Indeed fears of overhauling, multi-leveled institutional transformations toward intolerance or ‘illiberalism’ have been a recurrent theme in Indonesia, retaining relevance today as a populist trend in political discourse, propagated by Prabowo Subianto, has been seemingly intertwined with conservative or fundamental Islamism. Notably, the concept of ‘Islamic populism’ has emerged, heightening both anxieties and confusion.[i] Indeed generally, the potential for transformative pivots away from pluralist, moderated socio-religious and political climates does not necessarily die in electoral defeat; nor does latent mass partiality to populist discourse. Regarding Indonesia, this reality appears to have rendered the open future opaque. However, situating potential contemporary ‘Islamic populism’ within a broader historical context of development can provide vital insight in considering the potential future of Indonesia’s political climate and policy environments. 

Early Islamic ‘identity Politics’: Toward Increasing Complexity

Considering the evolution Islamic ‘identity politics’’ periodic manifestations illuminates an eventual thorough integration with socio-economic development trends. Noting this is key in constructing an understanding of how populist politics emerged in the contemporary era of legitimate party democracy and the extent to which populist discourse could co-opt Indonesia’s relatively moderated political sphere.

Contemporary periods of conservative ‘Islamizations’ or Islamic-nationalism have their roots in the early 20th century. As many have pointed out, ‘Islamist’ ideology in line with the Arabian Peninsula’s Wahhabi tradition gained renewed traction, embodied in the emergence of a modernist trend of conservative Islamic mobilization. [ii]

In defiance of the historically heterogeneous nature of Islamic practice in Indonesia, which often incorporated/incorporates elements form Sufism and/or pre-Islamic traditions of veneration, modernists promoted a practice of Islam based solely on Wahhabist scriptural adherence to the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet—they mobilized with calls against veneration of anything or anyone except the ‘oneness’ of Allah (‘Tawhid’). In this way, modernism represented a ‘conservative’ practice of Islam through reliance on ‘traditional’ scriptural adherence. Indeed, the movement’s project was partially aimed toward bridging a perceived gap between Indonesia’s Sunni population and the Ummah (global community of Muslims), which some identify as inherently rooted in the Arabian Peninsula. The modernists came to embody early conservative ‘Islamism’ (fundamental, politically-oriented Islam) in Indonesia, establishing civil society organizations such as Muhammadiyah, although it has now largely diverged away from modernism.[iii]

Following independence, the modernist Masyumi party formed in 1945 – an official political party representing the modernist Islamist trend. At the same time, however, Sukarno and a post-colonial secular-nationalist elite generally maintained that the separation of Islam and state was necessary for a unified Indonesia and subsequent state development; a view reinforced by the presence of a largely Christian, ethnic-Chinese business-elite with an interest in maintaining official plurality. While the Masyumi Party garnered support throughout the 1950s ‘Guided Democracy’, it remained in ardent opposition to the conclusion of the Jakarta Charter Debate and the resulting absence of “Islam” in the constitution’s Pancasila ideology.

By 1960, Masyumi’s defiance of the state’s pluralist or quasi-secular ideology and structure prompted President Sukarno to officially ban its political activity, as he embarked on a protracted campaign to boost Pancasila ideology in order to attenuate Islamist activity, which had further manifested through the Darul Islam Rebellions. This period arguably marked the beginning of a distinct decline in pure ethno-cultural identity’s status as the predominant basis for civil and political contention. Indeed at this point, the pribumi (‘indigenous/native’) Muslim populace generally disaggregated into a-political Islamist ideologues and a largely politically moderate, tolerant citizenry. Within this public sphere, Pancasila ideology ascended toward a broadly accepted form of collective national-identity, as it supported plurality both across denominations and within Islam itself - Sufism and traditions of ‘mysticism’ continued to inform variations of Islamic practice.

