Islam and Politics: The Contributions of Islam to Indonesian Democracy
Anais Kneppers, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited by Austin Mardon, University of Alberta, AB, Canada, email@example.com
Abstract - Since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia has experienced remarkable success with the
process of democratization. This can be partially attributed to the contributions of Islam, which helped to create and
support many of Indonesia’s democratic institutions. Islamic organizations, and particularly Muhammadiyah and
Nahdlatul Ulama, preserved civil society during the years of dictatorship, and supported the establishment of
democratic institutions and elections after its fall. The cultural influence of Islam is also important, and Indonesian
Islam has been mobilized by feminist groups, among others, to agitate for liberal policies. More moderate than
Middle Eastern Islam, Indonesian Islam is significantly more tolerant of diversity, and has coexisted with and even
supported democracy. Despite this, the diversity and complexity of Indonesia ensures that challenges will arise, as
evidenced by recent events. This article explores the political importance of Islam in Indonesia, in order to
contribute to a greater understanding of its relationship with democracy.
Index terms - Indonesia, Democracy, Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah
Indonesia is the world’s third largest
democracy, and its largest Muslim nation.1 Despite
this, following independence, it was a secular rather
than an Islamic state that was established - a state
that, despite its rocky path to democratization, has
become one of the leading democracies in Southeast
Asia. Given the importance of Islam to Indonesian
culture, and the role it has played in shaping its
history, it is essential to consider the extent to which
Islam continues to contribute to demoracy, and the
potential challenges it could face.
This paper will consider the role of Islamic
groups and political parties such as Muhammadiyah
and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in the politics of
Indonesia, taking into account both their policies and
their attitudes towards the democratic process. It will
also examine the cultural role of Islam, and the ways
in which it has influenced popular opinion and
attittdes towards democracy. Finally, this paper will
discuss some of the unique challenges Islam brings to
II. Isʟᴀᴍɪᴄ Gʀᴏᴜᴘs
There are several Islamic groups in
Indonesia which have contributed to its history and
continue to influence its politics. In fact, several
Islamic organizations date back to the period of the
Suharto regime, during which they often provided an
alternative form of civil society to Indonesians.
Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, the two
largest Islamic organizations in the country, are of
particular importance. Between them, the two
organizations have been estimated to have more than
70 million affiliates, 2 and have strongly influenced
Indonesian politics in recent years, often through
prominent leaders who were well known to the
public. Although marked by slight differences -
“Muhammadiyah is still seen to represent the urban
middle class of modern Indonesia, and NU is still
associated with rusticated rural communities and
traditional outlooks,”3 both organizations created
3 Barton, 2014, 296.
spaces for civil society and engaged in charitable
works such as the provision of education prior to
Indonesia’s democratization, and have shaped the
politics of the country ever since.4 These
organizations encouraged members to engage in
theological debate and to attend regular meetings,
which encouraged broad participation in civil society,
and created interpersonal networks capable of mass
mobilization at a time when such organization was
stifled by a military dictatorship. They accordingly
played a significant role in the overthrow of the
Suharto regime, and had significant influence on the
political structure of the newly established
democracy. To this day, both Muhammadiyah and
Nahdlatul Ulama are essential to Indonesian politics,
albeit in slightly different ways. Although both
engage in charitable works and support schools,
universities, hospitals, and even legal aid clinics,5
they have distinct roles in Indonesian politics.
Whereas after democratization, Nahdlatul Ulama
became a major political party, Muhammadiyah
chose to remain an apolitical organization.6
Following the fall of Suharto, Nahdlatul
Ulama became a major political actor and many NU
affiliated politicians passed many progressive
policies indicative of its “forward-looking, inclusive,
tolerant and dialogical approach to Islam.”7 In the
initial confusion, the NU did not officially enter the
political arena, but several smaller parties formed that
openly associated themselves with it.8 The NU even
declined requests to form its own party, with one
prominent member stating “If there are NU members
who want to participate in a party, go ahead. But NU
will remain an organization that isn’t involved in
formal politics.”9 The goal of the organization was
not to enter politics, but rather to serve as a “moral
watchdog”10 to the state - an excellent example of the
ways in which Islam and Islamic values contributed
to Indonesia’s democracy. Despite its initial
resistance, Nahdlatul Ulama eventually formed a
political party, and proposed a platform for the first elections following the fall of Suharto. Largely
secular in nature, its platform professed a desire for
an “Indonesian society which is just, peaceful,
democratic and civilized,”11 and which considered
“Indonesia’s pluralism as a national treasure.”12
Following general elections in 1999, a prominent NU
member, Abdurrahman Wahid, was elected
president.13 Wahid’s tenure as president was
something of a disappointment to the nation, which
had high hopes following the fall of Suharto, but he
made an effort to enact liberal reforms.14 When, in
2001, he was removed from the presidency through
the internal actions of the NU and legal mechanism, it
was the first democratic transition of government that
Indonesia had seen for decades.15 Nahdlatul Ulama
has remained a major political player since, and its
support for democracy and moderate interpretation of
Islam have been essential to the continuation of
democracy in Indonesia.
