Indonesian Muslims turn out for Hizb ut-Tahrir’s international conference on the khilafah

Developing Just Leadership

Jakarta Correspodent

Sha'ban 19, 1428 2007-09-01

South-East Asia

by Jakarta Correspodent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 7, Sha'ban, 1428)

How to get 80,000 Muslims to fill up a soccer stadium? Unless there is a soccer match, a soccer stadium is hardly ever filled up. At the Gelora Bung Karno stadium, the largest stadium in Jakarta, on August 12, however, nobody was playing football when people filled up all the seats. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), no stranger to crowd-mobilisation, managed to gather a huge crowd: some cynics say that getting 80,000 people together in a country like Indonesia is no big deal; the realities of the land in which an event is held are more important aspects to be analysed by observers of Indonesian politics, particularly those in the Islamic movement.

The conference was held despite the government deporting several foreign speakers, including HT strongmen Imran Waheed from Britain and Ismail al-Wahwah from Australia. Prominent alim Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was also a notable absentee, some saying that he was advised by Indonesia’s authorities to stay away, while others said that he declined to attend. The authorities have not been completely unfriendly, however, despite HT’sspeakers condemning Pancasila and calling for Shari‘ah laws – two of the things that characterise Indonesia’s ‘radical Islam’ and which are not often tolerated officially. By contrast, media coverage of the event on government television networks was lengthy, while cooperation from the security forces ensured that the event went smoothly. Prominent dailies gave space to writings by Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, HT’s local spokesman, to counter critics who are against HT’s concept of caliphate. Such critics fail to see the broader perspective of post-Suharto Islamic activism in Indonesia.

Not many prominent personalities were present, but Dien Syamsuddin, leader ofMuhammadiyah, the country’s second largest ‘mainstream’ Muslim organisation, did address the crowd. His presence at a rally condemned as an ‘extremist’ event is not surprising: leaders from both Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama, its larger counterpart, never decline invitations to crowd-pulling events. The presence of Abdullah Gymnastiar, a charismatic Muslim preacher-cum-television da‘i, also showed that the organisers had read well the crowd’s preference. Abdullah, also known as “AA Gym”, is a hugely popular speaker. The crowd were also treated to daredevil acrobatic stunts and well-rehearsed performances depicting the return of ‘khilafah’. The event, in the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country, was arguably more refreshing and interesting than many similar rallies that have taken place in European cities.

While HT’s most-talked-about goal is the reintroduction of a single Islamic state in the form of the caliphate, this Indonesian version of a khilafah conference appears to have broken that almost sacred raison d’etre of HT. To have a conference on the return of the khilafahand the dismantling of nation-states in a country where Pancasila is still officially a sacred cow that ‘mainstream’ Muslim organisations avoid mentioning, is, by any standard, a huge success. It appears that local organisers cannot openly promote the ideas that HT leaders in London, for example, strongly advocate.

Nothing seemed further from HT’s ideas on that evening than the speech by DienSyamsuddin, who said that while the caliphate was mentioned in the Qur’an, it should be understood not as a political structure but as a way of uniting the world’s Muslims. He also said that HT should be tolerated because Indonesia is supposed to be democratic and pluralistic, and that those who attempt to suppress the caliphate movement are being anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic.

Having pointed out the irony of it – that being anti-caliphate in Indonesia is akin to being anti-democracy and anti-pluralism – it is only fair to admit that the huge crowd turnout was not necessarily because of interest in HT or its concept of ‘khilafah’, but because of Indonesian Muslims’ aspiration to be able to unite under some banner or other that inspires and motivates them.

HT in Indonesia, or for that matter in Southeast Asia, is minuscule compared to other Islamic organisations. Like most of these organisations, the local HT started in campuses and makes its presence felt partly by distributing leaflets during Friday congregations. Like countless other Muslim groups that have mushroomed throughout the archipelago, it pulls huge crowds partly because groups that call for the Shari‘ah, or that seem to adapt a more radical modus operandi than those of ‘Islamic political parties’, will have the support ofIndonesia’s Muslims. What distinguishes Muslim politics in Indonesia from neighbouring Malaysia, for example, is that Indonesian Muslims are comfortable with waving the banners of other Islamic organisations so long as they are in the same category as their own favoured organisation: whether it is “radical” (organisations that call for the Shari‘ah) or “moderate”. The “moderates” are those mainstream organisations that tend to overplayIndonesia’s so-called pluralism (less than 10 percent of the population is non-Muslim) in order to underline their claim that the country should not be ruled by Islamic principles, much less as an Islamic state. In Malaysia, new ‘radical’ pressure-groups within the Islamic movement – HT, Salafis, Tablighis at one end of the spectrum and ‘liberal’ Muslims at the other – fail to make any impact on the established Islamic movements, such as PAS and ABIM. Most end up where they started: giving out leaflets at Friday jama‘ats, primarily because Muslims in that part of the region, who comprise slightly over 60 percent of the people, have political and economic concerns that need strong leaders and political acumen rather than strength in numbers. In Indonesia, however, Muslims are trying to find grounds for unity after decades of ‘de-Islamisation’, and their new found freedom means they have to find such a factor by reclaiming their Islamic identity. The khilafah conference was one opportunity to try to do so.

