Indonesia Holds Fast To Secular Politics

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

DEPOK, Indonesia -- Ismi Safeya is a student at an Islamic school who veils her hair for modesty, prays five times a day and is inspired by the idea of a society based on Muslim principles.

But when the 18-year-old casts her vote for the first time in parliamentary elections Thursday, she won't vote for an Islamist party.

"The wisest choice is a government not dependent on Islamic law," she said, acknowledging the religious diversity of Indonesia and arguing that rules must be fair for everyone. "Islam actually guides our lives, but it doesn't seem to be shown in the way we vote."

Like Safeya, most voters here in the world's largest majority-Muslim country are expected to cast their ballots for secular parties. As political Islam gains strength globally, it has achieved little electoral success in Indonesia. Though polls show Indonesians becoming more religiously observant in their private lives, surveys also suggest this shift will not translate into significant support for Islamist politics in parliamentary elections Thursday or in presidential elections scheduled for July.

"More and more young Muslims are interested in basic bread-and-butter issues," said Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono in an interview in his office in Jakarta, the capital. "Parties that advocate for sharia, or Islamic law, do not get much play."

One of the reasons is that Islamist parties have won local elections in the past. But instead of building strength for the parties' ideals, experiments with Islamic law have produced a backlash. Meanwhile, mainstream parties have co-opted some positions of their Islamist opponents. Religious positions have seeped into the national consensus, neutralizing them as campaign platforms for the Islamist parties.

"The categories are blurred right now," said Andi Mallarangeng, a spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a member of the secular Democratic Party. "To win, you have to move to the center." The center, he said, fuses moderate Islamic ideals with programs to deliver such economic basics as jobs and food.

"Islamic political parties exist and will always have a niche in this electorate," Mallarangeng said. "But they're not going to dominate."

In the last national election, in 2004, Islamist parties, broadly defined, received about 40 percent of the vote. This time, they are projected to receive only about 24 percent, according to a poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute. Secular parties are expected to win about 67 percent of the vote, although the polls have been off in the past. Not all of the Islamist parties advocate sharia rule, and many are backing away from such platforms.

A big part of the challenge for religious-themed parties is the extraordinary diversity of this archipelagic nation, which is made up of more than 14,000 islands and includes tolerance among its core principles. About 90 percent of people in this, the world's fourth most populous country, are Muslim. But they practice a unique, syncretic brand of Southeast Asian Islam. Traditions include banging a cowhide drum alongside the call of the muezzin to summon people to prayer, a belief in neighborhood spirits and rituals such as one in which new fathers of baby girls dress up as women.

Thursday's elections feature 38 national parties competing for Indonesia's 550-seat parliament, a regional representation council, and provincial, county and city assemblies. Parties or coalitions that get 20 percent or more of the parliamentary seats may nominate a candidate for presidential elections scheduled for July 9.

The campaigns have been going strong for weeks, with processions of activists on mopeds waving banners and chanting party slogans in the streets of Jakarta day and night. Indonesians who show up at rallies often get gifts -- T-shirts, lunches or even 20,000 rupiah notes, worth about $2.

Corruption is the biggest problem Indonesians cite in their government, and in the last election, that was part of the appeal of the religious parties, which are traditionally seen as cleaner. But since then, a few representatives of Islamist parties have been tainted by scandal. Some Indonesians say they are disenchanted this time around and will simply not vote.

"We're so disappointed with the leaders," said Shohib Sirri, 21, a student in the English and letters department at the State Islamic University.

During President Suharto's 32-year dictatorship, which ended in 1998, he drew support from Islamist organizations that helped the government round up suspected opponents. Suharto allowed more freedom for Islamic groups than for political ones, and during his last years in power he helped foster a generation of Islamist activists, said Zulkieflimansyah, a member of parliament from the Islamic-oriented Prosperous Justice Party.

After the U.S.-backed Suharto fell from power, there was a torrent of repressed political activity, including expressions of radical Islam. The Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, which killed more than 200 people, announced the presence of a violent fringe. Those responsible, from the Indonesian chapter of the transnational organization Jemaah Islamiyah, a group linked to al-Qaeda, were arrested or went into hiding in the Philippines.

In 2004, a law allowed for local elections, and dozens of communities elected officials who experimented with versions of Islamic law -- from requiring women to wear a head scarf when working in government offices, to preventing women from being outside alone at night.

But when the rules were imposed, people reacted against them. Many Indonesians were repulsed by the arrests of women waiting for rides to work before the evening shifts at factories, or raids on hotel rooms to catch unmarried people together. The Islamist parties began to back down from talk of Islamic law.

"It's not a vote getter," said James Castle, an analyst of Indonesian politics and economics.

But some see a generational divide between younger Indonesians who are prepared to fuse Islamic values with democracy, and older Indonesians who lived most of their lives under Suharto and now seek Islamic law. "If we don't speak about sharia Islam, we will lose our base," said Zulkieflimansyah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. He hopes for a country "with democracy in our political system and Islam as our moral code."

Elsewhere, Zulkieflimansyah said, Islamist movements are using violence to protect themselves from undemocratic regimes. "Here it is quite irrelevant," he said. "In Indonesia, the Islamist movements are in government."

Politicians from the ruling party have taken stances designed to curry favor with religious voters, such as backing an anti-pornography bill that was pushed by the Islamist parties and supporting curtailed freedoms of a minority sect of Islam that is not recognized by some religious authorities. Analysts say that Indonesia shares some attributes with Turkey, where a party rooted in political Islam gained national power, only to experience a setback in recent local elections. Indonesia could also be taking leads from Malaysia, where Islamist parties have not fared well in the past two elections.

"The most important thing is to create jobs and security," said Emy Widijanti, 39, a travel agent, sitting at a table outdoors in a narrow street full of stands selling steaming beef and chicken in peanut sauce. "Indonesia is diverse. Government should protect all religious belief."

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