The Changing Landscape of Political Islam in Indonesia: A Backgrounder | Alexander R. Arifianto


Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, is considered a prime example of a successful democracy with a Muslim majority society. Leading Indonesian Muslim organizations and intellectuals have promoted its brand of moderate Islam.

Recently, such a reputation had come under serious challenge. New and more theologically conservative Islamist groups gained traction and influence over moderate groups in the past two decades. This trend became clear when Islamists staged a series of protest rallies in 2016 and 2017. Many observers perceived this development as a direct challenge to the authority of the ruling regime led by President Joko Widodo.

In response to these challenges, the regime initiated measures to suppress the extremist groups via a state-led initiative of bolstering the Islamic credentials of moderate groups. However, many observers considered that these measures undermined the freedom of expression of Islamists and other dissenters alike. The measures are also perceived to have led to a regression in Indonesia’s progress towards further democratization.

The Conventional Divide: Traditionalists and Modernists

Islam in Indonesia is known for its theological, ideological, and political diversity. However, the Islamic field has long shaped by theological divisions between two groups: traditionalists and modernists.

The traditionalists consist of Islamic clerics (ulama) and those who emphasize the obedience of lay Muslims toward the ulama and their teachings (taqlid). Traditionalists also emphasize the localized rituals that often blend Islamic and pre-Islamic religious practices. Traditionalists are primarily represented by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organization, which today claims approximately 90 million followers.

The modernists tend to reject absolute obedience toward the ulama while emphasizing one’s own independent reasoning (ijtihad) as the proper way to interpret Islamic teachings. Modernists are primarily represented by Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization that has approximately 30 million followers.

Founded during the Dutch colonial period, NU and Muhammadiyah have commanded significant political influence since Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Initially, both organizations, along with other Islamic groups, called for Indonesia to become an Islamic state and mandated its president and other officeholders to be Muslims. However, secular nationalists -led by Indonesia’s founding president Soekarno– rejected this demand due to their desire to preserve Indonesia as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state.

Over the next four decades, various Indonesian Islamic organizations – including NU and Muhammadiyah – sought to enact proposals to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state through democratic means – by forming political parties and participating in the country’s first democratic parliamentary election held in 1955. However, their insistence to amend the Indonesian Constitution to declare the country as an Islamic state created a stalemate between them and their secular nationalist counterparts during Indonesia’s first democratic period (1950 – 1959).

As this debate turned out to be irreconcilable, Soekarno dissolved the Indonesian Parliament and Constituent Assembly in July 1959. This decision ended Indonesia’s parliamentary democracy and marked the beginning of four decades of authoritarian rule under Soekarno (1959-1967) and his successor General Suharto (1967-1998).

Islam under Authoritarian Rule, 1959-1998

Both Soekarno and Suharto launched a crackdown against any oppositional force that sought to threaten their rule – particularly Islamic organizations. In 1959, modernist Muslims were hit hard after Soekarno prohibited the Masyumi Party, which represented their constituency. Suharto reaffirmed the ban when he assumed office. Meanwhile, NU initially supported Suharto’s ascendancy but fell out of favor with him when it opposed a family law reform he initiated.

Until the late 1970s, NU and Muhammadiyah’s opposition to the Suharto regime was grounded on the belief that Islamic theological principles took precedence over Indonesia’s nationalist ideology enshrined in the Pancasila (five principles), respectively: belief in one monotheistic God, humanism, national unity, democracy through consensus, and social justice for all Indonesians.

However, the outlook of these two organizations changed during the 1980s and 1990s under new leadership.

Within NU, Abdurrahman Wahid, the grandson of its founder, became the organization’s chairman in 1984. Over the next 15 years, Wahid gradually changed NU’s theological outlook from one that favored the establishment of an Islamic state to one that integrated Islamic values with democracy, tolerance, and religious pluralism.

A similar transformation also occurred within Muhammadiyah leadership under Ahmad Syafii Ma’arif. He promoted the concept of cultural proselytization (dakwah kultural), in which Muhammadiyah engaged under the context of a modern and multicultural Indonesian society. He promoted initiatives such as interfaith dialogue and cooperation with Indonesians from diverse ethnic and religious background to address a wide range of socio-economic problems.

Most importantly, senior leaders and activists from both organizations played an important role during the 1997/98 opposition movement against Suharto, which led to his eventual ouster in May 1998. Both organizations also played a key role during the subsequent democratic transition and formed their own political parties to participate actively in the newly opened public sphere.

At the same time, however, old rivalries between NU and Muhammadiyah also resurfaced. For instance, when Abdurrahman Wahid became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president in 1999, his relationship with then Muhammadiyah leader Amien Rais quickly deteriorated. Rais launched a campaign to impeach Wahid in July 2001. While the relationship between the two organizations improved afterward, sectarian tensions resurfaced from time to time, especially when they competed for political favors and positions within the Indonesian government.