In contrast, Muhammadiyah, the other major
Muslim organization present in Indonesia, has
remained “consistently non-party political”16 since
the transition. Surveys have shown that its members
have supported a variety of parties throughout
elections since the democratic transition, with “only a
small minority supporting radical Islamist parties.”17
This is significant, as it reveals that mainstream
Indonesian Islam is not only compatible with
democracy, but complementary to it -
Muhammadiyah’s political neutrality has largely
acted as a legitimizing force for Indonesian
democracy, successfully demonstrating that Islam and
democracy can peacefully coexist, without one
seeking to coopt the other.
Finally, both organizations provided a space
where politics and policy could be discussed, both
before and after the democratization of Indonesia.
Although not always overtly political, “religious
leaders and religious mass organizations, such as
Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU),
effectively acted to give Indonesia a stronger and
more extensive civil society than its limited middle class could otherwise have produced”18 during the
Sudharto years, and kept citizens engaged in political
discussions in spite of state repression. Many
organizations were also able to influence policy or
materially improve living conditions for Indonesians,
something which facilitated the democratic transition.
Islamic women’s organizations, for example,
“continued to function as mass-based organizations
reaching into villages that supported women’s
interests.”19 Similarly, many religious leaders, such
as former NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid and former
Muhammadiyah leader Amien Rais, contributed to
reforms under the Suharto regime. As Barton points
out, “Wahid and likeminded civil society colleagues
[...] challenged the authoritarian excesses of the
Suharto regime [for more than a decade] and in its
final years had channeled broad social coalitions to
push for reform.”20 When mass mobilizations against
the Suharto regime began, “observers were fearful
about what would follow the inevitable conclusion of
the authoritarian Suharto regime [because] Indonesia
was thought to have a middle class too small, and a
civil society too limited, to successfully underwrite
[the] transition to democracy.”21 Islam greatly
contributed to the expansion and mobilization of civil
society, however, to the extent that it was able to
support and sustain the democratic transition. The
first post-democratization presidents, Habibie and
Wahid, had both been leaders of Islamic
organizations prior to democratization, but
nevertheless pursued sweeping reforms in health and
education.22 In the twenty-odd years since the
democratic transition, this has largely continued to be
the case. As Anwar notes, although “there are now
several Islamic political parties using Islam as their
political platform, [...] none of these parties espouses
the establishment of an Islamic state any longer.”23 In
fact, it is largely due to the restraint of both
Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama that
Indonesian democracy was able to flourish after
democratization, since both had enough popular
support to have been able to arrange a coup had they
so wished, and failed to.
III. Cᴜʟᴛᴜʀᴀʟ Iɴғʟᴜᴇɴᴄᴇ
Islam has also been used by various actors to
maintain and develop the pluralistic society existing
in Indonesia. Unlike in many other majority Muslim
countries, women in Indonesia enjoy significant
rights. Religious minorities are also treated with
relative toleration, and wide popular support for
democracy exists. This can in part be attributed to
the cultural influence of Islam, which continues to be
used as a mechanism to promote the rights of women
under a unique form of Islamic feminism, and which
has merged with traditional belief systems in the
region to create a moderate form of “civil Islam”.
Throughout the decades of military
dictatorship Indonesia experienced, many Islamic
organizations mobilized women, addressed numerous
social issues facing them, and “were poised to
re-engage with politics”24 and advocate for female
participation in government after the fall of Suharto.
