Widening gulf between religious and secular


Symptomatic is the call by the council for Islamic scholars for Muslims to vote only for Islamic-oriented parties INDONESIA’S highest Islamic authority tried to turn back the clock this week.

Symptomatic of the widening gulf between secular and non-secular forces in politics that is coming to the fore in the last week of election campaigning, the Indonesian council for Islamic scholars (MUI) proposed for the first time in decades that the country’s sizeable Muslim population vote only for Islamic-oriented parties.

Are we seeing a re-emergence of politik aliran or sectarianism that dominated political battle lines in the 50s and 60s?

A number of facts bear this out: Parties divided along religious lines, prayers and chants at campaigns, Islamic symbols, vote-sharing among Muslim parties, and the struggle for support of religious clerics.

The high point, of course, was MUI’s statement in the last week of hustings before Indonesians go to the polls.

It was directed principally at modernist Muslims – those who perceive themselves as purists, being more formalistic and orthodox in their approach to Islamic teachings.

Most modernists belong to the 28-million-strong Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia.

“Our message is basically for these followers not to choose parties which do not clearly fight for Muslims,” MUI secretary-general Muchlas Abror said. “Parties that should be chosen are those which are either Islamic or Muslim-based.”

Several of the Islamic parties, like the Masyumi Baru, amid the innocent carnival-like atmosphere of hustings, latched on to the message by casting aspersions on the more secular parties, in particular the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-Struggle), and what they really represent.

Their message to voters is clear: Vote for PDI-Struggle and Indonesia would be run the same way it was governed in the 70s. It draws on this psychological split among the country’s 190 million Muslims, about being Indonesian and being a Muslim.

The subtext is politics.

MUI’s call is more easily explained as a bid to stop vote leakages to the PDI-Struggle. MUI, after all, is a tame government-created council that over the New Order era has become a religious adjunct of the ruling Golkar party.

It is no surprise then that it would want to throw a spanner in the works, given the popularity of PDI-Struggle in major cities where there are also several Muhammadiyah members.

Obviously, the secular parties and Muslim traditionalists struck back.

Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, who heads the 35-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama, blasted the council’s directive. “MUI will move to the brink of disaster if it involves itself in political affairs.”

Ironically, Dr Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party (PAN), which draws much of its support from the modernist Muhammadiyah, also rejected it.

“I am very concerned with the latest development in our country’s politics as there are indications that parties have moved towards polarisation, he said. “This could jeopardise our future.”

The English-language Jakarta Post daily, in an editorial yesterday titled “Islam versus secularism”, warned of the dangers of MUI’s call.

It wrote: “The parties using Islamic symbols are steering this general election on to a very dangerous, certainly divisive course …

“They are just one step short of declaring a holy war. This is a dangerous course that could plunge the country into new sectarian violence. We have already had a taste of this in Ambon. Do we really want to take the risk and let this happen on a large, national scale?”

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