Overall, the concepts of ‘socio-economic grievance’ and ‘identity politics’ are both central in considering emerging radical populist politics, but there has been a mainstream tendency to exaggerate ‘identity politics’’ role as the predominant basis for populism – in reality, these two concepts are inseparable. While the term ‘identity politics’ is widely used to characterize the nature of political contention within Indonesia, the term overemphasizes pure ethno-cultural ideology or identity as the underlying impetus for resurgent trends in conservative ‘Islamizations’ of daily life or collective-identity. Of course, one should not preclude the importance of ethno-cultural identity or ideology in political or social contention throughout Indonesia. However, after a rupture in conservative Islamic-nationalist ‘identity politics’ following Darul Islam’s defeat and the disbanding of Masyumi, a variety of popular socio-economic grievances and development trends came to robustly inform subsequent periodic surges in what appear as purely ethno-cultural ‘identity politics’. Post-Sukarno upsurges in advocacy for modernist ‘Islamizations’ of society became increasingly informed by the periodic manifestations of an evolving socio-economic climate, notably evident over Suharto’s subsequent ‘New Order’.

Socio-Economic Grievance through ‘Identity Politics’

Throughout the ‘New Order’, mass support for ‘Islamizations’ of Indonesian society presented in periodic forms of nascent, grassroots ethno-cultural Islamic-nationalism. Relative to the preceding era of relatively predominant Pancasila ideology under Sukarno, the early 1970s saw a general renewal of more conservative Islamic popular-identification and of calls for the institutionalization of ‘political Islam’. This renewal, it seems, was tied to the emergence of a uniquely pribumi Muslim middle-class. This middle-class began to take shape pre-independence, but had remained secondary to the successful quasi-secular business-class of a predominately ethnic-Chinese citizenry, cultivating a sentiment of economic marginalization.[iv] 

The perception, real or imagined, of marginalization was further reinforced by the lingering effects of neglect from the Sukarno era, during which authoritarian ‘statism’ prevailed within a conservative paradigm of capital development. As an indicator, in 1960, the overall poverty count in Indonesia was approximately 40 percent. However, in the mid-1970s, President Suharto undertook a robust ‘capital liberalization’ campaign, allowing for both increased private ownership over means of production and markedly expanded opportunities for foreign direct investment. The effects of this liberalization project were pronounced—industry and manufacturing constituted only 15 percent of production in 1960, but through reforms and increased foreign direct investment, it grew to account for 41.7 percent of production in 1980.[v] Manufacturing industry expansion is of course notably conducive to maximizing formal employment, and by 1980, the overall poverty count had dropped just below 20 percent. As this new pribumi middle-class experienced a precipitous elevation in socio-economic status, nascent ethno-cultural Islamic-nationalism was, in a sense, absorbed and attenuated by the emergent liberal capital paradigm. 

While a great deal of analysis draws attention to the broad trend of robust economic growth over the course of Suharto’s order, a closer look at discrete intervals shows points of stagnation in manufacturing industry growth relative to early periods of robust expansion. Notably, between 1980 and 1997, the manufacturing industry only grew from 41.7 to 44.3 percent of overall production, partially due to Suharto’s quasi-pivot back toward elite-managed, state-run enterprise and extractive industry in the mid-late 1980s. Indeed by 1990, Suharto’s apparent disparagement of pribumi Muslims’ economic and value priorities cultivated a collective sentiment that the general pribumi subordinate populace lacked representation in state development policies.[vi] Within this paradigm, Islam certainly provided a form of collective-identity through which to articulate such a grievance.

As a response to growing Islamic-nationalism, the establishment of ICMI (Indonesian Council of Muslim Intellectuals) in the same year sought to integrate Muslim intellectuals into economic policy decision-making, partially fulfilling the implied demands within the renewing Islamic-nationalist rhetoric. ICMI succeeded (at least in appearance) in propagating socio-economic integration by conveying ‘Islamizing’ class-coalitions a sense of representation within economic development policy. This likely stymied another progression toward full-blown conservative Islamic-nationalist mobilization.

