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The Role of Professional Organizations in Indonesia's Socio-political Transformation

Ann Marie Murphy


Indonesia’s socio-political landscape since the fall of Suharto in 1998 has been marked by two dramatic contests: first, the contest to consolidate democracy between reformasi (democracy) advocates and elites whose interests are threatened by an open and accountable government; and second, the contest between competing Muslim groups that are attempting to influence the country’s political development in ways consistent with their interpretations of Islam. Suharto’s successor, B.J. Habibie, abolished the 1985 Mass Organization Law that had prohibited organizations from adopting Islam as their asas tunggal (sole foundational principle). [1] This led to the creation of Islamic-based political parties, professional groups, and social-service organizations. Radical groups have also taken advantage of these freedoms. [2] The social aims of some of these groups are fully consistent with democracy, pluralism, open markets, and positive relations with the West, but others are not.

One of the thorniest issues facing Indonesia today is how to reconcile support for democracy with the desire of some Indonesians for an infusion of Islamic tenets into the country’s legal code. This issue is at the heart of the debate over local sharia laws (Islamic law). On the one side are democracy advocates who argue that all laws must conform to Indonesia’s constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender. On the other side are conservative Islamic groups that contend that Muslims should be governed by sharia in all aspects of life, not simply in family law as is currently the case. Indonesia is engaged in culture wars over these issues, and how such debates play out will have important implications for the United States, which has a strong interest in an Indonesia that continues to consolidate democracy, promote social stability among the country’s diverse population, keep markets open, and maintain good relations with the West.

Indonesian professional organizations occupy a strategic position in the country’s social life, and their control, or capture, by Islamic conservatives or radicals would create an important platform from which to influence the country’s political future. Yet there is no evidence of Islamist capture occurring. Moreover, despite the historical dominance of Indonesia’s professions by Christians, who comprise just under 10% of the population, and by Sino-Indonesians, this ethnic imbalance is not the politically salient issue that it has been in the past. Muslim under-representation in the professions is a legacy of the colonial era when non-Muslims had greater access to education. This under-representation...

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[1] Azumardi Azra, Indonesia, Islam, and Democracy (Jakarta: Solstice Publishing, 2006), 16. During the Suharto era, all organizations were forced to adopt pancasila, a set of five guiding philosophical pillars intended to unite the country, as their foundational principle.

[2] For purposes of this essay, Islamic "conservatives” are those who emphasize the central tenets of Islam as unchanging and all encompassing and thus assert that Islamic education and law must prioritize only the study of the Quran, recorded acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah), and associated commentaries. Islamic "radicals” are those who need not be theologically conservative, but who insist that society and politics must be restructured according to the Quran and sunnah. See Robert W. Hefner, "Islamic Schools in Contemporary Indonesia: New Trends in Educational Culture and Politics,” The National Bureau of Asian Research, Southeast Asia Education Survey Report, 2006, 6–7.