Sat, 12 Aug 2000

'Syariah' issue is typical of transition era: Ichlasul

A new group in Yogyakarta have proposed the upholding of Islamic law amid the controversy of including reference to the syariah in the constitution. The Jakarta Post talked to political observer Ichlasul Amal of the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta:

Question: There are indications of Islamic aspirations as voiced by the Mujahidin group who have recently held their congress and among legislators who have proposed the inclusion of upholding the Islamic law (syariah) among believers. Your comment?

Answer: In any country where most people are Muslim there will always be demands to uphold the syariah or to form an Islamic state, as reflected in the experience of Malaysia, Pakistan, Algeria and other countries. These countries always undergo social and political divisions, with one side considered secular and the others oriented to the textual content of the Koran as the only legal reference.

Politically this phenomenon is virtually only about the issue of who takes the secular side at a certain time and who takes the other side. Years ago, the Muslim Masyumi party saw a split between leader M. Natsir who interpreted the Koran in a sociological and contextual manner, and the others who took the textual interpretation.

Groups like the Mujahidin and other "radical" Islamic political parties are the marginalized ones, some because they are small. The United Development Party (PPP) is large but still politically marginalized. A marginalized position leads to a tendency to choose a simple sectarian political symbol, which is textual religious teachings.

Q: You mean political factors led to such movements.

A: Obviously. To seek public support they use emotional symbols. They could also be groups using the economic and political uncertainty by raising nostalgic and sectarian symbols.

I believe many elements of PPP were behind the recent Mujahidin congress. They're different from the (Yogyakarta-based) Laskar Jihad. But I don't think they have links with the (crushed movements of) Darul Islam or the Negara Islam Indonesia although they might use the NII as their flag.

Q: How far do you think the demands will go?

A: Historically such demands usually don't last long. Such movements always emerge in political transitions, or during economic and political instability. The rise of the New Order also saw such movements but they did not gain significant public support ...

And we should question the demands further; what's the elaboration like, how would it be implemented; who would police the syariah? In Iran, for instance, they had such a police; whoever was caught not wearing a headscarf jilbab was arrested. But in time there were so many violators of the syariah that the prisons were full.

(In Indonesia), will those in the Mujahidin play the role of the police; conducting raids on (places selling) alcohol drinks and destroying (the venues) just like that? In history such experiments always fail.

Such movements are also not popular because they are always linked to authoritarian regimes. This is very dangerous; upholding textual teachings does indeed require authoritarian power.

Such movements also tend to involve the military because they have the most effective repressive power such as in Pakistan, or in Sudan. An exception is Algeria, where the movement to uphold the syariah has instead become the military's enemy.

If groups like the Mujahidin have displayed their rigidity in interpreting the teachings, the political party they may want to establish will not gain support. The poor would not want restrictions in daily life such as arresting women without jilbab. Just look at Iran. It was Khatami, a moderate figure, who was elected President. Because in the end people don't want to be watched forever...

Q: What about demands among legislators that Pancasila in the long run be replaced by the Jakarta Charter, an earlier concept of Pancasila with the additional words that the syariah be made effective for Muslims?

A: That was something in the past (the Charter was finally dropped following debates in 1945 - Ed.) If the syariah was included in the Constitution and the Charter made effective would things get better? Of course not. (Proponents of the issue) also realize that any government (of a non-Islamic state) would accommodate such demands (of at least applying symbols) -- but not so far as to (apply) textual teachings.

For instance it would be difficult to restrict night life here. It was actually Soeharto who was quite keen on applying religious teachings in school. It was he who started the reading of "Bismillah..." (In the name of Allah...) before beginning his addresses. Even the Masyumi figures of the 1950s did not do that (stress formalities, symbols).

This movement clearly brings political impacts; the political elite would accommodate such demands by showing symbols to express they are not entirely against the "Islamic" aspirations. Even with symbolic accommodation (the proponents) will lose their cause.

Q: Wouldn't such demands in the MPR face the "nationalist" parties of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) and the National Awakening Party (PKB), leading to a deadlock?

A: I don't think so. The issue will fade away. Now the issue is of (Abdurrahman Wahid) Gus Dur's position, and he'll be stronger if the groups campaigning for the syariah aim to discredit Gus Dur who is known to be against this. If this is a political tactic to discredit Gus Dur it's quite a mistake. Support to Gus Dur will instead grow stronger.

Smaller parties outside Islamic parties will all support Gus Dur in the sense that he will be the best "bumper" against the fanatics. We know he's the most tolerant figure regarding religion.

Q: Why are such movements resisted while most people are Muslims?

A: Before Islam came here there already was a strong cultural identity, strong beliefs, which led to cultural adjustments. It might have been different if Islam entered a really blank society. It's therefore quite difficult for people to imagine what "pure" Islam is like.

What the Muhammadiyah (second largest Islamic organization) is doing is purifying Islam but now purification is increasingly difficult. I think Muhammadiyah needs reorientation because culture constantly changes including the dynamics of local culture and Islamic teachings.

Q: Is nationalism here so strong that it can effectively check radical religious movements?

A: There was once a clear differentiation as culturally classified by (American anthropologist) Clifford Geertz: the abangan, the santri and priyayi. The abangan (less "purist" Muslims) were the nationalists while the santri were (identified as devout followers of) Islam. Political figures like Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta were (identified as) Muslims but also nationalists. Among Muslim politicians there were M. Natsir and the others.

Before independence, Islam and communists were considered as teachings from outside... At that time nationalism became an alternative, and nationalists based their ideology on local values.

But with (involvement in) the market economy people no longer saw concrete symbols in such ideologies -- whether nationalist or Islam.

Q: There has been speculation that the Crescent Star party, the United Development Party and groups like the Mujahidin know that the issue of the syariah is not popular, but they continue to raise it in the hopes it will snowball and gain wide support...

A: I don't think that (wide support) will happen ... the issue of making the syariah effective or of establishing an Islamic state is outdated. It was a hot topic until about the 1970s. Not anymore, particularly now with Islamic figures already in the corridors of power, making such movements or maneuvers unpopular.

There would be a different impact if the issue was raised before 1965 when the Indonesian Communist Party was still around or at the time of repression against political Islam in the beginning of the 1970s, when the military was rather against Islam.

But instead of a snowball, raising the issue now would make it even more unpopular. If it's a strategy to gain more support for the 2004 elections those parties would likely earn much less votes. (Asip A. Hasani)