Political Islam takes center stage in Indonesia and Malaysia

Since the beginning of this decade, conservative and often Islamist groups have amassed power in Indonesia and Malaysia. While they have done so by organizing within democratic politics, they are recently more aggressively seeking to implement laws based on sharia and rolling back protections for religious minorities, writes Joshua Kurlantzick in the Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief (February 27). “In the run-up to Malaysia’s 2018 national elections and Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election, these groups could play central roles in determining the countries’ paths and could possibly undermine hard-won political and legal gains,” he adds. Indonesia and Malaysia have had strongholds of conservative and Islamist ideologies, but the hardline parties and organizations have never attained national power, with elections favoring moderate leaders, such as former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid. More recently, the two countries have witnessed an upswing in harder-line Islamist sentiment. The conservative party known as PAS has moved to bring about legislation increasing the power of some religious courts and possibly imposing sharia-type punishments for some criminal offenses such as theft.

For the first time last year, the Islamic Defenders Front and other Islamists played a major role in deciding an election outcome in the capital. In that election, popular incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was challenged by the Islamic Defenders Front and other conservative organizations, who sometimes focused on his Chinese ethnicity and Christian faith. Ahok was later convicted of blasphemy for comments he made on the campaign trail and sentenced to two years in jail. The article notes that the leaders of both countries failed to pay attention to the rise of hardliners. Yet part of the support for political Islam is due to changes on the ground; Islamists have taken advantage of the weak public school systems in Indonesia and Malaysia, building hundreds of new private Islamic schools in Malaysia between 2011 and 2017. Indonesian Islamist groups also have become skillful organizers on social media. Kurlantzick concludes by noting that “Perhaps even more dangerous for Indonesia’s future, religious hard-liners are apparently building alliances with Prabowo Subianto, a former lieutenant general who…appears to be laying the groundwork for a populist-military-Islamist alliance for the 2019 election.”

(Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org)