Crescent of Fire: the Incompatibility of Islamist Politics and Liberal Democracy in Indonesia and Malaysia

Current Events Jun 27, 2023

On December 6, 2022, the Indonesian House of Representatives voted unanimously to introduce a new criminal code that tightened penalties around key rights and civil liberties. The opposition Islamist coalition gave ground on morality issues, though the incumbent secular coalition also agreed to a five-year-max sentence for spreading views contrary to the Pancasila state ideology, the very constitutional bulwark against pronounced Islamist hegemony in legislating across the country’s hundreds of ethnic groups and faiths.

Roughly two weeks before the criminal code’s passage, Indonesia’s northern neighbour was having secular nationalist-Islamist spats of its own. Malaysia’s recent general elections had seen the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)’s seat count jump nearly threefold, leaving it the runner-up to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious coalition under President Anwar Ibrahim. In the wake of PAS spokesperson claims that Ibrahim voters would “go to Hell” (Ananthalakshmi 2022) during the election cycle, Ibrahim asserted in his victory speech that he would preserve Malaysia’s Islamist representation. With PAS’s federal influence at near-unprecedented levels, however, spokespeople still called for abidance by the constitution and against tensions that could threaten inter-partisan harmony, congratulating Ibrahim, and voicing confidence that he would “prioritise the concept of federalism for all states and the people” (Ananthalakshmi). Nevertheless, within these two Muslim-majority countries who have had long histories of institutionalizing minority rights, and preserving them through an established representative democracy, values of liberal democracy are incompatible with Islamist politics in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Flag of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's—and the world's—largest Islamic organization.

As per Hefner (1997), while the modern nation-state has eased the likelihood of territorial fragmentation, it has also threatened the autonomy of Islamist social organizations and rebel movements. Nevertheless, many Muslims see the state as a vehicle for making their legal aspirations societal realities, and have built their basic political assumptions around it. Islamist politics, in fact, includes many who believe in democracy; though not quite as many who would eagerly push for the protection of all minority rights, the rule of law, and other key liberal democratic tenets. Sharing widespread views that religion belongs in the public sphere, that it remains an “abstract moral ethos that pervades the whole of society” (Hefner), Islamist politics may show ready endorsement of popular sovereignty and respect for other religions, though without similar agreement on how to accommodate them within wider institutional structures, alongside the faith they hold most dear. Hefner describes a familiar conservative Islamist view that a state unregulated by sharia turns from Islam as a “‘total way of life’” (Hefner). This view of total legislative subservience to Islamic law, however, is often accompanied by an endorsement of democratic governance, such that Muslims must win control of the state and only then reorganize institutions in their favour. With the contrasting views of civic modernists, the unitarianism of abiding by sharia law as proposed by conservatives, regardless of one’s faith, does not come at the expense of diversity in religious practice, forum externum. Since God’s guidance is difficult to interpret, and one cannot confuse His oneness (tawhid) with state structures and authority figures, Muslim legislation must allow for the discretion necessary to tolerate religious pluralism.

The civic modernist tradition underlines historical context and conceptual reformation as necessary factors in the ultimate application of Muslim legal sources to earthly law. Thus, civic modernists broadly admit that “[w]here precedents for civic tolerance exist— and especially where their principles have been abstracted from public culture and reinforced in legal-political charters—they are among the most vital of resources for civil accommodation” (Hefner).

Adding more profile to Hefner’s theoretical profile of the assumptions and thought processes that help build consensus within Islamist politics, Fossati (2019)’s findings allow for closer examination of the Muslim voter base. Explaining that an Indonesian voters’ aliran (stream/identity) is a predictor of party support, Fossati deduces an unlikely chance that santri Muslims (who follow more orthodox, less-locally-syncretized practices) will not vote for a party that does not explicitly endorse Islam, whereas abangan Muslims (with more syncretic practices) are more likely to support secular parties. Fossati highlights that Islamist groups are seemingly more confident in a democratic system’s ability to solve societal issues, and that 64% of respondents who would vote for Islamist parties would rather the state prioritize democratic principles over economic development in a nominal tradeoff, compared to 54% of respondents who intended to vote for secularist parties. Voters (many of them more orthodox santri) that hope to see a more prominent role for Islam in state-society relations, then, appear no more willing to take a democratic system for granted than their secularist counterparts.

Indonesian santri. Via Abiya Dr. Saifullah,S.Ag, M.Pd on Wikimedia Commons.