Yet the sudden 1997 financial crisis confounded matters, leaving vast segments of the population in more precarious financial situations. Such losses and hardships generally reinforce solidarity along varying lines of identification, as pervious socioeconomic-class alignments are perturbed. For the pribumi Muslim ethno-cultural majority, this line of identification again became Islam, and calls for the re-opening of the Jakarta Charter Debate gained traction in the political sphere through both the ‘Islamic’ PPP and PBB parties. The debate officially re-opened in 1998 in the midst of economic turmoil. However, economic recovery soon mitigated widespread grievance, as annual GDP growth renewed, increasing precipitously from roughly -12 percent over 1997-1998 to approximately +5 percent in 2000. Furthermore, as a simultaneous turn toward legitimate party democracy was initiated, Islamist advocacy faltered alongside Islamic party fragmentation, and the debate was finally closed at the turn of the century without an official addition of “Islam” to Pancasila.

Pluralist socio-religious ideology endured decades to eventually inform re-democratization. Moreover, while mass alignments with ‘Islamizations’ or nascent Islamic-nationalism have routinely presented and subsequently attenuated along similar lines, such periods have never actually evidenced critical mass support for radical, ‘illiberal’ state transformations. Whether this holds true in the future is partially dependent upon the degree of contemporary populist discourse entrenchment.

Populism, Islamic Politics, and the Open Future

By definition, ‘populist politics’ references an appeal to the virtue of the ‘average’ citizenry. Unlike a political ideology, populism has been best described as a mode of political mobilization usually leveraged from the top down.[vii] The current global trend of populism makes such an appeal largely by critiquing ideological moderation in the political sphere resulting from widespread convergence on transnational, neoliberal policy forms that appear to only favor ‘elites’. While populism is inherently connected to perceptions of socio-economic marginalization, in Indonesia such grievances are often articulated through a self-identifying ethno-cultural majority.

As a consequence, socio-economic grievances can appear in the form of ethno-cultural nationalism. In considering this, populism can also characterize a latent political identity or mode of discourse amongst a constituency—a sub-current within ethno-cultural majorities partial to ‘strong-man’, charismatic leadership and policy solely befitting the elevation of their own ethno-cultural community, even at the expense of existing liberal, tolerant institutions. In this way, populist discourse, it seems, can add to the degrees of intolerance advocated through any conservative reform trend in Indonesia.

Historically, challenges presented by periods of conservative ‘Islamization’ advocacy have escalated and deescalated in conjunction with both macroeconomic and social integration trends in Indonesia. It is evident that perceptions of socio-economic marginalization and the availability of Islam as an identity through which to articulate grievances partially form the foundations of historically recurrent surges of Islamic conservatism or nationalism.

However, it is principally the emergence of powerful, charismatic opposition leaders in defiance of ‘established elites’ and/or marginalizing policy paradigms in party democracies that ignites populist politics. Populist political discourse did indeed manifest over the recent campaign, appealing to and reinvigorating latent fundamental Islamic conservatism.

While late 20th century periods of conservative ‘Islamization’ advocacy did not necessarily call for authoritarian-style representation or the active marginalization of differing ethno-cultural minorities, a climate of ‘Islamic populism’ can certainly breed such calls. However, based on the trajectory of the recent elections, Indonesia still appears able to absorb and moderate emergent radical, conservative currents. In this way, the outlook over the state’s future political climate appears promising for moderation.

The articulation of a positive relationship between the central state and key Islamic civil society organizations is a decisive factor influencing perceptions of corruption and marginalization or neglect, which populist discourse thrives upon. This articulation is grounded in successful concessionary interactions between President Widodo’s quasi-secular, ‘social democratic’ capitalist platform and the organizational leadership of Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organizations (Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah).

Visible relationships between Islamic civil society and the state that are conducive to development reinforce multi-leveled social or ethno-cultural integration, dampening support for divergence into radical forms of ethno-cultural mobilization. Prabowo Subianto was able to leverage an initially-successful populist appeal to Indonesia’s Sunni Muslim ethno-cultural majority by basically validating resurgent forms of conservative Islamic-nationalism as legitimate responses to a corrupted and out-of-touch or neglectful elite and an inauspicious global order. However, broadly situating the political economy of Indonesia’s political regime in the context of global trends and popular perceptions evidences a seemingly entrenched resilience to such appeals.

