Balancing Act: Political Engagement and Muslim Theologians in Indonesia

Indonesia’s Islamic religious elites have been increasingly involved in politics since the fall of the New Order in 1998. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, Islamic political parties like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Partai Islam Persatuan Tarbiyah Islamiyah (PERTI), Partai Syarikat Islam Indonesia (PSII), and Partai Muslimin Indonesia (PARMUSI) operated under a single party, the United Development Party (PPP). In 1984, NU withdrew from formal politics after its chairman, Abdurahman Wahid (or Gus Dur), declared the organization should focus on Islamic education and welfare.

The fall of Suharto triggered the democratisation process, bringing Islamic political parties other than the PPP to the forefront of Indonesia’s political scene. Even NU and Muhammadiyah members participated in the electoral process through new vehicles like PKB and PAN. However, there has been a blurring between political and religious figures, with Gus Dur becoming Indonesia’s fourth president in 1999 and Muhammadiyah Chairman Amien Rais being elected as the speaker of MPR between 1999-2004.

This article focuses on the attitudes of religious elites or theologians towards political involvement, including ulama, popular preachers, and ordinary religious teachers who are not career politicians. They have moved beyond the confines of religious schools and use alternative platforms like travelling roadshows and social media. The question remains whether more religious figures will be swayed to participate in political campaigns in the 2024 elections.

Muslims believe in Islam as an all-encompassing religion, as reflected in the Quranic verse. However, Islamic scriptures offer general ideas and principles, which are interpreted by scholars to suit their time and space. The Muslim resurgence movement in the 1970s introduced a different approach, offering alternative systems to the West, which it deems “secular.” A faction of the movement, known as political Islamists, believed in upholding Shariah laws and forming an Islamic state. Post-Islamists, on the other hand, emphasized community work and developing Shariah-compliant lifestyles rather than pushing for hard rules in the form of a state.

Progressives, on the other hand, emphasized moral values like justice, honesty, equality, and moderation as the essence of Islam’s comprehensiveness. They argued that the Quran and Sunnah do not specify clear injunctions to establish a particular form of government or call for the formation of Islamic parties. They accepted that modern political and social concepts, such as constitutions, liberal democracy, separation of powers, rule of law, and checks and balances, also manifest these principles.

Indonesia, with its largest Muslim population, has political parties for direct electoral participation. Contemporary Indonesian theologians do not question the existence of Islamic political parties, but their attitudes towards the role of religious elites vary. They support direct political participation and political parties promoting Islamic values, while others keep a distance from politics altogether.

The inseparability of Islam and politics has been a longstanding debate in Indonesia. In the past, disagreements depended on whether Islamic parties should exist, but Abdul Wahab Chasbullah, a key NU kya, suggested that separating politics from Islam was futile. This view became the doctrinal foundation for the existence of Islamic parties, including NU, which was actively involved in electoral politics in the 1955 election and the 1970s.

In the early 1970s, Nurcholish Madjid, also known as Cak Nur, launched a campaign to differentiate Islam from politics, advocating for Islamic moral teachings over political expressions. This led to widespread support among Indonesian Muslims, who have historically supported nationalist parties.

However, several Muslim politicians have been displeased with Cak Nur’s slogan, arguing that Muslims must vote for Islamic parties on Islamic teachings. Former minister of religion and chairman of PPP, Suryadharma Ali, called Cak Nur’s slogan “a poison” and compared it to abandoning Muslims’ responsibility to promote Islamic interests.

Cak Nur’s credibility has been questioned due to his inconsistency in thought and political realism, with Hidayat Nur Wahid, former president of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Prosperous Party, revealing he altered his slogan in the early 2000s.

Muslim career politicians and intellectuals in Indonesia are divided on whether politicians and political parties can effectively promote Islamic causes. These views are often overlooked in academic writings, as theologians’ power bases are at the grassroots levels. There are thousands of these personalities spread across Indonesia, and their diverse voices can be divided into those living in Java versus those outside Java, local religious schools versus national leaders, and those whose authority is tied to religious institutions versus online influencers.

