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Friday, 4 June, 1999, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Battle for Indonesia's Islamic vote
Dressed for the mosque, new political recruits for the Justice Party
By Jakarta correspondent Jonathan Head

Indonesia Flashpoints
Around 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslims, making this the world's largest Muslim nation. That makes Islam potentially the strongest force in the June 7 election. Out of a total of 48 parties taking part, 19 either describe themselves as Islamic or base their ideologies on Islam.

This has raised the prospect of an Islamic government coming to power for the first time in Indonesia's history, but it almost certainly won't happen.

Correspondent Jonathan Head
The very number of Islamic parties contesting the election has fragmented the Muslim vote. Of course if they could form a coalition - but even then there's no guarantee that the combined vote of all the Muslim parties would give them a majority of the seats in parliament.

Many Indonesian Muslims practice a very relaxed form of their faith, and are unlikely to choose Islamic parties.

The appeal of other ideologies like nationalism or economic liberalism is also traditionally strong in Indonesia. Many Indonesians regard their religion as a personal matter which has no role in government.

Moreover, significant areas of the country are inhabited by people of other faiths. Much of sparsely-populated eastern Indonesia, for example, is Christian, and in the past governments have always resisted calls by more orthodox Muslims for the introduction of Sharia Law for fear it might encourage separatism in the non-Muslim parts of the country.

Differences of view

Even among more devout Muslims there are profound differences over the role Islam should play in government. Abdurrahman Wahid heads the largest Muslim organisation in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama, with more than 30 million members.

World's largest muslim nation
Most of his followers live in rural areas of the main island of Java, and follow a traditional form of Islam. He argues that bringing Islam into the heart of government would encourage religious conflicts in Indonesia, and would have a corrupting influence on his faith.

"If the new parties want Islam to be a moral or educational force in politics, that's OK", he says, "but if they want to tinker with the laws of this country, then we must resist that".

Out in Mr Wahid's home town of Jombang, one of his followers, Muslim teacher Kyai Amanullah, agrees. "Indonesia is a pluralist country - we have all sorts of people here, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians - if we just base it on Islam, it won't work".

Islam was barred from politics for 30 years
For the past thirty two years President Suharto also opposed allowing Islam any formal role in politics. Ironically, though, his repressive methods only encouraged the development of more radical forms of Islam.

Political parties were heavily restricted, but in this deeply religious country he did not dare to stop social activities in the mosques, and they became centres of political activism. Barred from following other ideologies, many young Indonesians saw Islam as a force which could rejuvenate the country and cleanse it of the greed and corruption of the Suharto era.

Radical alternative

One of the most dynamic new parties campaigning for a central role for Islam is the Justice Party. "Can you rule the people by lying to them?", asks Justice Party President Nurmachmudi Ismail, a young American-educated scientist. "You cannot separate politics from ethical values".

The Justice Party wants to introduce Sharia Law as a new form of moral guidance, but Nurmachmudi insists it would not be imposed. In fact, he argues all of Indonesia's religions should have some input in the next government.

Calls for better economic deal

The fact that most of Indonesia's poorest citizens are Muslim, and its richest tend to be non-Muslim ethnic Chinese, has long been a source of friction which has periodically led to anti-Chinese rioting.

Many parties support some form of economic re-distribution - they use the term 'People's Economy' - although they are vague about how that should happen.

That's about as radical as the Muslim parties get in Indonesia. None espouses the rigidly conservative forms of Islam found in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Of the big five political parties - those with a real chance of winning more then ten percent of the seats - only two are Islamic. One, the National Awakening Party of PKB which follows Abdurrahman Wahid, is certain to resist any moves to create a more Islamic government. The other, the United Development Party or PPP, has an uncertain Islamic identity after 25 years of existence as one of only three parties allowed under Suharto.

That means whichever government emerges after the election, it is almost certain to continue the secular approach to politics of its predecessors.

If, however, the new government fails to address Indonesia's deep-rooted social and economic problems over the next few years, an Islamic alternative might become more appealing.

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See also:

03 Jun 99 | SPECIAL REPORT
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04 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
03 Jun 99 | SPECIAL REPORT
04 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
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