Limits to Islamic radicalism in Indonesia


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THE US invasion of Iraq has created concern in the Muslim world that it would result in more al-Qaeda recruits, or at least a broader radicalization among Muslims.1 A leader of an emerging radical Islamic group in Indonesia has claimed that the invasion would make Indonesians realize the relevance of his organization.2 This paper, however, argues that the reverse is true, that is, the possibility of broader Islamic radicalization in Indonesia after the US invasion of Iraq remains limited. To detail this argument I will focus mainly on the Justice Party, a small but rising Islamic party.

The largest demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in Indonesia, ‘the million action against the war’, was held on 30 March 2003 in the capital city, Jakarta.3 Various elements of the civil society participated in the demonstration, but they entrusted the leadership to the president of the Justice Party. A closer look would reveal that the various Islamic groups participating in the demonstration shared some ideological affinities.

Leaders of groups that are often seen as radical were present on the stage. But so were the leaders of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia. With supporters numbering over 20 million who run tens of thousands of schools and hundreds of hospitals all over the country, radicalism is an outlook that has never been associated with Muhammadiyah. What it shares with the smaller radical groups is a puritanic, reformist and modernist attitude toward Islam.

The largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), however, did not participate in the big demonstration. Instead, it held, on the very same day, its own istighotsah, a big rally for prayers in Surabya, the capital of East Java province and the second largest city in the country. NU is the bearer of the traditionalist banner of Islam in Indonesia and claims over 30 million supporters.

Obviously, the demonstration and rally focused not only on the invasion of Iraq but also around the politics of Islam in Indonesia. The latter is important because, as I would suggest here, it has always determined Islamic radicalization in the country. The Justice Party is, in a sense, a culmination of a process of radicalization that occurred in response to the repressive policy of the Suharto regime toward Islam.

The Justice Party has its support base in the Tarbiyah Reform movement that in turn incorporates a great deal of radical elements. The Tarbiyah Reform, however, is not the most radical Islamic group in Indonesia, unlike say a smaller group like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia which is unlikely to change its ideological stance under any circumstances. It has even declared that democratic politics is haram (i.e., religiously prohibited).4 The Tarbiyah Reform, meanwhile, is willing to engage the world, if only to transform it. It accepts parliamentarian and democratic politics as an arena of struggle for transformation.5 In response to a trigger, therefore, there is a possibility for it to either move toward radicalization or amelioration.



When I began researching for this paper, I had the US invasion of Iraq in mind. I found, however, that contemporary Islamic radicalization goes much deeper. Instead of focusing on the war, it would be more useful to delve into the repressive policy that the Suharto regime conducted on Islam in Indonesia. In discussing the Justice Party and the Tarbiyah Reform movement, therefore, I will begin with a brief history. I will then look at their organizational and ideological characteristics that betray radical tendencies. These tendencies tend to make the Justice Party and the Tarbiyah Reform exclusive, thus limiting their influence.

Ideologically, the Justice Party and the Tarbiyah Reform have to compete with larger organizations like the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. I will also, therefore, show why the Justice Party and the Tarbiyah Reform would fare poorly in the competition. In any case, the influence of the Justice Party and the Tarbiyah Reform’s radicalism will be contained. Furthermore, their involvement in parliamentary politics tends to marginalise them within the radical stream.



The members of the Tarbiyah Reform movement announced the formation of the Justice Party in 1998 to mark a new stage in their da’wah (proselytizing) activities. It marked their entry into the political realm in order to transform it into one based on Islam, and a new stage of their da’wah in the social realm. In the eyes of its supporters, therefore, the Justice Party and the Tarbiyah Reform movement are one. For them the party is a hizbud da’wah, or party for the propagation of Islam.

The Tarbiyah Reform itself is a movement that began in Indonesia in the late 1970s in major university campuses, as a response to the repressive policy of the Suharto regime toward Islamic groups that aspired to the idea of an Islamic political system.6 Towards the end of the decade, the regime began consolidating Indonesian politics. It forced all organizations, social and political, to adopt Pancasila, the official state philosophy, as the sole organizational principle. It also restructured student political life on campuses by imposing new organizational structures designed to depoliticize the students.

Major Islamic organizations, like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, after some years of wrangling, accepted the policy. A dominant national Islamic university student organization, HMI (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam or Islamic University Student Association), was split. A national high school Muslim student organization, PII (Pelajar Islam Indonesia or Muslim Student Association), chose dissolution rather than accept Pancasila. The clampdown drove them and others who resisted underground and channel their energy into da’wah activities. They began to hold religious study circles, mostly in campus mosques. Their presence became visible when female students wearing the hijabs (head covers) were seen on campuses and high schools. Thus began the Tarbiyah Reform movement in Indonesia.



