Demands for implementation of Shari’ah being debated in Indonesia

Developing Just Leadership

Mohamed Yehia

Dhu al-Qa'dah 13, 1423 2003-01-16

Islamic Movement

by Mohamed Yehia (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 22, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1423)

One feature of the increasing assertiveness of Indonesia’s Islamic movements is the demand that the Shari’ah be implemented as a solution to its social ills. ABDAR RAHMAN KOYA discusses the implications of this issue.

Demands have gathered momentum in Indonesia for the government to expedite the implementation of Islamic laws as a solution to increasing evils in Indonesian society, ranging from unsolved high-level corruption scandals to social decadence plaguing big cities. Several political and civil organizations, such as the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), the recently self-dissolved group Laskar Jihad, and Defenders of Islam Front (FPI), have been campaigning for the implementation of Shari’ah in Indonesia. Among political parties supporting the campaign are the United Development Party (PPP), the Crescent Star Party (PBB) and the Justice Party (JP).

A recent survey by the Centre for Islamic and Social Studies (PPIM) of Jakarta’s Sharif Hidayatullah State Islamic University has dispelled the notion that most Indonesians prefer a secular state and shun ‘radicalism’ (a euphemism used by the mainstream Indonesian media to describe Muslims who prefer to live as Muslims). The survey, conducted two days after the carnage in Bali on October 12, found that supporters for Shari’ah application had increased by 10 percent from last year, with 71 percent of respondents agreeing to its enforcement. Interestingly, most of the 2,500 respondents were not supporters of Muslim-based parties but those who had voted for president Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Suharto’s Golkar, two bastions of the pancasila ideology. About 75 percent of them are those in the 21-to-50 years age group.

The latest findings indicate that Islam has sprung back like a rubber ball to taunt the guardians of Indonesia’s official pancasila ideology. Since the demise of Suharto’s so-called Ode Baru (‘new order’) regime, marked by a repressive Christianization drive by military generals and brutal supression of Islamic activists, Islam has been dominating every aspect of Indonesian life. A period of chaos and lawlessness, largely caused by the absence of a central authority, had then transpired, plunging Indonesian society into the depths of corruption and moral ills.

Numerous Islamic groups have emerged to “take the law into their own hands”, mostly because there was no law in the first place; there was no one else to carry the burden of cleaning up the mess left by Suharto. Not even ‘moderate’ Islamic organisations, such as Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyyah, can be relied on, as their leaders are usually busy politicking instead of living up to their names. This is compounded by their top leaders’ secret ties with Suharto’s regime.

These ‘Islamic’ organisations, and a selection of secularists and Christian-funded activists, have often been the greatest stumbling-blocks to efforts to clean up Indonesian cities of vice and corruption. It is also true that the prosecution of former political leaders for high-level scandals has met with indifference from such ‘Islamic’ organisations. Thus it comes as no surprise that many of their leaders were in fact friends of Suharto and close to the Indonesian army (TNI), thereby escaping the worst of the atrocities of the ‘new order’, unlike many other Islamic activists. One of NU’s top leaders and former president Abdurrahman Wahid refused to prosecute Suharto. Such misplaced compassion was also shown by Yusuf Hasyim, an influential Muslim leader and a co-founder of NU, who in a recent interview with Indonesian weekly Tempo openly opposed any attempt to try Suharto.

The truth is that non-political groups such as the FPI, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (led by Ustad Abu Bakar Basyir, now in detention), Hizbut-Tahrir and Laskar Jihad, among other groups, have proven to be more effective in pressurising the government to reform and to give Islam its rightful place in the Indonesian polity. These groups belong to various schools of thought and differ in their approach to da’wah, but have been piling up pressure on the government by breaking decades of taboo against the propagation of Islamic laws. As a result, the government has recently enacted the Regional Autonomy Laws, which give Indonesian regions powers to enact their own laws.

To compensate for the absence of official institutions, civilian militias in several provinces have been set up to rid Indonesian society of vices such as alcoholism and prostitution, until the government establishes a system based on Shari’ah. In Makassar, Sulawesi, for example, where Shari’ah courts do not exist and police do not have powers to arrest those violating Islamic law, the civilian-based Laskar Jundullah, consisting of 10,000 members, has raided sleazy nightspots operating during Ramadan, and brought to a halt the flourishing sex-industry. In Sinjai, the Anti-Vice Movement Front (Forbes Gamas) has confronted the police for its role in protecting gambling dens.

