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The prospects of Islamic opposition in Indonesia

George J. Aditjondro - June 16, 1997

The Muslim-led United Development Party (PPP) has announced last Friday, June 12, that it would accept the results of last month's election. This means, that the PPP leadership has yielded to the authorities' pressure, and not to their own constituency, who had demanded that the party should reject the results of the election.

This latest stance of the PPP leadership will certainly frustrate many of the party's members and supporters, who had hoped that the party's refusal may lead to a nation-wide rejection of the election results. This, in turn, may invalidate the entire election exercise, and thereby delegimitize Suharto's military-industrial-bureacratic regime, in a constitutional way.

I believe, however, that the battle is not yet over. Contrary to some authors on the internet, I do believe that there is still a prospect for Islamic opposition in Indonesia, evolving in conjunction with intra-parliamentary PPP opposition.

Types of Islamic opposition Speaking about Islamic opposition in Indonesia, several authors – using mainstream Western perspectives –, immediately think about Algeria, where the ruling party (which has ruled since independence) cancelled the victory of the opposition Muslim party, which led to retaliations in the form of violent acts of opposition against the regime and anybody who does not believe in the Muslim party's tennets.

However, do we have to look at Islamic opposition – and in particular, in Indonesia – in such a simplistic and negative way? From studying Indonesia's New Order history, from my own involvement in the Indonesian pro-democracy movement, as well as from studying the literature on contemporary Islamic thinkers – such as Ali Shari'ati, Alija Ali Izetbegovic, Hassan Hanafi, and Abdelwahab el-Affendi – whose work have been translated into Indonesian and is circulating widely among Indonesian Islamic activists (1), I do believe that that view of "Islamic opposition to the Indonesian state" is rather too narrow and short-sighted.

In Indonesia, there are at least three types of Islamic opposition, which could influence oppositional politics in the coming months (or years, for that matter), namely strictly religious opposition, more economically-oriented opposition, and broader human rights motivated opposition. Let me explain now what I mean by those three types.

(a). Strictly religious opposition: This type of opposition covers those practices which are conventionally regarded as "Islamic opposition," such as opposition against gambling, alcohol, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, abuse of the Prophet Muhammad's name or scripts from the Holy Qur'an, as well as the opposition against the prohibition of using Islamic women's head dress (jilbab) in public schools, and the opposition against the freedom of believers of other religions to build their places of worship and spread their belief.

Within this type of Islamic opposition I would include the mass protests against Indonesia's state-controlled national lottery, SDSB (Editor, Nov. 18, 1993: 33), which has eventually been abolished, as well as the mass rallies in support of the Bosnian and Palestinian peoples (Tempo, February 19, 1994: 42; Forum Keadilan, March 17, 1994: 15-16), which is driven more by solidarity for fellow Muslims than for upholding the right of self-determination.

Also, this type of Islamic opposition also includes extra-parliamentary protests against former Information Minister Harmoko, when he intentionally slipped his tongue while reciting verses from the Holy Qur'an.

(b). Economically-oriented opposition: This type involves opposition against unaccountable uses by the government of taxpayers' money. This type of opposition has been carried out consistently by PPP politicans, such as Hamzah Haz by calling for the implementation of the parliament's budgetairy right, stipulated by Article 13 of the 1945 Constitution, which has consistently been violated by the Suharto regime for the last thirty years.

Apart from trying to uphold the parliament's budgetairy right, PPP politicians have also repeatedly campaigned against corruption, such as when Sri Bintang Pamungkas, then still a PPP parliamentarian, called for an investigation into PT Sritex's credit scandals (due to Sritex's business partnership with a brother of recently sacked Information Minister Harmoko).

Extra-parliamentary mass protests against the escape of an imprisoned Chinese businessman, Eddy Tanzil, who had been sentenced for embezzling large amounts of state bank credits, could also be included in this category.

