“”Islamization of Politics” in Indonesia and Malaysia?” a Commentary by Leo Suryadinata

2017/2, 12 January 2017

Recent political developments in Indonesia and Malaysia witnessed the force of Islam in influencing, if not determining, the political processes.


Indonesia as a Pancasila state recognizes six official religions, including Islam. Despite a majority professing the Muslim faith (87%), Islam is not the state religion. However, Muslim votes are crucial in Indonesian politics, and after the fall of Suharto, Islam has been increasingly used by the political elite as their vehicle or weapon to attain their political objectives. During the 2014 Presidential Election, Jokowi who was far ahead of his rival Prabowo Subianto in the opinion poll  almost lost the presidential elections due to a smear campaign which  projected Jokowi as a “Chinese Christian.” .

The second example is the Jakarta gubernatorial election of 2017. The highly popular incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias Ahok, who is a Chinese Christian, decided to contest the election.  With Ahok contesting, the other candidates, Agus Yudhoyono (son of former president Yudhoyono who is the chairman of the Demokrat party) and Anies Baswedan (candidate from the Prabowo’s Gerindra Party), would not have much chance of getting elected.  Ahok’s opponents also used the same tactic to disqualify him to contest in the election. They accused Ahok of blaspheming Islam in one of his campaign speeches.

The Front Pembela Islam (Front for Defending Islam), well known for its radical view on Islam, supported those who were anti both Ahok and Jokowi, and staged demonstrations urging Ahok to be detained and ousted from his governorship. They succeeded in organizing two major “Islamic” demonstrations in Jakarta, namely on 4 November and 2 December 2016, which succeeded in compelling the Police to name Ahok as a suspect on the blasphemy case.

Malaysia is a “Muslim State” in the sense that Islam is the religion of the Federation of Malaysia. In other words, Islam has a special position in the country. Nevertheless, Muslims only consist of 60% of the total population. According to the constitution, Malays are Muslim, but UMNO is not an Islamic party, which is different from Islam-based PAS. The eventual goal of PAS is to establish an Islamic state.

Najib Razak, who is the president of UMNO, a Malay nationalist party, has now sided with radical Malay nationalism. Najib’s opponents have left UMNO, including Mahathir, and formed a new Malay party, and even collaborated with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). They have attempted several times to push Najib out, using the IMDB scandal. Najib, in turn, went to employ Islam as its lethal weapon to deal with Malay opposition.

Two issues are being used now. One is the Syariah 355 Act, which is often called the “Hudud Law” (Islamic Penal Code) proposal, initiated by Hadi Awang, the PAS leader, to be applied to Muslims. In order to gain support from PAS, Najib even took the Syariah 355  bill as that of UMNO’s and openly supported the proposal. He argued that the bill would only involve Malays, and had nothing to do with the non-Malays, forgetting that Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society and criminal cases may involve more than one ethnic group. Najib is also projecting himself as a “Defender of Islam”, hoping that he would get the support of Islamists and PAS in the forthcoming general election.

The second issue is on the Muslim Rohingya refugees.  On 9 October there was a terrorist attack in northern Rakhine, Myanmar, which killed 9 Burmese policemen. The government troops undertook counter attacks which resulted in many casualties and dislocations in the Rohingya community. Once again, the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and Southeast Asia. In fact, major ethnic conflicts between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine in the Rakhine state started in 2012. These conflicts have resulted in an influx of new Rohingya refugees to Southeast Asia, mainly affecting Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Najib, supported by Hadi Awang of PAS, participated in a major demonstration on 4 December, demanding Myanmar authorities to stop the persecution of Rohingya, deviating from the ASEAN principle of “non-intervention”.  There was no such intervention during the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis as there was no forthcoming general election in Malaysia.
Concluding Remarks

Comparing the “role” of Islam in politics of Indonesia and Malaysia, both political elites have used religion as a political weapon. In Indonesia, the opposition employed Islam in order to weaken/defeat the ruling elite while in Malaysia, religion was used by the ruling elite to maintain political power and to support a forthcoming election. The sad thing here is this, in the power game, both countries have been advancing the “Islamisation of Politics” which may destroy the pluralistic nature of each society.

Dr Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.