However, as Fossati finds, voters for Islamist parties may be less likely to endorse the assumed pluralism of religious law often found in liberal democracy. “Specifically,” he writes, “a pluralist conception of democracy based on checks and balances and horizontal accountability is more likely to be supported by secularist than by Islamist respondents.” Finally, while the differences in all of Fossati’s metrics are strongest in Java, a stronghold of the incumbent secularist coalition, his findings embody a useful guide to religious identity, partisanship, and ultimate perceptions of liberal democracy in Indonesia. As he puts it himself, “the kind of democracy so strongly supported by Islamist Indonesians may be quite different from a liberal and secular political system with a clear separation of powers and equality for all before the law [...] challenges for the consolidation of liberal democracy in Indonesia may intensify as hard-line Islamic groups become more influential in Indonesian politics.”

To round out the Indonesian case, Menchik (2014) emphasizes the Indonesian state’s unique approach to pluralism, namely under Pancasila: a constitutionalized idea that citizens adhere to one of six state-sanctioned religions, namely Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Catholicism and Protestantism, more broadly endorsing belief in God, humanitarianism, national unity, social justice and democracy as foundational values for the good Indonesian citizen to hold. These views are all given voice through representative government, birthing an imagined community “bound by a common, orthodox theism and mobilized through the state in cooperation with religious organizations in society” (Menchik). For Menchik, “the privileging of religious orthodoxy and the truncated pluralism of the Indonesian state” is a form of godly nationalism; belief in any of the six state-sanctioned gods under Pancasila, an “orthodox theism” that the state mobilizes in collaboration with religious organizations. The state can harness its patronage of various religious movements to mobilize religious groups against secessionism, militancy and for development purposes.

Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia and promoter of Pancasila, circa 1949.

Godly nationalism is no more tolerant than secular nationalism, however: it is plural according to the state-decreed limits of religious tolerance, and theologically exclusionary of heterodox faiths the state does not sanction. It is also worth noting that godly nationalism is different from civil religion, as the ritual and/or state is not the object of worship, though rather a faith-informed channel to keep citizens in the ways of conduct.

Though Pancasila’s godly nationalism allows for representation of multiple state-sponsored faiths, it does not necessarily translate into the rule of law and respect for civil rights found in liberal democracies. Since the 1998 resignation of autocratic president Suharto, Ahmadiyya Muslims have faced attacks from Islamist vigilante groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia due to their supposedly heretical beliefs that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was an Islamic prophet that succeeded Muhammad. To make matters worse, as Menchik reports, “the pillars of Indonesian democracy—the state, the police, and Muslim civil society—have been either unwilling or unable to stop the attacks.” Such disregard for the welfare of non-orthodox faith-worshipping citizens is emphasized further when taking into account Liddle (1996)’s report showing that the mainstream ICMI, a supposedly representative Muslim technocratic association, was wholly subject to Suharto’s own regulation, who appointed and dismissed leaders as he wished. In light of Pancasila’s limits of tolerance and disregard for heterodox faiths, then, it remains clear that the system that enables Islamist political mobilization, while operating within a nominally democratic Indonesian state apparatus, can ignore basic principles of liberal democracy such as the rule of law and human rights when convenient for relevant political actors.

Across the Strait of Malacca, Indonesia’s northern neighbour Malaysia has been having its own issues with Islamist politics. With 30.5 million people, about a ninth of Indonesia, the country sees strong communalist divisions with just over half the country’s legally-required-to-be-Muslim Malays, another quarter Chinese, and another 8% Indian. In terms of its basic political organization, Peou (2014) lists Malaysia, along with Singapore and Cambodia, as one of Southeast Asia’s “non-liberal democratic countries that maintain hegemonic-party regimes”.

Indeed, this hegemonic party has historically come as UMNO and its various incarnations and coalitions over the years. Mass media is largely UMNO-regulated, and does not have full discretion to discuss communalist issues. Apostasy is illegal; so is conversion in multiple states. Whereas Dayley (2020) agrees that Malaysia is an illiberal democracy, it has apparently handled ethnic and religious conflict better than Indonesia. Similar to its neighbour’s orthodox plurality through godly nationalism, Dayley emphasizes that “Malaysia’s polycommunal situation is unique. Such a society cannot carry out its affairs in a fully democratic way if one segment of the society must be given special privileges  of  governance.” To make matters worse, Kubicek (2015) has revealed that proposals by some PAS members to form a pan-Malay coalition with the UMNO has roiled inter-communal political alliances and has called their very foundations into question. With its base in the north and east of the country, PAS has achieved state power since 1990 with its consistent electoral victories in Kelantan state. Whereas its former goals included the creation of an Islamic state, “recent  changes  in  the  party’s  leadership  reflect  a  more  conservative  Islamic  orientation (Dayley).” Given its near-unprecedented popularity in last year’s elections, then, these leadership changes and greater turn towards conservative Islamism are helping PAS gain a greater share of the Malay Muslim vote. If this approach has brought success to date where liberal democracy has little precedent, one must ask: what incentive does PAS have to respect it?

