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Implications for debates about sectarianism in Indonesia

Article by Dr Alexander R. Arifianto

July 19, 2022

Implications for debates about sectarianism in Indonesia

Watershed political events over the past decade – starting from the 2010-12 Arab Spring; civil wars in Syria and Yemen; the continuing ethnic strife in Iraq, Lebanon, and numerous Muslim-majority societies; and the global rise of populist leaders who utilise ethnic, racial, and xenophobic rhetoric to mobilise political support – have renewed attention toward political sectarianism among scholars and policymakers alike.


While the concept of ‘political sectarianism’ can be applied to explain both inter- and intra-group conflicts involving two or more distinct ethno-religious groups, much of its conceptual and empirical applications over the past decade were applied to cases of ethno-religious conflicts in the Middle East, typically to cases of Sunni-Shiite conflict.[1] Henceforth, scholars are increasingly calling for a broader application of the concept to analyse conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups in other regions of the world.[2]


Of course, the application of ‘political sectarianism’ to other regions beyond the Middle East means that differing types of political contestation, religion-state relations, and regime type which become the basis of ethno-religious conflict in these societies must be taken into account. The historical and sociological contexts that are often being utilised as master-narratives used to justify and prolong the conflict should also be considered in our analysis as well.


For one thing, political sectarianism might not necessarily involve deeply seated theological divisions that are heavily politicised and may escalate into large-scale violence. Instead, it often takes place as a form of micro-level division among different Sunni Muslim groups due to theological, ideological, and ritualistic disagreements.[3] Over time, such disagreements became so significant that religious leaders and politicians from the quarrelling groups began to politicise them in order to gain political advantage or patronage favours from the state.


Sectarianism in Indonesia: The early years

Intra-Sunni sectarianism has occurred – albeit with different levels of intensity across different time periods – for nearly a century in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority nation (239 million Muslims), a state which is also home to approximately 1,300 ethnic groups.[4] The first major point of sectarian tension occurred in the early 20th century when a group of modernist Muslims began to challenge the hegemony of the predominantly traditionalist-leaning clerics, which then were the prominent Islamic authority in Indonesia.


Modernists believed that the customs and rituals of traditionalist Muslims were heretical innovations (bid ’ah) that were contradicting the ‘true’ Islamic interpretations written down in the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophets (hadith). Modernists also opposed the then prevailing custom that individual Muslims should only listen to the clerics (ulama) and could not practice independent reasoning (ijtihad) and interpret the Qur’an on their own.[5]


In 1912, Sarekat Islam and Muhammadiyah – the first two modernist Islamic organisations – were established. By the 1920s, modernists had imposed significant challenges to the authority of the dominant traditionalist clerics, prompting the latter to form their own organisation in order to undercut the former’s theological influence. Nahdlatul Ulama (‘The Revival of Islamic Scholars’) was founded in 1926 as the first formal association of traditionalist clerics throughout the then Dutch East Indies.[6] Contestation between the modernist and traditionalist groups continued throughout the 1930s at about the same time the voices of Indonesian nationalists calling for an independent state were getting louder and louder.


When the Japanese Army seized control of Indonesia in 1942 they forced all existing Indonesian Islamic organisations to merge together under a single group called Masyumi. After Indonesia’s independence was declared in 1945, Masyumi became the country’s first Islamic party, becoming a leading political party during Indonesia’s first period as a democratic state from 1950 to 1959.


However, the traditionalist-modernist divide was resurrected in 1952 when the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) broke away from Masyumi, citing the latter’s refusal to grant the Minister of Religion Affairs position to a NU representative.[7] Given the ministry’s significant role in Muslim affairs across Indonesia – ranging from the construction of mosques, Islamic schools (pesantren) and state universities, to the management of annual hajj pilgrims from Indonesia – the ministry is often contested between traditionalists and modernists for the right to formulate policies relevant to Muslim affairs in Indonesia and for its massive budget that becomes a patronage source for multiple Islamic organisations.[8]


The rivalry between Masyumi and NU went on throughout the 1950s. After Masyumi was accused of supporting regional rebellions against the central government in Jakarta – Soekarno – Indonesia’s founding President – disbanded the party and imprisoned many of its leaders.[9] This move made NU the most influential Islamic organisation in Indonesia, and it developed a close alignment with Soekarno as he dissolved the constitutional assembly and parliament in 1959, establishing authoritarian rule in the process.


Sectarianism under Suharto

As an alleged coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 severely weakened Soekarno’s rule, NU switched its allegiance to support the Indonesian military (TNI). Ansor – its youth wing – assisted the latter in a repressive campaign against alleged Communist Party members and sympathisers. This led to the deaths of nearly one million Indonesians, mainly in the NU stronghold in rural Central Java and East Java.[10] When Suharto – the TNI’s supreme commander – seized power from Soekarno in 1966, the NU threw its support behind him.