To avoid surveillance, the members of the movement formed a network of small informal groups that met separately as religious study circles. A group is called liqo consisting of five to fifteen students. It has a leader, called murabbi or educator, acting as a mentor for the rest in the group who are called mutarabbi or the educated. Each mutarabbi in a liqo, who has gained enough knowledge, is encouraged to become a murabbi and form his or her own liqo. The idea is that if 10 mutarabbis of an original liqo become murabbis and each forms his or her own liqo there will be 10 new ones with 10 times as many new members or mutarabbis.

In addition to group discussions, there are some other activities to develop a sense of group belonging, teamwork skills and spirituality. Duplication of the liqo, however, is the basic mechanism for recruitment as well as for the development of a larger, but closeknit network of the Tarbiyah movement.

The movement found university campuses all over Indonesia fertile ground for recruitment and the cultivation of members. It has also found the campuses to be an excellent arena to train members in the art of power politics, which after education is the next step following the discussion groups. In the beginning of the 1990s, members of the movement began to sponsor candidates in the elections for positions in the student bodies. By the middle of the decade their candidates had won key positions at different levels in the campus student governments. By the end of the decade they had come to dominate student politics throughout Indonesia, eclipsing the once dominant HMI.7



As the Tarbiyah activists graduated they spread the network beyond the campuses. They formed religious study circles in the companies where they worked and in mosques, especially in the cities. Helping this process were graduates from the Middle Eastern universities who had begun returning to Indonesia in 1980. Many of the 52 Tarbiyah movement leaders who founded the Justice Party in August 1998 held degrees from American and Middle Eastern universities. The first president of the party held a doctorate in food technology from Texas A&M, and the second a doctorate from the Islamic University of Madinah. At the time of its declaration, the Justice Party claimed chapters in 21 provinces in Indonesia and 200 branches at the district level. It also claimed to have 200,000 active cadres.



The members of the Tarbiyah movement are committed to the ideals of the Ikhwanul Muslimin,8 a radical organization established in Egypt by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928. Its ideals include reestablishing the khilafah, or the unification of all Muslims in the world into one Islamic polity. At the national level this would mean an establishment of an Islamic state, or at least a mobilization of the state to uphold the shariah, or Islamic law. Underlying this ideal is the belief that Islam is a universal system that can serve as a basis for the organization of all walks of human life: social, political, economic, and cultural. For members of the Tarbiyah movement, the da’wah and struggle to realize these ideals constitute an obligation.

In order to be able to participate, every member must understand these ideals and their role in the da’wah and struggle.9 They must therefore regularly participate in group discussions to correctly understand Islam because an individual is the agent of change. Beginning from oneself, da’wah progresses through changing one’s family, one’s immediate social environment and society. The reason for understanding is not knowledge for its own sake, but to change the world. For an individual to be an agent of change, the person must be willing to sacrifice everything for the movement.

The Tarbiyah movement stresses that each member must show fortitude, discipline, responsibility, hard work, patience, sacrifice, loyalty and obedience. Da’wah, for the cadre of the movement, is continuous hard work without leasure. It is haram (religiously prohibited) to procrastinate in answering the call to do da’wah, the call to participate in the struggle to change the world.

These values form the ideology inculcated in members of the movement in group discussions. The group religious discussions are therefore more of political education than intellectual cultivation. This is also what da’wah means to them. Da’wah as political education is the method that the Tarbiyah movement has adopted in the struggle to realize its ideals. The movement, however, also accepts parliamentary and democratic politics. It therefore, established the Justice Party as a vehicle to transform them and the entire political sphere into Islamic ones. In other words, the party is a vehicle for doing da’wah in the political realm. The work of the party, being da’wah, becomes a religious obligation to which a cadre must be willing to give of her/himself.



The story of the Justice Party is often seen as a success. In the 1999 election it won 1.36% of the vote. This was a small percentage compared to that won by the other parties relying on Muslim constituents. The two largest parties, the National Awakening Party and the National Unity Party, respectively won 12.62% and 10.72% of the vote. Both parties claim the Nahdlatul Ulama as their support base.

The third largest, the National Trust Party, which relies on the members of Muhammadiyah as its support base, won 7.12% of the vote. And the fourth largest, the Crescent and the Star Party, which shares as constituents with the Justice Party urban Muslims, won 1.94% of the vote. For a party that was less than a year old and whose support base was unclear at the time, the Justice Party’s achievement in the election was seen as remarkable.

In Indonesia, however, a political party adhering to a strictly Islamic cause has never been successful. It might be argued that the reason for this in the past had been political repression, but with the present political openness things will be different. A strict adherence to an Islamic cause, however, will make the Justice Party an ideological one, restricting its appeal. Its purist view of Islam will restrict its support base to where it currently is: among Indonesian urban Muslims. It will not be able to create a broader support base. As such, its influence will be limited, making it impossible to transform the political system.