Since the limited autonomy was granted, regions in Aceh, Madura, Java and Sulawesi have taken steps to apply Shari’ah in whatever form they could with the backing of the local people. Renewed interest in Islam can also be seen in the big cities, such as Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya, where religious activities on university campuses are packed with visitors, disproving the myth that such ‘radical’ Islam is confined to the uneducated, poor and rural communities.

Whether the application of Shari’ah in Indonesia will turn out to be a farce, like the ones in Pakistan, Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, remains to be seen. No doubt Indonesia’s vast archipelago, with hundreds of peoples and cultures, indicates that the application of Shari’ah will be met by problems such as its extent and scope, as well as logistics. Interpretations of Islam also differ—so much so that the central government in Jakarta finds it more convenient not to take any official stand on Islamic issues, not even fixing dates for Eid al-Fitr, which Muhammadiyyah and a few other organisations celebrated a day early, following the Saudi regime. Yet Muslims from all walks of life are at least unanimous that Islam can be the solution to the moral crises now evident in almost all spheres of life.

Such sentiments, however, are not shared by leaders of the two “largest Muslim organisations” in Indonesia, namely NU and Muhammadiyyah. In a statement on December 29, NU chairman Hasyim Muzadi described the struggle for Shari’ah as “unrealistic”, and instead called for “universal” values. He went a step further, calling on Muslims to shed Islamic symbols and formalities in an effort to “make a success of their struggle for the nation’s prosperity.” He told the Jakarta Post on December 30, “The Islamic struggle should be packed with national idioms. If Islamic formalities like Shariah are put forward in this common struggle, it will collide with other beliefs, and then it’s a failure.”

The call for “universal values” is not new in Indonesia, nor in other parts of the Muslim world. Jargon such as this has been used over and over again in Muslim history to sanctify secular, shortsighted, selfish ideologies and policies, from the Mughals’ deen-ilahi to Turkey’s kemalism and Sukarno’s pancasila, which reigned for decades in Indonesia without successfully forging unity.

Muhammadiyyah has also voiced its reservations about the Shari’ah campaign, albeit more subtly. “There is no need to press ahead with the struggle for sharia. We should take the substance of Islamic values and implement them in Indonesia, not the symbols,” said Muhammadiyyah chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif, adding that it would not be wise to help political interests by politicizing religion. “What we should seriously fight for is the enforcement of justice and the creation of a clean government under whatever form of the state we have,” he said.

The Shari’ah debate offers a battleground of ideas and is a sign of Islam’s relevance to Indonesian life. The quality of the debate in this vast country is also such that it has gone beyond matters such as polygamy and women’s status to discuss concepts and methods. The recent survey also found that only a minority of respondents, despite supporting Shari’ah, have endorsed ‘Saudi-style Islam’ such as relegating women’s position to society’s back seat and men’s ‘right’ to take more than one wife. This is in sharp contrast to Malaysia, whose activists and ulama have focused the Shari’ah debate largely on polygamy and the status of women, and often provided ammunition for western misrepresentations of Islam.

Such debates should not be suppressed, nor stained by accusation of blasphemy. One mistake often made by some in the Islamic movement is impatience to other Muslims’ opinions about deen, culminating in the passing of dubious fatwas to prevent others from questioning their methodologies. It is in this context that the caution of NU and Muhammadiyyah should be taken, instead of being dismissed altogether. However, many Muslims find it strange that both organisations base their reservations about implementation of the Shari’ah on the argument that Indonesia is a “multiracial nation”. This is irrelevant, as 90 percent of Indonesians, according to the latest census, are Muslim.

The case of Indonesia is not very different from Turkey or Pakistan, where small elites of hardened secularists dictate to large populations. In Indonesia, decades of systematic paganisation by Christian generals during the ‘new order’ regime resulted in Muslims being forced to lose their Islamic identity, with organisations such as NU ‘reinterpreting’ the Qur’an to suit ‘modern times’. The education system was also secularised until, in the post-reformasi era, Islamic schools (orpesantrens), run by ulama who have no party-political leanings, emerged.

The renewed interest in Islam is good news, but the Islamic movement and Muslims in Indonesia may have to take into account the experiences of their counterparts, particularly in Nigeria and Pakistan, where the application of Shari’ah, because of ignorance or absence of an Islamic apparatus (or both), has in the end blackened the name of Islam. Shari’ah is about justice and fairness, and until and unless a total cleaning-up drive is achieved in Indonesia, the goal of establishing Shari’ah in its full and intended form will remain elusive.

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