Islamic women’s organizations created womens’
study groups, where women were encouraged to read
and discuss religious texts, as well as contribute to
charitable works,25 but also provided a platform for
Islamic feminists to advocate for more controversial
issues of women’s rights. Islamic feminists
traditionally utilized Islam “to challenge
[interpretations of the Qu’ran] hostile to women’s
interests, [that sought] to achieve or sustain control
over women.”26 They primarily argued that
“discriminative practices arise from gender-biased
interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith that
[contradict] the true egalitarian spirit of Islam,”27 and
were accordingly able to gain support from many
Muslim women. Kathryn Robinson discusses many
of these organizations in her excellent book, Gender,
Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, and highlights
their role in “the provision of health and welfare
services,”28 particularly in rural areas. Islamic
women’s organizations did not only address issues
such as maternal health, but were also “sensitive to
reproductive rights,”29 and often provided essential
health care services to women. In light of a series of high-profile sexual assault cases, for instance, the
Rifka Annisa refuge was established in Yogyakarta
by a number of Islamic feminists in order to provide a
refuge for women who were victims of crimes such
as rape.30 All of this political activity was continued
in the post-Suharto era, and has contributed to
making Indonesia one of the most egalitarian
It is important to recognize not only the
ways in which Islam has contributed to democracy
and Indonesia’s unique culture, but also the ways in
which it has been influenced by local practices. As
opposed to traditional Middle Eastern Islam,
Indonesian Islam is more tolerant and moderate. It
has integrated certain local customs, reserves a
greater role for women, and has traditionally been
spread peacefully. That said, this does not mean that
it is any less Islamic or any less serious of a belief
system. As Barton puts it, Indonesian Islamic
scholars “have arrived, with considerable intellectual
sophistication and depth, at a position that brings
together classical Islamic scholarship and modern
critical thought in a way that draws deeply from
Islam’s wellspring to produce a modern Islamic
humanism.”31 This unique perspective on Islam has
contributed significantly both to the progressive and
democratic attitudes espoused by the aforementioned
Islamic organizations, as well as to the promotion of
progressive policies by Islamic politicians, without
which Indonesian democracy would be significantly
less robust. In fact, this more moderate version of
Islam allowed for the passage of progressive and
democratic policies by Islamic leaders directly
following the collapse of the Suharto regime,
something which ensured that democracy took root,
rather than a theocracy or other, more conservative
form of government. Hefner refers to this as “civil
Islam” in his book, and argues that “civil pluralist
Islam is an emergent tradition and comes in a variety
of forms,”32 but that primarily affirms “democracy,
voluntarism, and a balance of countervailing powers
in a state and society.”33 He further argues that “in
embracing the ideals of civil society, this democratic
Islam insists that formal democracy cannot prevail unless government power is checked by strong civic
associations [...and] civic associations and democratic
culture cannot thrive unless they are protected by a
state that respects society by upholding its
commitment to the rule of law.”34 This unique type
of Islam and the values it espouses are quite clearly
reflected in the actions of both Muhammadiyah and
Nahdlatul Ulama, as discussed previously, and likely
explain both roganizations’ encouraging attitudes
towards democracy and moderate beliefs.
Both Islamic feminism and civil Islam have
had significant cultural influence in Indonesia, as
evidenced by continnued popular support for
moderate politicians, as expressed during elections.
Despite the existence of certain fringe parties, in most
cases, Islam peacefully coexists with democracy, and
even butresses it, as religious principles and
organizations both encourage toleration. The
existence of popular protests in the face of proposed
fundamentalist reforms suggests that there is
significant popular resistance to oppressive or
anti-democratic practices, and that the vast majority
of Indonesians do not consider their faith to be
incompatible with their system of government.
IV. Uɴɪᴏ̨ᴜᴇ Cʜᴀʟʟᴇɴɢᴇs
Despite the remarkable progress that has
been made, Indonesia continues to face significant
challenges reconciling more conservative Islamic
values, which continue to be espoused by some
political groups, with democracy. As a large country
with a lot of ethnic and religious diversity, Indonesia
has faced demands for independence from certain
ethnic minorities. Particularly in the case of the
region of Aceh, which is overwhelmingly Muslim
and has long threatened secession, Indonesia has
adopted a conciliatory, federalist approach. As of
2001, Aceh received special autonomy and the right
to govern itself in accordance with Sharia law35 - a
strict form of religious law at odds with the more
moderate Islam that prevails in other parts of the
country. Although this was able to mitigate
secessionist sentiments, the harsh punishments
exacted by Sharia law for crimes such as sex outside of marriage have raised concerns from human rights
groups and provoked significant debate within the
country. Even since the onset of the Covid-19
pandemic, couples in the region have been beaten for
pre-marital sex, even between consenting adults.36
The issue of pre-marital sex has been a
controversy across the country in recent years,
beyond the province of Aceh, although proposed
punishments have taken the form of fines and jail
time rather than beatings. In particular, a
controversial bill to reform Indonesia’s penal code,
inherited from Dutch colonizers at the time of
independence, proposed up to a year in jail as
punishment for pre-marital sex. This proposition that
would have threatened to persecute not only those in
pre-marital heterosexual relationships, but also the
LGBT community, and potentially foreign couples
visiting the country as tourists.37 The proposed bill
also contained provisions to “[penalise] people who
criticize the president's honour; teachers of
Marxist-Leninist ideology; and women who have
abortions in the absence of a medical emergency or
rape.”38 Despite the controversy and the authoritarian
provisions it contained, many religious groups, and
most notably Nahdlatul Ulama, expressed support for
the proposed changes due to their perceived
alignment with Islamic values. Nahdlatul Ulama
even claimed that the bill reflected “the character and
the personality of the Indonesian people and the
nation."39 In light of protests, debate on the bill was
postponed indefinitely by president Widodo, and the
issue has yet to be resolved.40 This would suggest
that democratic pressure and sentiment continues to
be strong among Indonesians, and that the
conservative interpretation of Islam promoted by
certain political parties does not reflect the views of
the population, despite the country being 98%
In another national controversy, the Islamic
Defenders Front, a hardline, conservative, political party, was banned in Indonesia in 2020.42 Although
some saw it as a positive step for democracy and a
sign the government was prepared to defend religious
freedom and other human rights, others argued that it
was politically motivated.43 Regardless, despite the
ban, the sentiments that attracted members to the
group are likely far more pervasive than the group
itself, and unlikely to disappear as a result of its
prohibition. It is thus clear that, despite majoritarian
support for moderate, “civil Islam,” the country is far
from homogenous and more traditional factions
It is thus clear that, despite the remarkable
contributions Islam has made to Indonesian
democracy, the balance between tradition and
adaptation remains relatively fragile. Due to the
diverse nature of the country, it is likely that conflicts
between religious and secular interpretations of
morality will continue to emerge. That said, there is
reason to hope that they will be resolved through
democratic means, sometimes with the help of
religious organizations, and sometimes through
secular mechanisms such as public protest.
