Monday 29 April 2013

When Government try to be more Islamic

steadyaku47 comment - a good read. There are parallels to what UMNO has done in Malaysia. The difference would be a matter of degree than of intent.

When governments try to look more Islamic

The use and abuse of Islamic politics by the Soeharto government (1966-1998) and his immediate successor in transition, BJ Habibie (1998-1999), have had more damaging consequences than generally noted. In 2004, when completing my book, State Terrorism and Political Identity in Indonesia (Routledge, 2006), I raised the issue but did not give enough emphasis. The book focuses on the impacts of the 1966 massacres and subsequent anti-communist witch hunt upon public life in the 1990s.
The book mentions in passing the impact of that murky past has also been partly responsible for other inter-ethnic conflicts across the nation in the 2000s with no reference to 1965 or anti-communism. Since then it has become increasingly clear that further study is needed to examine how and the extent to which the same past has been responsible for the politics of religion since the 2000s.
After more than a decade of repressing political Islam, Soeharto found himself in a radically changing political climate. He was increasingly alienated from the military as an institution, and Islam was on the rise at home and globally.

He was cognizant that further repression would only backfire, if not be suicidal. In a spectacular political U-turn, in 1990 he hurriedly Islamized himself and his government apparatus in a wide range of policies and actions.

To build his Islamic credentials from scratch, that year he went to Mecca for the first time for the pilgrimage, and returned as a haj. In the same year he sponsored the founding of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), embracing a wide range of important figures among Islam-oriented social organizations, professionals, academics and political activists who may not necessarily have agreed with each other on a number of issues.

Far from feeling manipulated by the government, as some critics argued back then, these Muslim intellectuals saw the invitation to collaborate with the regime as the first opportunity in many decades to gain due recognition. It appeared to be a golden opportunity to compensate for what had been denied or repressed, namely Islam as an important moral, intellectual and political power to be reckoned with.
Only months before the founding of the ICMI, Islamic political prisoners were released en masse well before their jail terms were up. In direct contradiction to its own policy of not issuing any new permits for print media companies, the government supported the publication of the overtly Islamic daily Republika. The ban of the wearing of the jilbab was also lifted. Immediately after, Soeharto's eldest daughter began appearing in public wearing a headscarf. The number of new mosques soared, and the parliament house was described by locals as remarkably "green-ized".

Until then it had been difficult for pious Muslims to express their identity and religious piety, due to the vigorous stigmatization of Islamic politics as "extreme right". From 1990 the situation was completely reversed: one had to be careful not to be seen as anti-Islam. Indonesian courts were busy prosecuting individuals who made public statements deemed disrespectful of Islam.

The banning of the country's first and commercially most successful tabloid,Monitor, and subsequently the prosecution of its editor, Arswendo Atmowiloto, were among the first and most eventful in a long series of similar cases involving a crackdown on media outlets seen as having been disrespectful of Islam.

Violent attacks against houses of worship belonging to religious minorities became regular events, despite criticism and attempts among moderate Muslims to stop such actions.

More consequential than all of this was Soeharto's decision to make a dangerous liaison with the more violent-inclined segments within the diverse Muslim communities. His short-term intention was probably to mobilize the latter to counter the pro-democracy movement that was putting increasingly greater pressure on him to resign.

But perhaps more than he could anticipate, care or control, the effects of this move were immense and refractory. None of the above saved Soeharto from losing his grip on state power. Reluctantly, he transferred his presidency to vice president Habibie, who soon become the next target of attacks from the pro-reform movement.

Seriously lacking legitimacy in public, Habibie and the few surviving generals continued what Soeharto had initiated, only this time on a larger scale and more aggressive fashion. New state-sponsored militias were officially trained and deployed to confront physically the agitated pro-reform activists.
These militias did not only act in defense of the new president and surviving generals, but also in the name of Islam. Being anti-Habibie was declared to be the same as anti-Islam, according to their slogans and banners. As in Soeharto's case, these militias did not help rescue Habibie's presidential seat. Worse still, they inadvertently aggravated the politicization of religious faith to a level unprecedented in the history of this country.

But unlike its predecessors, which had no hesitation from the outset to adopt violent means to achieve similar ends, the current government has as yet restricted its project of building a pro-Islamic image in cultural and technological spheres.

But before breathing a sigh of relief, one needs to see how long this government has condoned the illegal act of violence by various militia groups in the name of religion. How much longer will it continue? Not only has this government and its law enforcers give impunity to fairly small but militant groups to go on the rampage, more worrying is that the government, under pressure from other social groups, is seriously considering a ban on Islamic group Ahmadiyah.

More than could be imagined in 1998, by now reformasi has led to the marked Islamization, as much as democratization, of Indonesia. Although they can be compatible and have overlap, the two are not necessarily one and the same thing, as there can be more than two streams of Islam, multiple forms of Islamization and heterogeneous communities of Muslim. The state is expected to play a critical role in striking a good balance and maintaining the wealth of this nation's plurality.

A weak state would allow fear to reign in the public space, especially among the minority, because it also suffers from the very same fear of the risk of acting independently according to the rule of law. In a small way, such rule by fear is well illustrated by the fate of my own April opinion column about the above in Indonesian.

The essay was submitted to a major Indonesian media outlet by invitation for a specific space already allocated in the paper. Hours before the paper went to press, I received a letter from the editor advising me that the column could not be published, as it was deemed "risky".
Interestingly, while the column never saw the light of day in print, it appeared online on the same paper's website. The Indonesian Constitution stipulates freedom of expression, but to date such freedom can only take refuge on the Internet.

Today, the Internet is the only public space where hundreds of thousands of Indonesians can and have actually declared themselves to be religiously "liberal", "atheist" or "agnostic" in their profiles on cyber social networking sites such as Facebook.

The writer is a senior lecturer in the Indonesian Program, the University of Melbourne, Australia. He can be reached at


  1. Religion as infested our beloved country from the time of Independence. MahaThief made it worse with Anwar's help. This makes it even more difficult to focus on and tackle racism.

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