In addition, within this type of opposition also covers the practive of many kiyai (Islamic teachers) in East Java, who belong to the more traditional Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), whom on various occasions have defended the rights of farmers vis-a-vis repressive agricultural policies of the New Order state, such as the compulsory sugarcane planting scheme, and mismanagement of rural credits (Sunanto, 1989; Surya, February 15, 1994).

This second type of Islamic opposition is sociologically grounded in the fact that many PPP politicians from Muhammadiyah backgrounds come from the urban small business class, which have been systematically marginalized by Suharto's big business tendency, with a disproportionate favouritism towards a handful of Chinese business families and families of the ruling elite.

After more and more intellectuals from Muhammadiyah backgrounds obtained their tertiary education degrees and joined the bureaucracy, their roles as social critics have been taken over by NU leaders, from the village level to the national scene. NU branch leaders as well as the current NU national leader, Kiyai Haji Abdurrachman Wahid, became spokepersons for villagers who are marginalized by pollution from industries into the brackish water fishpond (tambak) farmers near Gresik, East Java, for villagers on the Island of Madura, East Java, who fear marginalization by large-scale Japanese industries which the Indonesian government allowed to be relocated to Madura, as well as for villagers on the Muria Peninsula, Central Java, who fear the social and environmental impacts of nuclear power plants which the Suharto regime plans to build in their backyard.

After the formation of the Suharto-backed Muslim scholars association, ICMI (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia), many Muhammadiyah-educated intellectuals become less and less vocal. In fact, they became strong supporters of the technological 'white elephants' of Research and Technology Minister, Dr Baharuddin Jusuf Habibie. In the case of the Madura Island development project, the ICMI intellectuals tried to persuade the kiyais of Madura, to accept that plan.

This situation did not last long, however. Earlier this year, Dr Amien Rais, the Muhammadiyah chairperson, was sacked by Habibie from his position as the chairperson of ICMI's expert council, after he had criticized Suharto for allowing large foreign business interests to control the Freeport copper mine in West Papua, and the supposedly lucrative Busang gold mine in East Kalimantan.

This second type of Islamic opposition is historically grounded in the independence struggle, where Islamic organisations – such as Muhammadiyah in the urban and NU in the rural areas – have opposed the Dutch colonial regime's deliberate policy to favour the Eurasian upper class and the 'Foreign Oriental' (Chinese, Arabic and Indian) middle class. While Muhammadiyah fought the Dutch policy by creating their own schools, hospitals, and businesses in the cities, many kiyais in the rural areas were involved in peasant rebellions against the Dutch controlled sugarcane plantations and sugar mills.

(3). Broader human rights oriented opposition: Finally, the third type of Islamic opposition is where Indonesian Muslims have joined hand with non-Muslims, including offsprings of members of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its affiliate organisations, to fight for broader human rights concerns which do not exclusively cover Muslim interests.

Contrary to the mainstream view, which does not regard this type of opposition as "Islamic", anybody who has read the literature published by Islamic NGOs in Indonesia, from the more "conventional" literature from older organisations with massive followers, such as Muhammadiyah, NU, and Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII) – to the more "radical" publishers, such as Mizan in Bandung and LKIS in Yogyakarta, will have to agree that there is nothing "not Islamic" about all these human rights campaigns. Many activists with explicit Islamic backgrounds, who have been involved in their student years in Islamic organisations or are still involved in those organisations in ad hoc or advisory positions, have been and still are involved in various pro-democracy campaigns, ranging from the free speech campaign to the politically more sensitive issues as the East Timorese, West Papuan and Acehnese peoples' right to self-determination.

The list of Muslim opposition figures also include some figures from the ICMI camp. The former ICMI Expert Council chairperson, Dr Amien Rais, for instance, had also criticized the nepotism of the ruling Golkar party in appointing candidates for the previous election, and had suggested that the political parties should determine the criteria for the next presidential candidate, and even name them beforehands, and not simply leave it to the incumbent president, Suharto.

