Muslims, Politics, and Violence in Indonesia: An Emerging Jihadist-Islamist Nexus?
NBR Analysis vol. 15, no. 3

Muslims, Politics, and Violence in Indonesia
An Emerging Jihadist-Islamist Nexus?

by Zachary Abuza
September 1, 2004

The role of religion is often left out of studies of terrorism and sectarian violence in Southeast Asia, but it is one that merits reassessment in view of the conservative Islamic revival within Indonesia and the steady gains made by Indonesia’s Islamist political parties.

Islam in Indonesia has always been defined by tolerance, moderation, and pluralism. Whereas in the Middle East Islam has been seen as anathema to democratization, in Indonesia, Islam created the foundations of civil society that made the transition to democracy possible. As Robert Hefner has eloquently argued, Islam was the force of civil society that facilitated Indonesia’s transition to democracy. [1] The burgeoning of civil society is positive, but the loosening of constraints on it has allowed “uncivil” society to flourish as well. Most Muslims in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, support the secular state, and only a small minority advocates the establishment of an Islamic regime governed by sharia, or strict Islamic law. Most Indonesians eschew literal interpretations of Islam and violence perpetrated in its name. Indeed, Muslim thinkers in Indonesia have made some of the greatest intellectual and theoretical contributions to the debates over Islam and human rights, Islam and democracy, and Islam and women’s rights. Nonetheless, political violence has sharply escalated in post–Suharto Indonesia and is increasingly associated with the rise of political and radical Islam.

The fall of Indonesian President Suharto radically altered the political environment in the archipelago. The strongman’s resignation left a weak democracy in which there was intense political competition between interim president B.J. Habibie and his successor, moderate Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid (better known as Gus Dur), and a parliament that had a newfound and intense sense of empowerment. Under the New Order regime (1965–98), the Indonesian Parliament (DPR) had “very little input in either the formulation or implementation of state policy. Nor did the DPR exercise vigorous oversight of the executive branch.” [2] Suharto’s successors have often been stymied by a parliament that is no longer quiescent. Strong central government control also broke down as the provinces clamored to redress the historical legacy of over–centralization and demanded more autonomy and revenue sharing. Indonesia’s Big Bang decentralization of 2001 has had profound effects. As the World Bank notes, “Within one year, the Big Bang decentralized much of the responsibility for public service to the local level, almost doubled the regional share in government spending, reassigned two–thirds of the central service to the regions, and handed over more than 16,000 service facilities to the regions.” [3] Yet the local governments had weak administrative capabilities, having been emasculated under the New Order regime, wherein local government coexisted with branch offices of a larger and more…

[1] Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[2] Ramlan Surbakti, “Formal Political Institutions,” in Richard W. Baker, Hadi Soesastro, et al., eds.,

Indonesia: The Challenge of Change, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999, p. 68.

[3] The World Bank, Decentralizing Indonesia, Report No. 26191-IND, June 2003, p.i.