regularly of intimidating opponents and bullying the media. Before the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party it spawned—like the PKS before it—was offering a political platform that included an embrace of democracy and said little about an Islamic state. This was somewhat ironic given that the AKP had essentially grown out of long established social and political networks within Turkish Islamic politics that had earlier displayed the influence of Muslim Brotherhood thinking.

But unlike the PKS, the FJP could look for inspiration from the AKP in other ways. A key source of support for the AKP has been the so-called Anatolian bourgeoisie, comprised of rising provincial businesses eager to supplant the long held dominance of the secular Kemalist bourgeoisie of Istanbul.[4] While not quite as stellar, an ambitious business community had also developed in recent decades within the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the FJP’s similarly enthusiastic embrace of a market-based economy could be read as an intent to rid Egypt of the cronyism and nepotism that were a hallmark of the Mubarak era while opening the way for a new group of businesses with a more regional and international outlook. Similar levels of unbridled zeal for free market capitalism has been harder to detect within Indonesia’s PKS, however, given the traditional dominance of giant conglomerates owned by ethnic Chinese Indonesians and the consequent confinement of the party’s business support base among lesser entrepreneurs.

The Muslim Brotherhood “Phase”

The Tarbiyah movement in Indonesia was initiated by a small collection of activists that had returned to Indonesia from studies in the Middle East. There they had engaged Muslim Brotherhood communities forged originally by activists that fled the repression of the Egyptian state, especially during the Nasser years.[5] It should be recalled that the Muslim Brotherhood was already a growing global influence by this time and had numerous “branches” all over the world.[6] Moreover, in places like Saudi Arabia in particular, where many Indonesians went to study, what had already taken place was a melding of Wahhabi doctrinal rigidity and Muslim Brotherhood organizational discipline and capacity introduced by the latter’s substantial diaspora. 

It was this historic combination that was encountered in their studies in the Middle East by pioneers of the Tarbiyah movement such as Hilmi Aminuddin, the son of a top-ranking leader of the old Darul Islam armed insurgency in Indonesia, which was militarily defeated in the early 1960s. Today, he remains a figure of the highest standing in the Tarbiyah movement and the PKS itself.

But the Tarbiyah movement also had domestic antecedents. Islamic political activists in the 1970s were already becoming disenchanted with the growing corruption and abuse of power that characterized the New Order. They had also become familiar with the Muslim Brotherhood’s cell-based structure, in which the usra (family) was the key instrument through which discipline and loyalty was cultivated among movement members as well compliance to leaders’ directives. Furthermore, they had adopted the Muslim Brotherhood’s practices of initiation and oath taking to go with growing acquaintance with the political ideas of Muslim Brotherhood luminaries such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb (as well as South Asia’s Mawlana Mawdudi and even Iran’s Ali Shariati). Significantly, these 1970s activists included newly urbanized students that traced their lineage to the Darul Islam tradition but had come to be somehow connected to new underground vehicles like the violent so-called Komando Jihad.

Interestingly, a few activists had already attempted to internationalize, or at least regionalize, such as by making contact with ABIM (The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement), an organization that was an important conveyor of Muslim Brotherhood ideas in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.[7] A vital intermediary in the effort was Imaduddin Abdulrahim, the highly respected activist and lecturer based at the Salman Mosque of the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology.

But the generation that produced Komando Jihad was harshly suppressed even if some of its veterans would go on to build on existing links and develop the Jemaah Islamiyah in the 1990s, an even murkier organization deemed responsible for a number of terrorist attacks on Indonesian soil in the immediate post-authoritarian period. Those nurtured under the Tarbiyah would largely go on to another route, however, as the social and political environment changed. This was the route based on parliamentary and party competition, considered to be “forbidden” in Islam by many of their political cousins, but which provided meaningful, if limited, access to the power and resources of the secular state. Such access was sufficient to relegate the goal of establishing an Islamic state increasingly to the background and to eventually declare their political vehicle, the PKS, open to people of all religions. This route was evidently more attractive than continual struggles on the political fringes.

Inspired by Success

The catalyst for the adoption of the electoral route by the Tarbiyah movement was simultaneously social and political in nature. By the late 1990s and early 2000s cohorts of Tarbiyah activists had become ensconced in the world of small business, government, or the professions and had their own social security as well as upward social mobility in mind. Participation in Indonesian electoral politics and finding a niche within suddenly expanding political space were clearly useful in addressing these concerns. In any case, decades of various forms of underground Islamic political activity had achieved little in bringing Indonesia closer to the ideal of an Islamic state.

The PK was thus established in the immediate months after the resignation of Suharto from the presidency in 1998, but was necessarily reformed as the PKS in 2002 after failing to meet the 2% electoral threshold required in the 1999 general elections. Five years later the PKS won 7.3% of the popular vote and 45 out of 550 parliamentary seats—up from just 1.4% received in 1999. The best result achieved by the PKS was in the 2009 general elections, when it received just below 8 percent of the vote, though this gradual upward trajectory was interrupted in 2014 with a slight fall to below 7 percent.

Following the example of the AKP, the PKS emphasized that it was a party of reform and integrity. It won kudos from observers for its relatively high level of discipline.[8] The fortunes of the PKS were to change somewhat after it became entangled in corruption cases, which eroded the reputation for integrity that had distinguished it from other parties in spite of its participation in coalitions of power held together by predatory raids on state coffers. The PKS was a coalition partner, for example, in the governments of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014), in which it held prominent cabinet positions.

But it is obvious that the PKS has never reached the heights of the FJP and certainly not the AKP. Though the overall results it attained in electoral contests lent the PKS the kind of stature that was greater than parties directly linked to Indonesia’s established but typically pliant Islamic mass organizations—the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah—it was never in a position to take state power for itself. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the AKP in Turkey, the Tarbiyah essentially remained stubbornly urban middle class and so it made comparatively little inroads—for example, through social services and charities—into broader civil society.

In a nutshell, the Indonesian experience shows the influence of cross-national inspirations in the waging of domestic political struggles by the social agents of Islamic politics, but also their clear limitations. The Tarbiyah learned from the Muslim Brotherhood about coping with a hostile political environment, sufficiently to survive authoritarianism and prepare itself to compete within a new democracy. From the AKP, a model was received that combined Islamic sensibilities and democratic politics. But as a semi-clandestine organization the Tarbiyah was never able to dominate civil society like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and as a competitor in democratic politics, through the PKS, it has been far less successful than the AKP it seeks to emulate.




[1] Vedi R. Hadiz, “No Turkish Delight: The Impasse of Indonesian Islamic Party Politics,” Indonesia 92 (October 2011): 1-18.

[2] Interview with Anis Matta, currently party president, Jakarta, January 28, 2013.

[3] Jay Solomon, “In Indonesia, a Model for Egypt’s Transition,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704329104576138490822239336.html.

[4] M. Hakan Yavuz, “Introduction: The Role of the New Bourgeoisie in the Transformation of the Turkish Islamic Movement,” in M. Hakan Yavuz (ed.), The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 2006), 1-19.

[5] Interview with Jusuf Supendi, co-founder of the Justice Party and of the Tarbiyah movement, Jakarta, July 6, 2011.

[6] Barry M. Rubin, ed., The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[7] Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, The New Challenges of Political Islam in Malaysia, Murdoch University Asia Research Center, Working Paper No. 154, 2009,  http://wwwarc.murdoch.edu.au/wp/wp154.pdf.

[8] Kikue Hamayotsu, “The End of Political Islam? A Comparative Analysis of Religious Parties in the Muslim Democracy of Indonesia,” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 30, 3 (20110): 133-59.