Hizb ut-Tahrir: last of the great khilafah movements

Although Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) has risen to international prominence in recent years, largely as a result of its activities in Britain and Central Asia, it is in fact a long-established and respected Islamic movement in the Arab world. It was founded by Shaikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, a Palestinian scholar with links to the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, in 1953, as an intellectual movement dedicated to educating Muslims about the importance of the khilafah as an Islamic institution without which no Muslim society can properly function. In this sense, it can be regarded as part of the great tradition of khilafah movements that emerged in the Muslim world after the destruction of the Ottoman khilafah after the first world war. Some of Nabhani’s writings on topics such as ‘The Ruling System of Islam’ and ‘The Social System in Islam’ remain the basis of HT’s political thinking and teaching to this day.

The basic assumptions and principles on which HT operates are those shared by virtually all in the global Islamic movement: the centrality of the Islamic state, the damage caused to the Ummah by Western imperialism, the illegitimacy of the post-colonial political order in the Muslim world, the need for Muslim societies to liberate themselves from Western hegemony, and the importance of returning to the original principles of the Qur’an and Sunnah. HT has also managed, in its basic thinking if not always in the practice of all its members, to avoid some of the traps into which other Islamic movements have fallen, particularly those of nationalism, co-option into the secular political orders in the Arab world, and sectarianism; in theory, at least, HT does not identify with any national or sectarian community, provided people accept its basic political understanding, although its emphasis on khilafah has naturally had greater resonance among Sunnis than non-Sunni Muslims.

HT has not traditionally engaged in political activism, although there have been exceptions, particularly in Central Asia, where severe state repression has pushed it towards a more activist approach. Instead, it has focussed on explaining and propogating its basic ideas by means of literature and meetings. In the process, its influence has spread through the Arab world, into other parts of the Muslim world, and to Muslim communities in other countries. In all areas, it has found support among educated and professional Muslims who have responded well to the clarity and rationality of its socio-political understanding. The directness and simplicity of Shaikh Nabhani’s writings have contributed considerably to its success in this area, along with the fundamental soundness of many of its principles. HT has also developed a tradition of generating and distributing clear and readable political analyses of the issues of the day.

However, these strengths are also among the HT’s weaknesses: among some in HT, the focus on Nabhani’s writings, which include a constitution and institutional structure for a khilafah in the modern world, has become dogmatic, so many HT members treat them as rigid panacean formulae whose implementation by itself will be the solution to all the problems of the Muslim world, rather than as suggested structures that probably have to be adapted to the realities of complex modern societies through trial and error. For many supporters seeking simple answers rather than complex and nuanced understandings, the simplicity of HT’swritings has become an obstacle to deeper understanding, rather than a conduit to it. However, this tendency is perhaps inevitable among supporters of any group for whom the party and its leaders cannot be held entirely responsible.

Unsurprisingly, the HT has been treated with extreme suspicion in most places where it operates. In most Arab countries, it operates underground or with extreme caution. In Uzbekistan, its members are jailed and possession of its literature is considered a serious offence. In Pakistan, the authorities have expressed concerns about the spread of its ideas. In Britain, where its credibility has been severely dented by its association in the 1990s with the maverick Shaikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, it has been described as a breeding ground for terrorists and faced demands from populist politicians that it be banned. (Britain’s authorities have acknowledged that there are no grounds for doing this.) Despite all its weaknesses and problems, however, its support and credibility make Hizb ut-Tahrir an important part of the Islamic movement, and one with the potential to play a significant role in the future success of the broader movement, insha’Allah.

With such pragmatism displayed by the ‘radical’ Muslims in Indonesia, opportunities such as the one provided at the Jakarta stadium were bound to not be missed. Indonesians must be pleased that HT hosted such a conference to gather Muslims in the heart of the capital. Yet HT leaders are naive if they hope or expect that Indonesia’s Muslims will kickstart their worldwide caliphate campaign.

Some Western observers have already begun to fret that the show on August 12 proves that Indonesian Islam is moving towards ‘extremism’. If what they mean is that more Muslims want ‘Islamisation’ programmes to be carried out by the government in the administration of the country, their worry is understandable. It is another aspect of the failure of Pancasila, which few now take seriously. What is still doubtful, however – and this is not good news for the Islamic movement – is whether most Muslims in Indonesia, reeling from violent economic, political and social upheavals, are ready to accept Islamic Shari‘ah rule or leadership, given the state of confusion that Islam-oriented politicians and leaders are currently in.

For now, however, Indonesia’s Muslims welcome with open arms anyone who is willing to organise another huge get-together to help them feel better about themselves and their circumstances.

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