Indonesia’s Voters Retreat From Radical Islam

Discussion in 'Politics & Religion' started by OPTIONAL777, Apr 25, 2009.

  1. April 25, 2009
    Indonesia’s Voters Retreat From Radical Islam
    By NORIMITSU ONISHI

    JAKARTA, Indonesia — From Pakistan to Gaza and Lebanon, militant Islamic movements have gained ground rapidly in recent years, fanning Western fears of a consolidation of radical Muslim governments. But here in the world’s most populous Muslim nation just the opposite is happening, with Islamic parties suffering a steep drop in popular support.

    In parliamentary elections this month, voters punished Islamic parties that focused narrowly on religious issues, and even the parties’ best efforts to appeal to the country’s mainstream failed to sway the public.

    The largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party, ran television commercials of young women without head scarves and distributed pamphlets in the colors of the country’s major secular parties. But the party fell far short of its goal of garnering 15 percent of the vote, squeezing out a gain of less than one percentage point over its 7.2 percent showing in 2004.

    That was a big letdown for a party and a movement that had grown phenomenally in recent years, even as more radical elements directed terrorist attacks against Western tourists and targets. The party had projected that it would double its share of seats in Parliament even as it stuck to its founding goal of bringing Shariah, or Islamic law, to Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, with 240 million people.

    Altogether, the major Islamic parties suffered a drop in support from 38 percent in 2004 to less than 26 percent this year, according to the Indonesian Survey Institute, an independent polling firm whose figures are in keeping with partial official results.

    Political experts and politicians attribute the decline to voters’ disillusionment with Islamic parties that once called for idealism, but became embroiled in the messy, often corrupt world of Indonesian politics. They also say that the popular president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is expected to be re-elected in July, appropriated the largest Islamic party’s signature theme of clean government through a far-reaching anticorruption drive.

    On a deeper level, some of the parties’ fundamentalist measures seem to have alienated moderate Indonesians. While Indonesia has a long tradition of moderation, it was badly destabilized with the end of military rule in 1998, which gave rise to Islamist politicians who preached righteousness and to some hard-core elements, who practiced violence. The country has only recently achieved a measure of stability.

    Although final results from the election on April 9 will not be announced until next month, partial official results and exit polls by several independent companies indicate that Indonesians overwhelmingly backed the country’s major secular parties, even though more of them are continuing to turn to Islam in their private lives.

    “People in general do not feel that there should be an integration of faith and politics,” said Azyumardi Azra, director of the graduate school at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University. “Even though more and more Muslims, in particular women, have become more Islamic and have a growing attachment to Islam, that does not translate into voting behavior.”

    The Islamic parties’ 2004 surge occurred around the time that Indonesian terrorists were attacking hotels and nightclubs popular among Westerners, as well as the Australian Embassy here. A growing number of communities were adopting Shariah as some of the smaller, more hard-line Islamic parties also pushed to insert Islamic law in the Constitution.

    The hard-line stance, though, was at odds with the attitudes of Indonesians; most of them practice a moderate version of Islam and were attracted to the Islamic parties for nonreligious reasons.

    In 2004, just two years after its founding, the Prosperous Justice Party came out of nowhere, then joined the coalition government of President Yudhoyono and won several governors’ races. Although one of its founding principles is to bring Islamic law to Indonesia, the party attracted middle-class urban voters by emphasizing clean government, anticorruption policies and humanitarian activities.

    Once the Islamic parties were in office, their pristine image was tarnished after several of their lawmakers were prosecuted in corruption cases. One member of the Prosperous Justice Party is under investigation in a bribery case.

    The parties angered many Indonesians by pressing hard on several symbolic religious issues, like a vague “antipornography” law that could be used to ban everything from displays of partial nudity to yoga. The governor of West Java, a member of the Prosperous Justice Party, tried to ban a dance called jaipong, deeming it too erotic, but many people view it as part of their cultural heritage.

    “There are now problems in hotels because they can’t serve alcohol,” said Jusuf Wanandi, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research group based here. “That’s why people started to recognize what they are up to and why the middle class that supported them now have second thoughts.”

    Ahmad Zainuddin, a lawmaker with the Prosperous Justice Party and one of its founders, acknowledged that support for his party had fallen considerably in the election. Mr. Zainuddin, 42, who had predicted that the party would double its share of the votes, now says that it would be hard pressed to expand its appeal.

    “If we emphasize Shariah or religious matters, our supporters will decline, so we should emphasize mostly clean government and anticorruption,” he said in an interview at the party’s headquarters, whose facade mostly bears images of the party’s humanitarian activities and has no references to its religious goals.

    But Mr. Zainuddin — who graduated from Lipia, a Saudi-financed university here that promotes Wahhabism, a rigid interpretation of Islam — also believes in the party’s founding goal of carrying out Shariah in Indonesia.

    The party is now split between those committed to pursuing the party’s Islamist goals and those who want to stress good government.

    Zulkieflimansyah, 36, a lawmaker with the Prosperous Justice Party, said many younger party members were trying to steer the party away from its Islamist origins and away from older members who were inspired by radical Islamic organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan.

    Mr. Zulkieflimansyah, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name, added: “If we are too critical, they will kick us harder than we thought. Or, borrowing an expression from our friends in the United States, don’t force a pig to sing. It will not work, and it annoys the pig as well.”

    Despite the Islamic parties’ decline, they remain influential, analysts say. The country’s major secular parties, including President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, have courted them and their supporters. And the Prosperous Justice Party, despite its minor gain of less than one percentage point, is pressing to increase the number of ministers it has in the coalition government to four from three.

    “It’s still not clear where they stand on many issues like freedom of expression, morality, the place of women,” said Ahmad Suaedy, director of the Wahid Institute, a research organization based here. “The agenda of many people inside the party is still to Islamize Indonesia, and that’s a constraint on democracy.”