There are two schools of thought among contemporary religious elites regarding the role Muslims should play in party politics. Ustaz Abdul Somad, a popular and controversial preacher, is positive about political power and believes that political power has a bigger impact than religious sermons. He encourages Indonesians to participate in the electoral process as voters and mentions that voting responsibly is part of religion.

Surveys consistently show that Abdul Somad’s popularity surpasses that of his counterparts, and he is famous in Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. In 2019, presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto offered him as his running mate, but he declined due to his lack of political and administrative skills. However, Abdul Somad openly encouraged Indonesians to participate in the electoral process as voters and mentioned how voting responsibly is part of religion.

NU kya Gus Bahauddin Nursalim, a master of Islamic theology, jurisprudence, and Sufism, advocates for pious politicians and a solid connection to Islamic parties and candidates. He believes that religion can contribute to society’s betterment if it includes political parties, money, and knowledge. Gus Baha also encourages Muslims to not abandon Islamic parties despite their abysmal showing throughout the country’s political history.

He also suggests that traditionalist ulama should not be afraid of holding public offices or being close to political authority. He believes that if traditionalist ulama are not close to officeholders, their beliefs and sites of worship will not be shielded from Salafi-Wahhabi (purist) criticisms.

However, some prominent ulama in Indonesia, including those living outside Java, do not need to be involved in politics or be close to politicians to assert their authority. They often avoid the limelight and power contestations altogether, focusing on teaching and leading local religious schools. They believe that the intrusion of politics into the religious realm is dangerous and focuses on sincerity and the hereafter, in contrast to politics, which promotes worldly interests.

Unlike ulama from several big pesantren in East and Central Java who have a history of openly supporting presidential candidates, these ulama speak up about their concerns with political manipulation.

In South Kalimantan, the late Guru Muhammad Zaini Sekumpul from Martapura represented a school of thought that rejects formal politics and encourages unity within the community. In a viral online video, Guru Zaini criticized politicians for politicizing the community and promoting selling political support. Salafi preacher Ustaz Khalid Basalamah also refrains from formal politics, stating that politics is “slippery” and that he contributes more to the ummah by teaching religion.

Buka Yahya Zainul Ma’arif, the leader of a boarding school in West Java and the Islamic centre Al-Bahjah in Cirebon, shares Guru Zaini’s views and prefers politicians not to visit his school during election campaigns. Although politicians bring donations when given the chance to speak before the Al-Bahjah community, Buya Yahya values political independence as it allows for objective thinking about candidates.

In 2017, Buya Yahya commented on political issues, criticizing President Joko Widodo for protecting Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or Anok) and joining a group of ulama to support Jokowi’s main rival, Prabowo Subianto. Despite some arguing for “double standards,” he consistently denied receiving material offers from political parties and candidates during elections.

Habib Taufiq As-Segaff, a Ba’alawi preacher and current chairman of Rabithah Alawiyah, warns against ulama who spend much time around rulers, as they have betrayed the Prophet Muhammad. This comment has offended many NU kiais, who believe that staying away from ulama with close relations with the government is wrong and unacceptable. Theologians who shun politics do not fully reject having guests from political circles and elites at their religious schools but do not give politicians the stage to reap political capital and rally support.

They pray for the rulers but understand the behaviour of some Indonesian politicians and the potential use of money and funds to rally support. While donating to an Islamic cause is an Islamic virtue, doing so for political reasons is a disvalue, and several of the religious elite reject such donations.

Balancing ActBalancing Act: Political Engagement and Muslim Theologians in IndonesiaIndonesiaMuslimNahdlatul Ulama (NU)Partai Islam Persatuan Tarbiyah Islamiyah (PERTI)Partai Muslimin Indonesia (PARMUSI)Partai Syarikat Islam Indonesia (PSII)Political Engagement and Muslim Theologians in Indonesia