Dr Nurcholish Madjid, or Cak Nur, former leader of the Islamic students association, HMI, who still sits on the ICMI Expert Council, has also called for the two non-ruling parties – PDI and PPP – to become explicit opposition parties, while he himself has joined the election watchdog, KIPP. Cak Nur is, by the way, also a member of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM).

And lest we forget, Dr Sri Bintang Pamungkas, the leader of an illegal political party, PUDI, who has been expelled from PPP after his involvement in anti-Suharto rallies in Germany, has never been expelled from ICMI.

Personally, in most social justice and environmental campaigns in which I have been involved while still living in Indonesia, ranging from environmental struggles, in the broader anti-nuclear campaign, in indigenous rights and agrarian reform campaigns, as well as in the East Timor solidarity movement, I have worked closely with Indonesian Muslim activists, who worked in secular, Islamic, and inter-religious organisations.

Constraints of Islamic opposition in Indonesia: Having broadened the perspective on Islamic opposition in Indonesia, allow me now to state what I believe to constrain Islamic opposition in Indonesia, from the perspective of a liberal democrat fighting for the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression of all classes, religious groups, and peoples living in the Indonesian archipelago.

(1). By focusing mainly on their own specific religious needs, the first type of Islamic opposition has created a sense of insecurity among non-Muslim minorities in Indonesia, especially since non-Muslim places of worship, such as Christian churches and Buddhist/Taoist temples, have also been attacked during anti-government protests, before and after the recent elections, including lately in Bangkalan, Madura.

This sense of insecurity have caused many voters from non-Muslim backgrounds to flock into the Golkar camp, or to boycott the election at all. E.g., the "Mega-Bintang" slogan did not seem to be acceptable for many non-Muslim voters in islands with predominantly non-Muslim inhabitants, such as Bali and Flores.

(2). In the long run, it would be impossible to return to a civilian-dominated political system, if non-Muslim minorities – Chinese as well as indigenous non-Muslims – still feel the need to ask for military protection. By attacking non-Muslim places of worship, residences, and workplaces, as well as by showing their intolerance towards the right of other religious groups to build their own places of worship, groups involved in the first type of Islamic opposition have undermined their own claims that in a Muslim-ruled country, non-Muslim peoples can also live peacefully side-by-side with their Muslim brothers and sisters, as they did historically in the Iberian peninsula, before the Crusades.

(3). On the international level, the first type of Islamic opposition has mainly focused on supporting Muslim minorities vis-a-vis non-Muslim majorities, such as the Palestinians, the Bosnians, the Moros, the Patanis, and the Indonesian Muslim minority in occupied East Timor, Meanwhile, they have rarely defended the right of Muslim ethnic minorities fighting for independence from fellow Muslim majorities, such as the Sahrawi in West Sahara, whose country was annexed by the Kingdom of Morocco in 1975, or Acehnese who are currently struggling for independence from Indonesia.

(4). Still on the international level, the first type of opposition activists have blindly uphold the image of the Suharto regime as the global defender of oppressed Muslims, while being unaware of the regime's contradictory international policy towards those fellow Muslims: for instance, many of these activists have been totally unaware of the Suharto regime's clandestine dealings with Israel's Zionist regime, which have made Indonesian tax payers morally complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples, who still live under the Zionist yoke, by buying Israeli Uzi-guns and used US-made Skyhawk fighter planes (Leifer, 1985: 156; Melman and Raviv, 1989: 367- 368; Hoy and Ostrovsky, 1990: 125-126).

Many Indonesian international Islamic solidarity activists also seem to be unaware with IPTN's past role in channelling German BO-105 helicopters to Saddam Hussein (Timmerman, 1992: 72), or with IPTN's current support to the Burmese military junta (Tiras , June 22, 1995), which has also been rather unfriendly to its own Arakan Muslim minority.