In fact, as of now, being a small party, it is impossible for the Justice Party to do anything in the Parliament without forming alliances with other parties. The price it has had to pay is to abandon the promise that it would fight to incorporate the phrase ‘with the obligation for Muslims to live according to the sharia’ into the text of Pancasila. This is because the National Trust Party with which the Justice Party has allied itself, does not support the Islamic platform.

The Justice Party justified the move as tactical. Its commitment to the ideal of transforming the Indonesian political system into an Islamic one and of enlisting the state in the upholding of the shariah remained the same. The move, however, also points to the fact that parliamentary and democratic politics will force the Justice Party to the necessity of diluting its political radicalism. Engaging the world in an attempt to change it, sometimes requires adjustments on the part of the actor.



In their commitment to change the world, the cadres of the Tarbiyah movement are aware of the tension between their desire to remain pure on the one hand, and the need for negotiation and adjustment on the other. This is indicated by their slogan, ‘inter-action without contamination.’10 They have found that at the party political level give-and-take is unavoidable. Yet, the slogan also reveals that maintaining ideological purity is not to be compromised. This has led to a tendency to confuse the idea of change with conversion. Instead of really changing people outside their group, they attract people from outside and change them so that they become like them and part of them.

Once they have drawn new converts inside the liqo, they try to educate them to become true, loyal and obedient. They demand full conformity from the new members in terms of both its formal discipline and ideology. This mechanism has helped the movement in creating militant and dedicated cadres. But, while it may have strengthened a sense of purity among the members, it has filtered out those unprepared for such conformity. This tendency is likely to limit the movement’s influence and diminish the prospect of its members becoming agents of change.

This can create an irony for the Tarbiyah movement in the context of contemporary political openness in Indonesia where the climate for freedom of speech and thought has considerably improved. Such a climate would make it easier for the movement to keep its puritanic and radical posture. Yet, such a posture would only diminish the prospect of its development and further influence. For almost a century, a vast majority of Indonesian Muslims have grown siding with either one of the other rival Islamic ideologies – the modernist, puritanic and reformist on the one side, and the traditionalist on the other. In entering this ideological marketplace the Tarbiyah movement may make some inroads, albeit limited to the subscribers of the former but not the latter.



The representative bearer of the modernist, puritanic and reformist Islamic ideology is Muhammadiyah. It would not be surprising, thus, to see the Tarbiyah movement gain sympathy among Muhammadiyah’s supporters. Many of the young converts to the cause of the Justice Party have come from the homes of Muhammadiyah supporters. Having gone to the university, they may find the idea of taking care of schools or small hospitals built by their parents in their hometowns unappealing. The rhetoric of the Tarbiyah movement and its close-knit organization, in contrast comes across as exciting and empowering.

They affirm the truth of Islam in a convincing way. They promise a quick realization of an Islamic modernity in which modern science and Islam converge to become a means of reform, a force to uproot the moral decadence and rampant corruption in Indonesia. And in this reform process they will play the role as agent of change.

Yet, Muhammadiyah does not entertain the illusion of unity between religion and state. It has humble beginnings with concern about poverty and lack of education among the ummah.11 Its founding father envisioned schools and hospitals to be the means of improving their condition. This vision remains intact. For Muhammadiyah education is a means of da’wah, perceived as a path to a social rather than political transformation. It’s a method to infuse the public sphere with Islamic values. This is a project less lofty, though no less noble, than establishing an Islamic state. Long experience has taught them that such projects require patience.



Furthermore, what has sustained Muhammadiyah’s long life are its schools, universities, hospitals and nursing homes more than its rhetoric. These enterprises have allowed millions of fathers and mothers and young men and women at the grassroots level to participate in the cause of Islam in a concrete and comprehensible way. There are elements within Muhammadiyah that want to see it play a more political role. So far, it has restrained them, knowing that politics can be a liability to its programmes. The young within Muhammadiyah’s rank and file have found the Tarbiyah movement’s radicalism attractive, but not its more grown-up supporters. Muhammadiyah itself, as an organization, will not be affected.

The Tarbiyah movement’s real ideological nemesis are the traditionalist Islamic thinkers, the majority of whom belong to the Nahdlatul Ulama.12 Though often classified as liberal, the Indonesian traditionalist Islamic thinkers are more pragmatic than liberal.13 They do not believe in the idea of a universal Islam, an Islam that is the Truth for all times, all places and all people. For them, the Islam that has grown out of the soil of Indonesia since the first seeds were planted in the 15th century is as true as Islam of the place and time of the Prophet Muhammad.

