Islam, Politics and Change

Islam, Politics and Change

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Kees van Dijk, Nico J. G. Kaptein
Debates on Islam and Society
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    Leiden University Press
    , May
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Islam, Politics and Change: The Indonesian Experience after the Fall of Suharto, editors Kees van Dijk and Nico J.G. Kaptein present nine informative articles examining Islam in Indonesia following the fall of President Suharto in 1998. In three parts, this book considers: (1) Islamic political parties and socio-religious organizations, (2) sharia-based legislation and the legal position of women and children; and (3) sharia and counterculture in Aceh. Home to the largest Muslim population in the world and comprising an overwhelming demographic majority in the country, Islam has always featured at the forefront of Indonesian politics. Even as the fall of Suharto ushered in a new era for Islamic politics, the editors note that an overture to capture the minds and hearts of the Muslim electorate preceded this watershed event through several phases of the country’s history—most notably under colonial rule. The question is: what is distinctive about the role of Islam in Indonesian political life towards the end of the 20th century and into the present? Dijk and Kaptein’s work is a compelling entry into this puzzle, bringing to the readers’s attention an apparent paradox—despite the growing significance of Islam in public life, Islamic political parties are on the decline. However, this is not at the expense of the legislation of Muslim laws. Indeed, this development is well worth investigating since “political Islam,”—a neologism now common parlance among academics and policy wonks alike—refers to the process in which Islam is incorporated into modern politics. Therefore, contemporary developments in Indonesia shed light on the dynamic relationship of Islam and political life. 

Part 1 consists of three case studies examining Islamic political parties and socio-religious organizations. For those new to Indonesian politics, this section provides a survey of the key players. Like the diversity of Indonesia’s physical landscape, its political scene features parties big and small, including a smattering of socio-religious organizations. While the latter do not engage in party politics, they are just as influential to political life. The overlapping membership between political party and socio-religious organization is one of the many ways in which politics bleeds into various institutions and organizations. These dynamics are illustrated in Bastiaan Scherpen’s piece examining responses among Muslim elites on the matter of religious freedom following the Ahmadiyah controversy in 2011. Scherpen warns that if observers are looking for straightforward ideological cleavages among the various parties and organizations, they will be hard-pressed to find them. Indeed, Scherpen makes clear that the assumed schism between the modernist Muhammadiyah and the traditionalist Nahdatul Ulama is neither clear not simple. Rather than variation along party lines, Scherpen demonstrates the rift is between lawmakers who are more ideological on the one hand, and civil society groups who are more pragmatic on the other. 

Part 2 features three case studies which examine sharia-based legislation and its impact on women and children as well as describing how the autonomy of the religious courts was strengthened over time. Following the fall of Suharto, religious courts became more central in the politics of regionalism. The decentralization of the government to the province, district, and town levels has significantly increased the powers of local governments to introduce local laws. When local legislations were first instituted in 1999, the central government retained annulment authority over by-laws. In 2004, the legislation was amended to require a presidential decree to annul by-laws, signaling the growing autonomy of local governments. Through Stijn van Huis’s case study of the Islamic courts in Bulukumba, the editors show how Islamic politics grew to become an important part of regional identity. This was aided by the government regulation of 1957, which required all districts outside of Java to set up an Islamic court to adjudicate on matters to do with marriage and divorce, even if they did not previously exist. In 1974 the jurisdiction of the courts was extended to include matters of inheritance. Additionally, van Huis demonstrates how despite increasing legalization, Minang women in Bulukumba continue to retain significant power, often exercising their agency in the dissolution of marriage. 

Part 3 features case studies that examine sharia and counterculture in Aceh. It is noteworthy—if not surprising—that Aceh received a separate section in this volume. It illustrates how the politics of religion and regionalism is fiercely intertwined in Indonesia. Acehnese independence was an issue even during the New Order. In 1959, Aceh was conferred special status and given autonomy in the areas of religion, customs, and education. Despite this, agitation for increased autonomy continued. Following the fall of Suharto, further decentralization became a political priority. The editors demonstrate how the politics of decentralization overshadowed concerns about religion for the separatist movement. In line with this, Moch Nur Ichwan shows how even traditional clashes between sufi and sharia ulama can arrive at a resolution—albeit tentative—through the Majelis Pengkajian Tauhid Tasawuf (MPPT), indicating how far they have come since the violent polemics of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Overall, readers will come away with a better sense of politics in modern Indonesia, including a more textured knowledge of the role of Islam within it. Like all good works, readers will not find simple solutions, instead attaining a better appreciation for the remarkable diversity that characterizes this nation across its thousands of islands. In many ways, this diversity is its enduring ballast against extremism on either end of the spectrum. Indeed, scholars of religion and politics will find this edited volume a great resource for comparing the many ways religion impresses itself upon modern politics to affect our everyday lives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hanisah Binte Abdullah Sani is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her broader research interests are in the areas of religion, law, and the politics of state building. Currently working on her dissertation, she examines the colonial legacy of jurisdictional conflicts on the sharia and civil courts in the Federation of Malaysia. 

Date of Review: 
March 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kees van Dijk is Emeritus Professor of the History of Modern Islam in Indonesia at Leiden University. 

Nico J.G. Kaptein teaches Islamic Studies at Leiden University and has held research fellowships in Singapore and Berlin. He is South-east Asia editor for the 3rd edition of the authoritative Encyclopaedia of Islam.



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