Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam

Sirojuddin Arif

Since the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of scholarly interests in religion among political scientists. Other than due to the influence of other specialists in the study of religion, whose questions and methodological improvements have linked the issue of religion to broader theoretical questions in comparative politics, this new interest in religion has also been sparked by political developments around the world that put religion at the center of current affairs. These developments boldly challenge the secularization theory, which drove political scientists away from religion. Now, it has been a new cliché to argue that religion does matter. Numerous works have shown the important role of religion in politics. However, what is less clear is which aspect of religion and how or when this aspect does make a difference.

Does Religious Piety Matter?

In Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam, Thomas Pepinsky, William Liddle, and Saiful Mujani aim to contribute to this debate by assessing the impacts of religious piety on Muslims’ political and economic behaviors in Indonesia. Against the Arab-centric biases, which consider Islam outside the Arab Middle East as peripheral and thus unrepresentative of the Muslim world, Pepinsky, Liddle, and Mujani argue that Indonesia is the right place to examine the relationship between Islam and politics. Other than being the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia is one of the world’s only consolidated Muslim democracies. This makes the country an excellent site to test the impact of religion on political and economic behavior at the individual level.

To leverage their theoretical statement and contribution, Pepinsky, Liddle, and Mujani assessed the impact of piety in three different issue areas: support for Islamist political parties, the use of Islamic banks, and foreign relations. For this purpose, the book draws on national surveys that collected information about Islamic religion as practiced by the respondents and their opinions about the issues studied. An experimental design was employed to facilitate the causal inference, especially concerning the impact of piety on the support for Islamist parties – defined as parties that holds Islam as its sole foundation and seeks to implement sharia law throughout Indonesia (p. 25). Besides, a new conceptualization of piety is proposed to strengthen the analysis. Throughout the book, piety is understood as a property of individuals, which is unobservable, multifaceted, and apolitical. This was measured by constructing a composite index that covers several questions about religious ritual, orientation and behaviors (pp. 29-32).

Nevertheless, given the rigor and sophistication of the approach employed, it is surprising to note that the book reported a null finding. In none of the above three issue areas did the authors find any significant impact of religious piety on Muslims’ political and economic behaviors. With regards to support for Islamist political parties, it is true that to some degree, Islamist parties had some electoral advantages compared to non-Islamist party among pious Muslims. However, this advantage emerged only when other parties have no clear economic policy platform. If voters can grasp economic platform of non-Islamist parties, the electoral advantage of Islamist parties would disappear even among the most pious Muslim voters.

The authors also found that religious piety had little influence on international relations and the utilization of Islamic banking by Muslims. After controlling the effect of demographic factors (age, sex, and urban or rural origins), they found that piety had no significant impacts on the use of Islamic financial products among Muslims. This means that ‘the most pious Indonesian Muslims are just as likely to report using banking product as their less pious Muslims’ (p. 115). Rather than piety, it is wealth and international orientation to the Muslim world that determine the use of Islamic banking. Thus, regardless of a person’s degree of piety, she or he is more likely to use Islamic financial products as the person had higher income and was more oriented to the global Muslim world. Similarly, it is orientation to the global Muslim world rather than religious piety that shape’s Muslims’ attitude towards foreign relations.

Consequences of the Null Finding

Depending on our expectations, the null finding reported above can be either a strength or weakness of this book. For some people, finding that religious piety has no role to play in shaping people’s economic and political behaviors is helpful to clarify some problems in explaining the effect of religion. But for readers like me, who prefers to see a practical implication of research on state policies or societal and individual actions, this null finding represents the weakness of the book. It does not add much to illuminate the current problems, such as the rise of identity politics, which confront Indonesia today. Rather than focusing on the ‘depth’ of religiosity that variables like piety capture very well, it would be more suitable to explain the dynamics of Islam in contemporary Indonesia in terms of variation in religious orientation, such as differences between conservative and moderate Muslims.

Besides, the null finding has made this book becomes theoretically less coherent. Except for their similar focus on Islam in Indonesia, the three empirical chapters (three, four, and five) that constitute the core of the book do not have common theoretical underpinning that holds them together and substantiates their theoretical claim. Thus, these chapters can be read separately without having to think about their linkages one another or the effect of piety. In fact, the contribution of the book to the study of religion and politics can be more substantial if it is framed not by the notion of religious piety. The chapters will be a good reading material for students of religion and politics, sociology of religion and Indonesian Islam. It remains for them to choose which part of the book serves their interests or curiosity best.