They have helped nourish it by cultivating an Islamic intellectual tradition. They have built a network of hundreds of boarding schools all over Indonesia, independent of the state. They have encouraged the ummah to practice the sharia on their own, without mobilizing the power of the state. They know that state power can be detrimental to freedom of religion and to the work of nourishing religious life. This was especially true when the state favoured certain ideas about Islam at the expense of others. History bears witness to this. They have thus grown wary of the idea of the unity of state and religion.



For Nahdlatul Ulama’s supporters, the ideas endorsed by the Tarbiyah movement are familiar, yet unpalatable. So is their style. The members of the Tarbiyah movement often present themselves as true Muslims, the torch bearers of true Islam. They accentuate this posture by wearing formal attributes they deem proper for Muslims. The traditionalist Muslims, however, know that what they boast about is something they have imported from outside.14 To claim it to be truer and better than the Islam that they have had and cultivated for centuries at home is, in their eyes, naïve.



The Tarbiyah Reform movement is radical, puritanic and reformist, yet modernist. These are conflicting attributes that generate tensions. Their notion that the ideal lies in a pure past against which all subsequent developments must be measured, tends toward conservatism. Many of the movement’s members, however, are young and educated, embrace modern technology and would, in all likelihood, feel at home in the capitalist marketplace. They would be ideal Asians, comparable to what Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Muhammad have imagined.15 They would claim to remain uncontaminated by western values and rooted in Islam as they win competition in the market place of a modern industrialized Asia.

There are signs that they have caught the ‘Muhammadiyah virus’ of building schools. Elements within the Tarbiyah have started schools at the elementary and secondary levels. They remain committed to apply their idea of tarbiyah education in the schools by introducing, for example, some leadership training programmes in the curriculum. Running and managing schools, however, will expose them to the demands of the more comprehensive process of education.

The development process in Indonesia today has created a high demand for education, especially among the Muslim majority. It promises success for the schools that members of the Tarbiyah movement run. The more successful they are in their conventional educational enterprise, the more they will have to conform to the demands of general education. This will ensure less room for their radicalism.



1. Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), 3 April 2003, p. 13.

2. Sadanan Dhume, ‘Islam Radical Appeal’, FEER, 3 April 2003, p. 19.

3. For coverage of the demonstration, see Kompas and Republika daily newspapers, 31 March 2003.

4. Aliansi Keadilan (Alliance for Justice), Number 10, Year 1, 30 April-6 May 1999.

5. I thank Dr. Muhammad Luthfi, head of the West Asian Studies Programme, University of Indonesia for sharing his expert opinion of the Tarbiyah movement and Hizbut Tahrir.

6. For the history of the Tarbiyah movement in Indonesia and the Justice Party I have relied on Ali Said Damanik, Fenomena Partai Keadilan, Transformasi 20 Tahun Gerakan Tarbiyah di Indonesia (The Justice Party Phenomenon, the Transformation of the 20 Year Tarbiyah Movement in Indonesia). Jakarta: Teraju, 2002. This is a preliminary but informative book.

7. I thank Saiful Latief for sharing his experience in and information about the Tarbiyah movement. He is a young lecturer in the Department of Library Sciences, University of Indonesia and was involved in the movement in his student days.

8. See Damanik, 2002, pp. 87-101. Many books on Ikhwanul Muslimin have recently been translated into Indonesian, one of them by Abdul Hamid Al-Ghazali, Pilar-Pilar Kebangkitan Umat (Haula asasiyat Al-Masyru’ Al-Islami linahdlah Al-Umah). Jakarta: Al I’tishom, 2001.

9. The Central Leadership Board of the Justice Party published a guidebook for tarbiyah (education) that explains the values a cadre must imbibe. See Tarbiyah Menjawab Tantangan, Refleksi 20 Tahun Pembaharuan Tarbiyah di Indonesia (Tarbiyah Responding to Challenges: A Reflection on the 20 Years of the Tarbiyah Reform in Indonesia). Jakarta: Departemen Kaderisasi DPP Partai Keadilan, Muharram 1423 (2002).

10. Tarbiyah Responding, 2002, p. 103.

11. Muhammad Fuad, ‘Civil Society in Indonesia: The Potential and Limits of Muhammadiyah’, Soujourn, Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Volume 17(2), October 2002, pp. 133-163.

12. For a recent expression of the thinking of traditionalist Islam, see the pieces by Ulil Abshar Abdalla. Abdalla is young rising thinker of the Nahdlatul Ulama tradition. His pieces can found in his web page,

13. In early 1999, Abdalla formed a group that would write and speak to ‘combat’ the radical rhetoric. Deliberately, and provocatively, he called the group ‘Network of Liberal Islam’.

14. I thank Saiful Latief for sharing his opinion on this matter with me in an interview. Depok, 9 May 2003.

15. For a discussion of Asian values and modernity in Malaysia, see Maila Stivens, ‘Sex, Gender and the Making of the New Malay Middle Classes’, in Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens (eds.) Gender and Power in Affluent Asia. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.