(5). The first type of Islamic opposition which were carried out through ad hoc extra-parliamentary coalitions using mass action tactics, have rarely been followed up with critical reflections about the results of their campaigns. This 'short sightedness' and ad hoc nature have made it easy for the Suharto regime to exploit and ride on Islamic bandwagon, while actually continuing to carry out very un-Islamic practices.

For instance, although the Copacabana casino in Ancol, Jakarta, was closed in the mid 1980s, due to Islamic opposition, it did not deter the regime to facilitate the opening a much larger casino on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, only half an hour flying from Jakarta. No Islamic organisation has investigated, why is it that rich offsprings of the Indonesian elite who profess to be Muslims, such as Ponco Sutowo and Tommy Suharto, can easily gamble on that island. Neither has any Islamic organisation investigated the origins of the fortunes gambled on Christmas Island, by the Jakarta elite's offsprings.

Another glaring example are the anti-Monitor and anti-SDSB campaigns. While attacking the Catholic publisher of Monitor, Jakob Oetama, and the Catholic editor, Arswendo Atmowiloto, no Islamic organisation has investigated the role of then Information Minister Harmoko, as a co-shareholder of the tabloid, which had in their eyes, had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Until his departure from his powerful Information Minister position, no Islamic organisation ever questioned Harmoko's conflict of interests in owning shares in media enterprises under his jurisdiction, or the ethics of earning dividends from a tabloid, which had not only insulted the Prophet Muhammad, but also insulted all Indonesian women with its lucrative near-pornographic cover photos.

As far as the anti-SDSB campaign was concerned, no Islamic organisation has investigated, or even demanded an independent investigation into the actual amount and use of the funds generated by this national lottery. Foreign press reports as well as my own sources have stated that two sons of Suharto, Sigit Harjojudanto and Hutomo Mandalaputra Suharto, were beneficiaries of the SDSB-funds, together with Henry Pribadi, a wealthy Sino-Indonesian businessman. Sigit later use his SDSB fortune to build his five-star Bali Cliff Resort hotel in Uluwatu, southern Bali.

The international Islamic opposition movements against national and international powers, who were seen as oppressing Muslim peoples in Palestina and Bosnia, were also unaware of the Suharto regime's secret and illegal dealings with the Israeli Zionist regime. Hence, by the Suharto regime's purchasement of Uzi guns and used Skyhawk fighter planes from Israel through the Mossad-linked arms trader, Shaul Eisenberg, Indonesian tax payers have became morally complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian and Lebanese people, who are still living under the Zionist Israeli yoke (Leifer, 1985: 156; Yossi and Raviv, 1989: 367-368; Ostrovsky and Hoy, 1990: 125-126).

Indonesia's international Islamic solidarity activists also seem to be unaware with IPTN's role in channelling German BO-105 helicopters to Saddam Hussein (Timmerman, 1992: 72), to kill fellow Muslims in Kurdistan, Iran, and Kuwait, or with the contemporary support of IPTN in supporting the Burmese military junta by selling IPTN products to Rangoon, thereby helping to legitimize an authoritarian regime, which has also not been so nice to their Arakan Muslim minority.

(6). This brings me then to another major limitation of Islamic opposition in Indonesia. The extra-parliamentary movements to defend the honour of Islam in Indonesia, as well as in the world (see Bosnia and Palestina), were rarely linked with the intra-parliamentary economic opposition of Islamic parliamentarians. Sri Bintang Pamungkas was probably the only PPP parliamentarian, who took the pain of building links with extra-parliamentary opposition movements, Islamic as well as non-Islamic.

(7). The next limitation is related to the third type of Islamic opposition. Due to the fear of being branded as "sectarian" or "premordial" by fellow activists, these Islamic human rights activists have rarely raised public concerns about human rights violations in Indonesia, which were more of a more typical Islamic nature. I have rarely heard, for instance, Muslim human rights activists in the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, YLBH, who shared with me a strong concern for the violation of West Papuan cultural rights, expressed a similar concern about the prohibition against the wearing of the Muslim head dress, jilbab , in public schools.