Despite contemporary pressures from globalization, the project of neoliberal hegemony, situating the market largely outside of state control and, arguably, at the disposal of a ‘transnational-elite’, has not been entrenched as the overall paradigm shaping the political economy of development in Indonesia. Indeed, contemporary Indonesian political-elites have maintained only a ‘hybrid’ or quasi-neoliberal policy agenda – particularly with regard to foreign economic policy.

Domestically, unity still appears to trump individualism in general ideology. While the liberalization of daily life has been championed by political elites and by moderates of all religious traditions, socio-economic development has taken a relatively more ‘social democratic’ capitalist form. As an example, Jaminan Kesehatan Nasional (JKN) is a state-run universal healthcare scheme that launched in 2014, which aims to implement universal coverage across the archipelago by 2019. Results have been promising, but there is still potential for expansion.

The 2020 national budget should be encouraging, as it’s allegedly aimed toward reinvigorating social spending and infrastructure development, albeit through a modest increase from 2019. Yet realistically, the fulfillment of development aspirations will depend on a myriad of factors outside of state control, including the nature of both foreign investment and export demand.

Generally, programs such as JKN, together with increased opportunities in the formal employment sector, buttress moderated political or macro-policy climates against the forms of mass popular resentment and radicalization upon which populist politics or discourses thrive.

With all of this in mind, one potentially salient caveat to Indonesia’s relative separation from overall neoliberal orthodoxy is the state’s continued reliance on the dominance of extractive industry. While extractive industry generates critical capital, foreign direct investment in retail and/or manufacturing is more conducive to positive, integrating socio-economic development, as it more robustly increases formal employment. In this regard, the state has been able to maintain a critical balance, which has reinforced a plural and relatively moderated socio-political order. This order is largely accepted or rejected insofar as it continues integrating various socio-economic stratifications into the economy and overall nation-state, mitigating real or perceived marginalization.

Labour market expansion will likely proceed in conjunction with social infrastructure, public health, and manufacturing or retail sector development. Subsequently, trajectories of both foreign direct investment and state development policy are crucial components in diffusing potentially latent radical populist currents associated with conservative Islamism through appeals to ethno-cultural majorities.

As long as foreign direct investment is diversified, while the state continues to pursue widely beneficial social integration and infrastructure development projects, it is unlikely that a form of ‘Islamic populism’ will produce an ‘illiberal’ societal transformation in either the near or far future.

About the author: Charles Baker recently graduated from Yale University with B.A. in Political Science, focusing primarily on Indonesia and the MENA region. He is currently finishing his MSc. in Political Sociology at The London School of Economics, where he devotes his time to studying Islamic politics, economic sociology, and the emerging global trend of populism. He also speaks Bahasa Indonesia.

[i] Hadiz, Vedi. (2016). Islamic Populism in Indonesia and the Middle East. (Cambridge University Press).

[ii] Solahudin. (2013). Chpt. 1 in The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: Darul Islam to Jem’ah Islamiyah. (Cornell University Press).

[iii] Solahudin. (2013). Chpt. 1 in The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: Darul Islam to Jem’ah Islamiyah. (Cornell University Press).

[iv] Sidel, John. (2008). “The Social Origins of Democracy Revisited: Colonial State and Chinese Immigrant in The Making of Modern Southeast Asia.” Comparative Politics.

[v] Numerical data taken from: World Bank. (2004). “Indonesia: Rapid Growth, Weak Institutions”.

[vi] Hefner, Robert. (1993). “Islam, State and Civil Society: The ICMI and the Struggle for the Middle-Class in Indonesia”. Indonesia.

[vii] Jansen, Robert. (2011). “Populist Mobilization: A New Theoretical Approach to Populism”. Sociological Theory.

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