The Rise of New Islamist Groups

Many NU and Muhammadiyah clerics and activists became active in national and regional politics after Indonesia transitioned to democracy. As a result, religious nurturing and proselytization activities were neglected, particularly among young, university-educated middle-class professionals. The newer Islamist groups, which increasingly gained prominence in Indonesia’s open and competitive religious ‘marketplace of ideas’ during the 2000s and 2010s, exploited this vacuum.

While Suharto’s tight surveillance policy targeted ‘extremist’ clerics and activists, the Islamists survived through small, cell-like underground organizations at state universities and sympathetic mosques during his rule. Islamist activists re-emerged during the late 1990s, taking advantage of the new freedom of expression that came about during Indonesia’s democratic transition.

One of these groups, the Tarbiyah (‘nurture’) movement is influenced by Ikhwanul Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) of Egypt. Another, Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), is a branch of the transnational Hizbut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) movement and advocates for Indonesia to be part of a global Islamic caliphate.

In addition to these groups, various small Islamist groups influenced by Wahhabi and Salafi theologies have grown in size and influence. One such movement is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), founded by a group of Hadhrami-descent clerics. Heavily influenced by Salafi theology, FPI became one of the most controversial Islamist groups in Indonesia due to the high frequency of its gratuitous violent assaults against religious minorities.

Over time, Islamists challenged the authority of NU and Muhammadiyah to speak for Islam in Indonesia. Through creative and innovative proselytization methods, they attracted the younger generation of Muslims, middle-class professionals, and others who are no longer interested in traditional preaching methods deployed by NU and Muhammadiyah clerics. Islamist groups and preachers used innovative preaching methods via the internet and social media and utilized outlets such as campus preaching organizations, community-based study groups (known as majelis taklim), and even upscale shopping malls as venues to gain new followers.

The rapidly growing influence of Islamism in Indonesia did not attract much public attention until the 2016/17 public rallies known as Defending Islam Movement in Jakarta. Over a million Muslims attended a series of public rallies organized by FPI, HTI, and dozens of other Islamist groups. They demanded the ouster of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – a close ally of President Widodo. After Purnama’s ouster and subsequent conviction of alleged religious blasphemy charges, the group positioned  itself as the leading opposition against Widodo’s 2019 re-election, accusing him of being an “un-Islamic president.”

Widodo Regime’s Response to the New Islamists

As a response, Widodo implemented a two-pronged strategy to inoculate himself from the Islamist challenge.

First, the state issued legal prohibitions against HTI (in 2017) and FPI (in 2020), and prosecuted the leaders of the Defending Islam movement, such as FPI supreme leader Rizieq Shihab.

Second, Widodo embraced NU and turned it into his major Islamic ally. NU could provide a substantial voting bloc to assure Widodo’s re-election with its approximately 90 million followers. It also runs its own youth militia organization – Ansor – that could be mobilized to counter the mobilization of FPI and other Islamist groups.

Thanks to his alliance with NU, Widodo managed to neutralize the Islamist opposition. In return, he bestowed senior political appointments to NU leaders and politicians, including positions of Vice President (to NU supreme leader Ma’ruf Amin) and Minister of Religious Affairs (to Ansor chairman Yaqut Choilil Qoumas).

However, Widodo’s move against the Islamists is widely considered part of a series of policies to facilitate Indonesia’s democratic backsliding since he first assumed office in 2014. His authoritarian policies included the frequent invocation of the Electronic Information and Transaction Law against his regime’s critics who voiced opposition through the internet and social media.  

Meanwhile, NU’s close alliance with Widodo is also criticized as a violation of its commitment to promoting democratic pluralism that NU adapted during the mid-1980s. Some NU activists have accused the organization of promoting a ‘statist Islam’ by aligning itself too closely with the Widodo regime.

Is There a Trade-Off between Fighting Extremism and Keeping Democratic Practices?

In conclusion, the increasing competition in the religious ‘marketplace of ideas’ after Indonesia’s democratic transition led to the rising prominence of Islamism in contemporary Indonesia. The Islamists filled the demand for religious content as mainstream moderate groups like NU and Muhammadiyah became preoccupied with Indonesian politics, especially during Indonesia’s democratic transition.

While the Widodo administration and moderate groups like NU are rightly concerned with rising Islamism, the repressive methods they have adopted to address it threatens Indonesia’s track record of democratic norms and freedom of expression to all its citizens.

As an alternative, they should counter the Islamist challenge by maintaining democratic norms in the Indonesian religious marketplace while utilizing various platforms such as social media to compete with their Islamist counterparts.


Alexander R Arifianto is a Research Fellow with the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His articles on political Islam in Indonesia have been published in refereed journals such as Religion, State, and Society; Asia Policy; Trans-National and – Regional Studies of Southeast Asia (TRaNS); and Asian Security. Follow him on Twitter at @DrAlexArifianto

Photo Credit: National Information and Communication Agency Republic of Indonesia
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights. 

6 thoughts on “The Changing Landscape of Political Islam in Indonesia: A Backgrounder | Alexander R. Arifianto

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