In conclusion, Islam has made significant
contribtions to Indonesian democracy both prior to
and since the fall of Suharto, although it has not been
without its challenges. Islamic organizations were
able to preserve civil society and encourage dialogue
during the years of the military dictatorship, and after
its fall, they were able to protect the nascent
democracy by largely resisting politicization and
supporting liberal-democratic reforms. Despite the
relative failure of the Wadid presidency, a peaceful
transition of power was possible largely due to the
support for democracy of Islamic organizations,
which had the support of large segments of the
population. Indonesia has retained its status as a
democracy ever since, strongly influenced by a
culture of civil Islam and Islamic feminism, both of
which support a relatively liberal society. Although
there have been controversies, such as the
implementation of Sharia law in Aceh, the debate over pre-marital sex, and the ban on the Islamic
Defenders Front, popular pressure has largely resisted
illiberal measures, and continues to support
Anais Kneppers is a student at the university of
Ottawa. Austin Mardon has a PhD in historical
astronomy and is the director of the Antarctic
Institute of Canada.
1 Dewi Fortuna Anwar, “Foreign Policy, Islam and Democracy in
Indonesia,” Journal of Indonesian Social Sciences and Humanities,
vol. 3 (2010): 49.
2 Greg Barton, “The Gülen Movement, Muhammadiyah and
Nahdlatul Ulama: Progressive Islamic Thought, Religious
Philanthropy and Civil Society in Turkey and Indonesia,” Islam
and Christian–Muslim Relations, vol. 25, no. 3 (2014): 296.
3 Barton, 2014, 296.
4 Barton, 2014, 287.
5 Robin Bush, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power Within
Islam and Politics in Indonesia, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast
Asian Studies, 2009): 2.
6 Greg Barton, “Indonesia: Legitimacy, Secular Democracy, and
Islam,” Politics & Policy, vol. 38, no. 3 (2010): 473.
7 Barton, 2014, 289-290.
8 Bush, 119.
9 Bush, 119.
10 Bush, 121.
11 Bush, 122.
12 Bush, 122.
13 Bush, 134.
14 Bush, 135.
15 Bush, 139.
16 Barton, 2014, 297.
17 Barton, 2014, 297.
18 Barton, 2010, 473,
19 Kathryn Robinson, Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia
(Milton: Routledge, 2008): 136.
20 Barton, 2010, 473.
21 Barton, 2010, 473.
22 Barton, 2010, 474.
23 Anwar, 43.
24 Robinson, 136.
25 Robinson, 136-137.
26 Robinson, 182.
27 Robinson, 182.
28 Robinson, 136.
29 Robinson, 139.
30 Robinson, 156.
31 Barton, 2014, 289.
32 Robert Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in
Indonesia, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011): 32.
33 Hefner, 33.
34 Hefner, 33.
35 Peter Searle, "Ethno-religious conflicts: rise or decline? Recent
developments in Southeast Asia," Contemporary Southeast Asia,
vol. 24, no. 1 (2001).
36 Jack Newman, “Couples punished with 20 lashes of the cane for
having sex outside marriage in Indonesian region governed by
Sharia law,” Daily Mail, March 8, 2021.
37 Stanley Widianto, “Explainer - It’s not only about sex:
Indonesia’s divisive criminal bill,” Reuters, September 24, 2019.
40 Richard Paddock and Muktita Suhartono, "Indonesia’s President
Halts Bill That Would Ban Sex Outside Marriage," New York
Times, September 20, 2019.
42 Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Kate Lamb, "Indonesia bans
hardline Islamic Defenders Front group," Reuters, December 30, 2020.
43 Beo Da Costa and Lamb.