Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Political pragmatism prevails in Indonesia

Opinion Editorial The Jakarta Post, February 19, 2008

Al Makin, Heidelberg
No matter how doubtful it is, we have to welcome and encourage the efforts made by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) to welcome and appreciate pluralism in Indonesian politics. This point was explained in detail by PKS president, Tifatul Sembiring, PKS secretary general, Anis Matta, and PKS faction chairman at the House of Representatives, Hilmi Aminuddin at the recent national congress in Bali.

Initially a party based exclusively on Islamist reform, the PKS has evolved to appeal to a much broader constituency including the mainstream secular audience. The change is largely the result of pragmatism triggered by the party's need to secure electoral support. It may be seen as a response to the democratic process.

The PKS agenda at the congress in Bali cast no new story. It seems clear that there are at least two fundamental factors behind its latest political maneuver. First off, is a recognition of the fact that in many local elections, the PKS has formed political coalitions with nationalist as well as secular parties. These include alliances with (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Golkar, and even the Prosperous Peace Party (PDS). These types of coalitions are expected to attract more potential voters in next year's general election. What the PKS has learned is that the vast majority of Indonesians do not like any tendency toward exclusivism or radicalism.

Indonesia's plural society tends to embrace moderate religious views. In response to this sentiment, the PKS has attempted to cater to market demands. Not only is this political maneuver tactical, but it is also relevant to the audience targeted by PKS campaigns.

Two issues remain vital with regards to the PKS' attitude toward pluralism. First of all, it has to remain vigilant for any possible twisted interpretation of pluralism serving merely as a means of political posturing. Secondly, the PKS needs to remain consist in embracing its core values. Any attitude on the part of party members that contradicts the principle of pluralism must be abandoned.

By advancing its agenda along this path the PKS will distance itself from any radical Islamist ideology such as that proffered by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood; rather it will follow in the moderate footsteps of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP). By adhering to the former, the party would remain transfixed to its earlier commitment to establish sharia. By pursuing the more practical stance of the latter it would accept secularization and modern democracy with no conditions.

My acquaintance with PKS cadres in Germany, however, tells another story. It is well known, for example, that the PKS is the most active of all Indonesian political parties in terms of recruiting new members and potential voters abroad. No other Indonesian political party has managed to develop a campaign infrastructure abroad as sophisticated as that of the PKS. Neither Golkar, the PDI-P, the National Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN), nor the United Development Party (PPP) have established party headquarters in Germany. In contrast, the PKS regularly holds activities.

The PKS has, for example, sponsored and maintained many pengajian (mass prayers) for Indonesian students in Germany. The monthly pengajian are held in many cities. In some cases, the party has brought well known ustadz (Muslim preachers) from Indonesia to Germany to provide dakwahs (sermons) at the pengajian.

Although the ustadz did not announce to their audiences that they were sent by a political party it has been something of a public secret for many Indonesians who live Germany that political consolidation by the PKS is taking place.

Pluralism is bid'ah (innovation). Within the political realm, this is a recent concept, but then what in todays social landscape is not an innovation? Everything, it seems, is a recent invention. Democracy, human rights, feminism, mass communications, transportation, political parties and Ulema councils are all new innovations which could not be found at the time of the Prophet. Even the Unitary State of Indonesia is an innovation.

By accepting pluralism, the PKS can be proud to call itself an Islamic party that has embraced innovation. As a rule, the more the PKS commits to innovation, the more open and attractive will the party become.

One more fundamental task for the PKS remains; that is, to revise its ideological basis. The PKS no longer accords with Wahhabism, an ideology which takes its root in Islamic puritanism. As Wahhabism stands against innovation the PKS movement away from its doctrine stands to reason. Adherence to Wahhabism can only cast doubt on the PKS' commitment to pluralism.

Without a strong commitment to innovate and embrace pluralism, the PKS' recent maneuvers would merely become a political strategy to face next years general election. Suspicion of PKS' motives might be based on its previous maneuvers to disguise its political campaigns during the sermons given at the many mass prayers that its sponsors. If such suspicion is well-founded then it would stand to reason that the PKS is also attempting to disguise its puritanism and conservatism through its recent posturing.

The writer is a lecturer at the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta. With his Indonesian friends in Germany, he founded http://www.indonesianmuslim.com/.