Islamic pitch sells well in Indonesia's election

Upstart parties inject religion in the run-up to a June election asfuller democracy blossoms.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The leaders of the Justice Party put their money where their mouth is.

The soft-drink cooler at party headquarters in Jakarta is unlocked, relying instead on a Koranic verse to admonish members to pay for what they take: "If you pay the exact amount you already did justice," a sign reads. "Do justice, since justice is closer to piety."

Islamic values color the party platforms, slogans, and banners of dozens of Muslim parties taking part in the first democratic elections in Indonesia in 44 years. In previous votes, only three parties were allowed to run. One was Muslim but forced to hide its Islamic credentials and symbols. This time they will compete against dozens of upstarts, ranging from mass organizations to one-man shows.

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Although the campaign formally kicks off only six weeks before the poll on June 7, lampposts and trees of the capital are already covered with flags the color of Islam - green decorated with crescents, stars, and the Kaabah, the holiest building in Mecca.

The Justice Party is among the most up front about its devotion to Islam, which had been forcefully kept out of politics under the authoritarian rule of former President Suharto but has come back with a vengeance since he resigned last May.

"We introduce ethics and morality into politics," says Nur Mahmudi Ismail, the party's president. "We want to teach citizens to understand their role in building this society, to become honest, to become disciplined."

Lacking experienced pollsters, Indonesians are at a loss to say who will do well. But the Justice Party is considered a dark horse because of its active grass-roots organization, with 216 party branches in 25 of 27 provinces. The Crescent Moon and Star Party, another newcomer, appears well financed but its leaders are distrusted by many Muslims because of their ties to Mr. Suharto.

The Justice Party calls for a role in government for the ulemas, the Islamic scholars, for removal of Western-style laws that conflict with Indonesian culture, and for censorship of Western arts entering the country. Mr. Ismail believes gay activists should be jailed. He defends laws that allow parents to block a daughter's wedding but not a son's. The party office has separate waiting areas for females and males.

Many Indonesians, both in the Christian minority and the Muslim majority, are uncomfortable with the sudden prominence of Islam in politics. Some fear it will only divide the nation at a time economic and political chaos has sparked religious and ethnic riots.

But the soda on sale in the Justice Party's cooler is American cola and root beer. Its founding members teamed up through the Internet while studying in the United States and Australia. Women make up more than half of the rapidly growing party rank and file. While its leaders can get carried away in conversations and reveal intolerant ideas, the Justice Party and other upstarts market themselves as moderate, tolerant, and open-minded.

"No Muslim can suffice with relying on lessons from Islam and ignoring other lessons," its leaflet reads. "Justice should be done towards anyone regardless of race, skin color, or religion."

While some blame the recent wave of clashes between Christians and Muslims on the revival of religious politics, Ismail insists it is the moral vacuum that is to blame. "The main reason is a lack of understanding of religion. The more you learn about religion, the calmer you are," he says. "Islam does not teach that everything of others is bad."

None of the parties advocate replacing secular law with sharia, or Islamic law, although Ismail and others concede they would prefer to introduce at least some of the sharia to the Indonesian legal system, which was drafted largely by the Dutch colonial government that ruled Indonesia until 1949.

"We must transfer the values of the Koran into the law," said Anwar Haryono, founder of the Crescent Moon and Star Party, shortly before his death late last year. "But those values can be acceptable to everybody. Not like in Saudi Arabia but more like Malaysia." For his party, that means women could still drive cars or become president; it wants banks to share profit rather than charge interest, and courts to focus on reconciliation rather than mere judgments.

Indonesians are among the world's most moderate and tolerant Muslims, blending traditional beliefs with Koranic dogma the way they mix Western and Indonesian clothes. Muslim clerics have allowed a famous male singer to have a sex change and head an Islamic school for orphans, while a gay government minister sparks public jokes, but not protest.

Instead of a sudden swing to fundamentalism, the high number of Muslim parties cropping up in Indonesia reflects the diversity of religious practices in the largest Muslim nation in the world. Some cater to traditionalist Muslims, others to nominal Muslims in Java who mix their Islamic beliefs with Hindu and animist beliefs, while the Justice Party and others appeal to the more educated, modernist Muslims in cities and universities. "We all have our niche markets," says Ismail.

But the preponderance of Islam in Indonesian politics also reflects the search for some unifying ideology in Indonesia, at a time when the economy is teetering, law and order are breaking down, and the government has lost all respect. Suharto had thousands of Communists massacred and nudged Islam out of politics, effectively deideologizing his country by imposing Pancasila, an amorphous state dogma that was more symbol than substance. That lack of guiding principles is reflected in the major party platforms, including that of the Justice Party, which are vague and interchangeable but for a few details.

"There are no substantial differences," says Ahmad Syafii Maarif, acting chairman of Muhammadiyah, a modernist party that is one of the country's two largest Muslim groups. "They all want to be leaders. They did not look at the Islamic doctrine before they entered politics. Political calculations are more important to them."

If intolerance proves a good sell, the moderation of Indonesia's Muslim parties may well fade away, particularly if it is a veneer. While its program appeals for tolerance, the Justice Party has put some very intolerant slogans in the diaries it hands out as promotional material.

"Whoever accepts a woman as leader will not be successful," says one slogan. Another is, "If the Muslims are united we can face the others together."

"Religiously this country is very tolerant," says Mr. Maarif. "But once politics enters religion it is very dangerous. They should be very careful when quoting the Koranic verses - it can divide the Muslim community."

"It depends whether you are using religion for the party or working for religion," counters Ismail. He may be right, but like many of his competitors, he has yet to prove whether Islam is a means or an end.

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