A final perspective on the disjoint of Islamist politics and liberal democracy in Malaysia comes from Norani Othman (2006). A founding member of Sisters in Islam, a Muslim civil society group for promoting women’s rights research and advocacy within Islamic societies, Othman assists with research into foundational Islamic texts, policy briefs, and raising awareness about the plight of Muslim Malaysian women. Promoting freedom of (in practice), from (in heterodoxy) and within religion (living with human rights in a religious society), Othman describes Mahathir Mohamed’s prerogative in the 1980s to appeal to Muslim Malay citizens. The outcome of Mahathir’s “Islamization agenda”, Othman proclaims, was human and citizenship rights restrictions for Muslim women. Kubicek also identifies a critical juncture of Islamist political confrontation with the ruling coalition: in 2003, spurred by Mahathir’s previous declaration that Malaysia was an Islamic state, PAS rolled out a vision for an Islamic state of its own, including required hudud; mandatory sharia punishments that, beyond calling for severe corporal punishment for crimes such as apostasy and extramarital sex, discount the validity of a female witness’s testimony with that of a man. While affirming sharia’s status as unfit for contextual interpretation to account for the intricacies of Malaysian social relations, PAS also proclaimed that only an admitted Muslim could lead the country, rather than a Hindu or Buddhist one, even at the head of an established ethnic coalition.

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 2018.

For Othman (2006), fundamentalist Islamist politics is an outcome of the “politics of cultural identity and authenticity”, a need to redefine Islam’s place in state-society relations in a Muslim-majority country. Recalling PAS’s lack of incentives to abide by liberal democracy in a political space that has never welcomed it, Othman notes that part of the reaction from Islamist political organizations is based on this lack of precedent; coupled with fundamentalist Islam’s historical hold in rural Malay-majority areas, it becomes apparent why fringe conservative and local tribal leaders have prevailed in such settings, in which majoritarian Malay/Muslim views are rarely challenged, and women cannot consolidate rights gains in marriage/family law. With the added insult that, according to Othman, few Malay Muslim politicians question religious rulings from Islamic intellectuals and scholars as they are afraid of their base seeing them as anti-Islamic, Othman laments that Islamist conservatives “are thereby seeking to legitimize their mandatory institutionalisation within the order of modernity, which is itself a set of laws and regulations which are narrowly-defined and do not take into account contemporary social realities and simply ignore vast social changes in all modern societies.”

In the end, Sisters in Islam, and Othman with it, maintains that there exists a third way between the embrace of secularist-tinged Western feminism, and its outright rejection, for women to take, and challenging mainstream Islamist politics’ legislative “monopoly of interpretation” (Othman) in doing so. Othman accepts the need for Muslim women's groups to form broad coalitions and alliances and to work with progressive and democratic Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Such efforts include the reinterpretation of foundational Muslim texts, and laws made under an Islamic pretext.

In explaining the incompatibility of values of liberal democracy with Islamist politics in Indonesia and Malaysia, this piece draws on key insights in Southeast Asian political scholarship to construct its arguments. It first invokes Hefner to give due credit to the diversity in views in Islamist politics more widely, namely those more on the side of civic nationalism and receptiveness to basic liberal democratic concepts such as the rule of law and protection from minority rights, and conservatives who would rather see Islamic legal influence privileged over that of other faiths, even while paying lip service to the democratic arena playing host. Fossati’s recent insights also help dispel the counterproductive notion of Islamist movement supporters as a whole being anti-liberal democracy in Indonesia, showing that Islamist nationalist supporters have relatively more faith in democracy than secularists, though less faith in a system of checks and balances for the president reminiscent of liberal democracy; while the strength of these correlations diminish when considering data beyond Java, the direction of correlation remains the same for all. Finally, Menchik details the state’s passiveness towards vigilante violence against heterodox faiths. When not protected under Pancasila’s godly nationalism, he emphasizes, expressions of faith in Indonesia are not necessarily protected under the rule of law found in liberal democracies. Continuing its argument in Malaysia, this piece describes the rising popularity of Islamist political movements/parties such as PAS with Dayley, Kubicek’s, and others’ insights into the state’s historically complicated relationship with communalism and its Muslim Malay base. Finally, Othman describes the vitality of civil society organizations such as Sisters in Islam, stimulating discussion about Muslim Malaysian women’s missing voice in laws that jeopardize their human rights in a questionably democratic space without precedent for liberal democracy itself. While this piece has paid due tribute to organizations such as SII, and other civic modernist movements in Indonesia and Malaysia as a testament to the diversity of views within their Islamist politics, the ever-present mainstream Islamist opposition coalitions to both states’ governments in the present day signals very weak commitment to liberal democracy should they ever attain power.

Flag of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).


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Jack Zimakas

Editor-in-Chief and Staff Writer. Eager student and commentator on the political economy of state violence.