Indonesia Religion Indonesian Politics and Research Paper

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As the text by Cessanos (2005) notes, this would be among the longest-standing and most determinant internal conflicts confounding the stability and political unity of Indonesia as a whole. Cessanos reports that even at the outset of its independence under new President Sukarno, any unified vision of how to balance political modernization with deference to its Islamic cultures was met with splintering, factionalism and conflict. Accordingly, the source indicates that "Dutch-educated nationalists and Islamic parties agreed to create a unified, Western-style parliamentary state. But across the archipelago differenced in thinking produced more than 30 parties, of which the four largest were variously based on the principles of Islam, nationalism, or communism. Separatist movements and uprisings divided the new Indonesia republic. Darul Islam (Islamic Domain) a militant group in West Java, believed in an Islamic state and fought the government from 1948 to 1962." (Cessanos, p. 44)

Such conflicts would stand in the way of a democratic Indonesia for decades. Indeed, in the face of tremendous pressure of armed Islamic militants, the Sukarno administration would be inclined to impose martial law upon the nation and its people. Humanitarian interests and political representation would suffer immensely during this time, as would a public increasingly subjected to the collateral violence of domestic infighting. Ironically, the eventual political modernization of the presidency in Indonesia would lead only to greater conflict. This is because the presidency of Suharto, which began in 1967 and ran all the way until the first democratic national elections in 1999, was highly sympathetic to Western interests and economic partnerships. (Cessanos, p. 48) Such sympathies would only further incite the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement felt by Islamic nationalist groups from the modern state of Indonesia.

The identity of Indonesia remained highly undermined by the interests of a highly centralized state authority. This, research would denote, is counterintuitive to the development of a newly independent state. The cultural impetus couched in the nation's Islamic identity would be largely relegated to military authoritarianism. Vu (2010) would regard this as inherently contradictory, arguing that "besides centralized governments and cohesive coercive institutions, effective official ideologies and legitimizing discourses must be part of a developmental state structure." (Vu, p. 5)

Thus, for decades, Suharto maintained his authority on the flimsy premise of cultural whitewashing, working aggressively to prevent the accumulation of power sought by the nation's increasingly militant Islamic population. Then, with the explosion of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the disenfranchised were provided with all the evidence they required to view the government's Western sympathies as a threat to the Islamic way of life. As Cessanos reports, Indonesia's currency inflated to worthlessness, its banking system collapsed, its stark market bottomed out and more than 14 million citizens lost their jobs. This was a tangible lode of ammunition for Islamic recruiters, who blamed the imperialist vulnerability of non-theocratic government for the nation's suffering. As Cessanos tells, the "Suharto was up for reelection in February 1998, but he faced massive dissent from students, Muslim parties, and others opposed to his policies and the corruption of his regime. There were demonstrations on university campuses. In April, rioting erupted in Medan, Sumatra, and spread to other cities, in part because fuel prices had increased over 70%." (p. 49)

Government efforts to quell the unrest resulting the shooting of four students as the Trisakti University in Jakarta, at which point the city erupted into four days of rioting and violence in which more than 1200 people were killed. (Cessanos, p. 49) These events would denote the correlation experienced for many private citizens between the government's secular orientation and the public's overwhelmingly Islamic predisposition. In many ways, the mounting evidence of our research suggests that the aggressive Islamic orientation of private citizens in Indonesia is less a matter of history and heritage than it is a matter of political alignment. The text by Jones (2010) finds that the rapid rise and proliferation of the Muslim identity in Indonesia over the course of the 20th century has occurred in response to the objectionable political realities that have persisted there, whether through foreign occupation, subsequent internal dictatorship and eventual Western economic exploitation. As Jones indicates, "these conditions have also been linked to the rise in expressions of Islamic piety in Indonesia in the last decade. . . The appeal of a universal, time-tested, alternative framework through which to improve oneself and the nation allowed religion to circulate as an antidote to state developmentalism -- and was made all the more appealing given the regime's repression of political resistance and the uncertainty following its demise." (p. 278)

As the Jones text argues, efforts to stamp the Islamic influence out of the public discourse would only lead to a greater intensification of practice and demonstration of faith amongst private citizens. This, of course, would become highly visible in public spaces both as a matter of protest and as a matter of lifestyle orientation. As Jones posits, "perhaps the most visible sign has been the increased popularity of women's Islamic dress, a relatively new phenomenon in Indonesian sartorial and religious history. Initially positioned in the 1990s as a medium and symbol of self-discipline free from consumerism, corruption, and politics, Islamic dress has since been intensively commodified, with fashion cycles that almost outpace the nonreligious clothing market." (p. 278)

For decades, these emergent patterns would bubble under the surface of Indonesian political life, facing heavily restrictive social discourse policies by the Suharto regime. It is thus that when the regime did finally come to an end, the influence of Islam would take on a new level of prominence and determination in Indonesian culture. Here, Wichelen (2010) reports that "the demise of Suharto's regime brought about democratic change and allowed for a politicization of religion in public life. It marked a new situation that slowly broke with the New Order's avoidance of identity politics. Issues concerning ethnicity, race and religion were now permitted to be discussed, disputed and contested openly." (Wichelen, p. 1)

This would help to alter the political landscape in Indonesia, which today is engaged in an ongoing process of improving cultural openness and scaling down the imposition of the government which defined the nation's political culture for several generations. The research by Hadiz (2010) places this transition at around the turn of the new millennium, indicating that "since 2001, Indonesia too has been pursuing policies of decentralization that have profoundly transformed the institutional framework of governance in a country that was ruled for more than three decades in a highly authoritarian and centralized fashion." (Hadiz, p. 19)


Today, Indonesia is ever-more at odds with its own Islamic identity. The democratic orientation of the government belies the impetus felt by many public Islamic activists and by many private citizens alike to see the nation governed by the laws of Sharia. Moreover, the last decade of international strife -- particularly aimed at the global Muslim community -- and the continued economic unrest of the current global financial crisis both denote the high level of vulnerability that any democratically elected government will face in today in a predominantly Islamic nation.

Given the degree of political strife that has come to define modern Indonesia, the global alienation of Muslim groups serves only to magnify the very motives which have led to the rapid proliferation of yet more observant levels of religiosity throughout Indonesia. And until the nation can prove through effective public administration, the embrace of personal freedoms and withdrawal from undue Western influence and interests, it seems unlikely that the unrest and danger presented by a disaffected Islamic movement will subside any time soon.

Works Cited:

AP. (May 2001). Indonesia: A Nation in Transition. Jakarta Post.

Online at

Cassanos, L.C. (2005). The Growth and Influence of Islam in the Nations of Asia and Central Asia. Mason Crest Publishers.

Embassy of Indonesia. (2002). Indonesian History. Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Canada.

Online at

Federasi Australia Otonomi Indonesia (FAOI). (2010). Indonesia's Political System. Radio Australia.

Hadiz, V.R. (2010). Localising Power in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia. Contemporary Issues in Asia and the Pacific.

Jones, C. (2010). Better Women: The Cultural Politics of Gendered Expertise in Indonesia. American Anthropologist, 112(2), 270-282.

MacDonald, F.; Stacey, G. & Steele, P. (2005). Peoples of Eastern Asia. Marshal Cavendish Corporation.

Mason, C. (2000). A Short History of Asia: Stone Age to 2000 AD. MacMillan Press Ltd.

Miller, J. (2001). East Timor Action Network Condemns Latest Killings Calls for U.S., U.N. Action to Disarm Paramilitaries. East Timor Action Network.…[continue]

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