The Newsletter 78 Autumn 2017

Democracy, State Elites, and Islamist Activists in Indonesia

Sirojuddin Arif

Reviewed title:
Michael Buehler. 2016.
The Politics of Shari’a Law: Islamist Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107130227

In this important book, Michael Buehler attempts to explain the cause of Islamization of politics in Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto’s New Order military regime in 1998. Between 1998 and 2013, the country witnessed no less than 443 sharia regulations adopted by provincial and district/city governments across the country. This figure is remarkably high given the marginal status of Islam under Soeharto’s New Order. Against this background, Buehler asks what factor drives the proliferation of such regulations and how this factor works under Indonesia’s new democratic system.

Drawing on a comparative historical analysis of sharia policy making in West Java and South Sulawesi, Buehler shows how pressures from Islamist social movements have led many sub-national governments to adopt sharia regulations. He disagrees with the claim that the emergence of Islamist parties was the main force behind the adoption of sharia’s regulations. The poor performance of these parties in the Indonesia’s electoral system does not support such a claim. Rather than influences of Islamist parties, it is the collaboration between state elites and Islamist activists that drives the proliferation of sharia regulations in many different parts of the country. While Islamist parties and Islamist social movements share the same agenda of ‘Islamizing’ the state, differences in the political origins of their development determine the different ways they work under Indonesia’s new democratic system. Unlike Islamist parties, which faced fierce political competition from nationalist and religious-nationalist parties, Islamist social movements had a relatively large political space to articulate their demands for Islamization of politics.

One of the main strengths of the book lays on its novel theoretical approach to the study of political Islam in contemporary Indonesia. Unlike many previous works on this subject, which mostly focused on the activities of Islamic and Islamist groups and/or institutions,1 See Iqra Anugrah. 2015. ‘Recent studies on Indonesian Islam: A sign of Intellectual exhaustion?’,  Indonesia 100:105-16.  Buehler draws on a state–society relations approach to explain the rise of sharia regulations. According to him, the key to explain the politics of sharia policymaking across different regions in Indonesia is to understand how changes in power dynamics within the state define not only the nature of competition among different political actors but also state–Islam relations.

As laid out in Chapter 2, the relationship between Islam and the state was mostly antagonistic throughout the New Order. Some engagements that Soeharto showed since the early 1990s did not eradicate the prevailing tensions between Islam and the state. At local level, the rise of the New Order implied a couple of things: (1) the creation of new elites consisting of military personnel and state bureaucrats; and (2) maintaining of the old tension between old aristocracy and a new class of social elites consisting of rich Muslim farmers and traders, who often casted their opposition against the old aristocrats as well as the New Order in Islamist terms. Yet the collapse of Soeharto’s military regime in 1998 has changed the future trajectory of political relations between these different groups. Rather than being antagonistic, state elites and Islamist activists now often engaged in mutual collaborations, albeit with different purposes, in ‘Islamizing’ politics at local level.

It is true that the collapse of Soeharto’s regime did not necessarily eliminate the influence of the old elites nurtured by the New Order. But unlike in the previous era, in which political appointments were determined by the centralized power of the central government, aspiring leaders now have to gain popular support from voters to be elected as governors, district heads or city mayors. This allowed Islamist activists to capitalize their social capital and networks in the new political terrain created by democracy. Unlike Islamist parties, which struggled hard to expand their influence among voters, Islamist social movements provided the prospective leaders with large political resources to support their bid for local leadership. The fierce competition created by Indonesia’s direct election system for governors, district heads and mayors makes it possible for Islamist activists to use their social capital and vast networks in both rural and urban areas as bargaining power to support aspiring leaders in exchange of sharia regulations.

By tracing the development of sharia policy making since beginning of the New Order, The Politics of Shari’a Law offers a fresh look at the evolution of state–Islam relations in Indonesia especially at the local level. Nevertheless, despite its rich data and detailed historical analysis, the book leaves some questions unanswered. First, it is widely known that Islam in Indonesia is not a homogenous entity. Yet it seems to me that the book covers areas dominated by modernist Muslims. In fact, a substantial part of Indonesian Muslims adheres to the traditionalist version of Islamic teaching. It is interesting to know how the collapse of the New Order affects state–Islam relations in areas dominated by traditionalist Muslims. Besides, it is also interesting to know how traditionalist Muslims respond to the demand of Islamization of politics by Islamist activists.

Second, it is also known that nationalism has deeply affected not only the development of state ideology but also political contestation in Indonesia. At the national level, the failure of Islamist parties to promote Islamist causes in the constitution amendment in the early 2000s resulted from the strong resistance of the nationalists in the parliament. It is unfortunate that Buehler’s work does not say much about the nationalists’ stance on sharia regulations at the local level.

Nevertheless, regardless of the above questions about the respond of the nationalists and traditionalist Muslims to sharia regulations, Buehler has made a significant contribution to the study of Indonesian political Islam. His work clearly shows how social science and comparative method can be applied to enhance our theoretical understanding of democracy and political Islam. Buehler’s hypothesis about the effect of power dynamics within the state on the development of political Islam deserves further attention not only from students of comparative politics but also Islamic and Indonesian studies.