Radicalization from Below: The Case of Religious Bylaws

Memories of numerous bombing attacks in big cities and churches as well as the dramatic terrorist captures by the police may give an image of contemporary battles against Islamic radicalism in newly-democratized Indonesia. But think about this: rather than blowing-up buildings, some Islamist groups attempt to push the agenda of Sharia implementation through non-violent, formal and even electoral political processes.

In the euphoria of Post-Suharto reform, the blooming of religious bylaws has spread throughout the archipelago. Immature decentralization, completed with economic gap between central and local governments, has provided rooms for radical agenda to mushroom. One manifestation of this agenda is to implement strict interpretation of Islamic norms and values into local ordinances. Some examples of these bylaws are, but not limited to, Islamic dress code for students and government officials at schools and offices on certain days, raids on women alleged for prostitution and other moral misconducts at night and ban on alcohols, clubs and other entertainment activities.

In some places such as Bulukumba in Sulawesi and Bogor in West Java, some Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Preparatory Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Sharia (KPPSI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) even go further, publicly claim and preach the importance of Sharia as a panacea for all societal problems and gain support from some elements, both from local communities as well as from the government, proven by the attendance of some government officials in their forums.

There have been many reports, news, and research in regards to this phenomenon. However, one question remains unanswered: Where do political parties fit within this discourse? The role of political parties in local parliaments is still an unfilled gap in the context of the so-called Shariatization from below. Some experts, such as Assyaukanie (2007), pointed out some indications that these bylaws are supported not only by Islamic political parties but also by their Secular Nationalist counterparts as well.

Another interesting feature of the relationship between political parties and religious bylaws is the difference of stances between central or national leadership of parties and its local and regional branches. While at the national level both primary leaders of Islamic and Secular parties have expressed their objections and doubts over religious bylaws, the local dynamics are apparently much more fluid and unpredictable.

Civil society groups, NGOs, and other keen observers of politics and Islam in Indonesia criticize political parties’ support for religious bylaws as a mere political tool to obtain votes. From their perspective, the move to support religious bylaws is driven by short-sighted pragmatism and populist reaction towards the “failure” of secular administration, reflected in rising poverty, declining morality, and many other problems.

Eventually the time will come for Indonesia to face her own dilemma of democracy: how she should response to the emergence of illiberal forces in proudly-proclaimed land of pluralism and tolerance. Terrorism and hardline religious extremism may be easier to handle, but the curious case of bottom-up radicalization in the form of demand for religious bylaws definitely needs to be solved differently.

Posted on July 22, 2010

Iqra Anugrah is a third year student in College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, majoring in political science and international relations. He is a member of the Advisory Board for Strategic Studies Committee for Indonesian Students’ Association in Japan (PPI Jepang). The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the PPI Jepang.