Thu, 04 May 2000

A matter of faith

If the Crescent Star Party (PBB) is a reflection of all political parties in Indonesia which use Islamic symbols, then the Islamic movement in this country still has a long way to go before it can become a force to be reckoned with. PBB ended its congress on Monday by reelecting Yusril Izha Mahendra as chairman, but not before losing 18 disgruntled party leaders who now plan to form a breakaway party. Instead of expanding and strengthening, PBB now finds itself smaller after its congress.

It is essentially the pattern of the Islamic political movement in this country, which is constantly dividing into smaller and smaller groups. Almost all are built around individual leaders rather than the ideology or teachings of the religion they claim to represent.

These parties frequently use Islamic symbols in wooing supporters and voters, but only rarely the moral teachings, including the message of peace, which the religion promotes. Some even appear to endorse militancy, reflected by their failure to condemn the declaration of jihad in Maluku by an Islamic group in Jakarta last month. One cannot help having the strong feeling that these political parties are simply vehicles for ambitious politicians to further their agenda.

Not surprisingly, their appeal among the electorate is waning, evident in the June general election. Of the dozens of political parties which used Islamic symbols, only the United Development Party (PPP) made a significant showing, coming a distant third after the two secular-nationalist forces, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) and the Golkar Party.

PBB, claiming to be the torchbearer of the once-great Masyumi Party which led the Indonesian Islamic political movement in the 1950s, barely made it into the top eight election finishers. In contrast, Islamic parties led by Masyumi polled 46 percent of the total vote in the country's first democratic elections in 1955.

Islamic politics is a fact of life in this predominantly Muslim nation and Islam has its part to play in the country's political arena. Islam can make a valuable contribution to the nation-building process and Islamic political forces should serve as effective sparring partners for secular-nationalist groups. So far, however, because of constant infighting, proponents of Islamic politics continue playing a marginal role in state affairs, even after Indonesia became a democracy in 1998.

The one time the Islamic parties were truly united since then was when they combined to form the "axis force" with the National Mandate Party (PAN) to deprive PDI Perjuangan chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri of her rightful claim to the presidency. The coalition, however, was not strong enough to present candidates from within its ranks. It settled for Abdurrahman Wahid, from the minority National Awakening Party (PKB), who was elected president in October. Megawati became vice president.

It was the lone occasion when Muslim political parties showed their capacity to unite. Their sole contribution to the process of building democracy in Indonesia was in rallying for a common negative cause -- blocking Megawati's path to the presidency -- rather than something constructive. Since then, the coalition members have rarely spoken in a single voice on any issue.

Whether Islam as a political force continues to be relevant to the country will depend largely on the present leaders of the political parties which use religion as their symbol. They can learn a thing or two from the various Christian political parties in secular Europe that still command large followings.

These parties must have clearer platforms and goals that are acceptable to a wider spectrum of society. They will be much better off incorporating the moral values and teachings of Islam into their platform instead of clinging to religious symbols. Stating the establishment of an Islamic state as their goal will only fuel separatist sentiment in regions where Islam is not the dominant religion. That is a sure recipe for disaster, if not for the party, then undoubtedly for the nation. The parties must also shed their exclusivism and open their membership to non-Muslims, the same way Abdurrahman's PKB has done. Most important of all, they must end their infighting and endeavor to act in unison.