(8). I have also rarely heard Muslim human rights activists, especially those leading YLBHI which espouses liberal democratic ideas, to call for the rehabilitation of all banned Muslim political parties and mass organisations, in particular Masyumi, Parmusi, the Islamic Youth Organisation, Pelajar Islam Indonesia (PII) and the Islamic Farmers Organisation, Serikat Tani Islam Indonesia (STII).

All these political organisations have been banned by the Jakarta regimes for different reasons. Masyumi was banned by Sukarno, together with PSI, for allegedly being involved in the PRRI rebellion, which has never been proven in a court of justice. Then, Parmusi has been banned by Suharto, for the fear of an incarnation of Masyumi. STII was banned, for refusing to merge into the government's farmers organisation, HKTI, while PII was banned, for refusing to adopt Pancasila as its organsitional philosophy, which was part of the 1985 package of five repressive political acts.

Prospect of Islamic opposition in Indonesia: What is the prospect of Islamic opposition in Indonesia? I believe, that there is a great prospect, if all the three types of Islamic opposition are embraced and developed in a balanced way. This in turns, depends not only on how each type of opposition will develop in the coming months and years, but also on the close interaction between the three streams of Islamic opposition and between intra-and extra-parliamentary opposition of all different ideological and religious persuasions.

As an Indonesian pro-democracy activist in self-imposed exile, who has worked closely with several strands of Islamic opposition, I strongly believe in this cooperation as a conditio sine qua non for long term and short term reasons. The long term reason is to increase the quality of Islamic opposition in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.

The short term reason is, as you may guess, to end the Suharto dictatorship and to transform the Indonesian political system towards a more democratic, open, and tolerant system, where religion is not imposed by the state on its subjects, where all banned political parties – the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI), the Islamic party, Masyumi, the People's Democratic Party (PRD), the United Democratic Party (PUDI), and the two Christian political parties (Partai Katolik and Parkindo) – have the right to exist, side by side with all other political parties which people want to establish under a multiparty system in the near future.

Newcastle, June 16, 1997 (In respectful memory of Ali Shari'ati, Iranian pro-democracy martyr and Islamic liberation theologist, martyred in London on June 19, twenty years ago)

Footnote: 1). The two most wellknown publishers of Islamic political science literature in Indonesia are Mizan in Bandung, West Java, and Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial (LKIS) in Yogyakarta. Mizan has published four books written by the Iranian 'liberation theologist,' Ali Shari'ati, and a book by the Bosnian thinker and current president, 'Alija 'Ali Izetbegovic. LKIS has published a book about the "Islamic Leftist" theology of the Egyptian thinker, Hassan Hanafi, and a book about the "anarchist" political theory of Abdelwahab el-Affendi, based on Ibnu Khaldun's political theory. Meanwhile, some lesser known publishers, such as Andalan in Jakarta and Suara Bersama in Surabaya, have respectively published a book on Islamic opposition by Jabir Qumaihah, and on the immorality of military aid to Islamic countries from pagan regimes, by Abdurahman al Baghdady.


Leifer, Michael (1985). "The Islamic factor in Indonesia's foreign policy: a case of functional ambiguity," in Adeed Dawisha (ed). Islam in foreign policy. London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 144-159.

Melman, Yossi and Dan Raviv (1989). The imperfect spies: the history of Israeli intelligence. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Ostrovsky, Victor and Claire Hoy (1990). By way of deception: an insider's devastating expose of The Mossad. London: Arrow Books. Sunanto, Hatta (1989). "Ulama NU dan TRI," Kedaulatan Rakyat, November 21, 1989.

Timmerman, Kenneth R. (1992). The death lobby: how the West armed Iraq. London: Fourth Estate.