While Suharto was closely aligned with NU during this period, he suppressed the modernists by denying the request from former Masyumi chairman Mohamad Natsir to have it reinstated as a legally recognised political party. In response, Natsir founded a new ‘non-political’ Islamic organisation called the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council (DDII).[11] DDII became an umbrella organisation which channelled funds from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations modernist organisations, which are increasingly influenced by various transnational Islamic ideologies – from the Muslim Brotherhood to various types of Salafism during the 1960s and 1970s.[12]


While Muhammadiyah – the largest modernist organisation – officially retained its own moderate Islamic outlook, many of its rank-and-file members increasingly came under the influence of one or more transnational Islamist ideologies. Some Muhammadiyah members broke away from the organisation to form new organisations with more Islamist ideological orientations. For instance, the South Sulawesi-centered Wahdah Islamiyah – influenced by the fusion of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies.[13]


By the mid-1970s, there was a growing rift between NU and the Suharto regime as the former objected to the latter’s effort to enact ‘secular’ laws on marriage and the education system which marginalised the role of Islamic institutions. In 1984, Abdurrahman Wahid – a grandson of NU’s founder – became the organisation’s new leader. While Wahid implemented policies to accommodate the regime at first – by declaring NU’s recognition of Indonesia’s secular nationalist ideology Pancasila (‘five principles’) as the organisation’s sole ideological principle – over time he became one of its leading critics. Wahid also declared that his organisation would follow principles such as democracy, tolerance, and religious pluralism to set itself in contrast to the increasingly authoritarian measures adopted by Suharto during the 1980s.[14]


Hence, by the late 1980s Islam in Indonesia was further divided into three distinctive ideological streams: the traditionalist stream of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the moderate modernist stream of the Muhammadiyah, and the Islamist stream influenced by various transnational Islamic groups. As the Suharto regime slowly declined during the 1990s, both NU and Muhammadiyah were at the front of a growing opposition movement against the regime.[15] While individual Islamist activists were part of the opposition movement, Islamist organisations – still facing state reprisal – largely operated underground up until the regime’s fall in 1998.


After Suharto fell from power, Wahid became Indonesia’s first democratically elected President in 1999. Afterwards, however, sectarian tensions between NU and Muhammadiyah re-emerged as the latter accused Wahid of reneging his promise to share power with other members of the anti-Suharto opposition and filing out his cabinet with NU politicians and other close allies. Growing discontent against Wahid finally resulted in his impeachment in 2001. As a response to their leader’s removal, activists from NU’s youth wing , set fire to several Muhammadiyah-owned buildings in East Java province.[16] However, further sectarian violence was avoided when Wahid agreed to step down peacefully from the presidency.


Contemporary resurgence of sectarianism

To avoid further tensions between NU and Muhammadiyah, Indonesian presidents after Wahid generally instituted an informal arrangement to provide a guaranteed ministerial seat to both organisations. While the Minister of Religious Affairs position is reserved for a NU politician, the Minister of Education position is generally reserved for Muhammadiyah.[17] Presidents Megawati Soekarnoputri (2001 to 2004) and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004 to 2014) largely adhered to this informal power-sharing arrangement.


However, this changed when Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s new President in 2014. The new President calculated that as he faced an increasing challenge from an emboldened Islamist movement which threatened his regime’s stability, it was important to align his regime closely with the NU. This is because the organisation has not only consistently promoted its moderate Islamic vision for three decades, but also able to back their ‘moderate Islam’ promotion with hundreds of thousand clerics and religious teachers. As a last resort, NU could deploy a militia force under its youth wing Ansor to quell any threat from hardline Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) – well-known for its violent tactics deployed against its critics as well as against members of various religious minorities.[18]


The most significant support from Widodo to NU was his support to the latter’s initiative to rebrand its main theological principles into a doctrine called Islam Nusantara (‘Archipelagic Islam’) in 2015. NU engaged in this theological rebranding because it faced increasing competition from various Islamist groups that had been growing rapidly since the fall of Suharto regime nearly two decades earlier, including the Tarbiyah (‘Nurture’) movement inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), part of the global Hizb ut-Tahrir (‘Party of Liberation’) movement that called for Indonesia to be part of a new transnational Islamic caliphate, and dozens of Salafi-influenced groups. All of them are thought to chip away at NU’s claimed followership of approximately 90 million Indonesian Muslims.


Islam Nusantara is supposed to be a restatement of NU’s theological principles to younger followers of the organisation to show the compatibility of classical Islamic teachings with local (mainly Javanese-based) customs and ritual practices and Indonesia’s nationalism enshrined in its Pancasila ideology – all of which are considered to be heretical by the newer Islamist groups. However, its critics – including those from Muhammadiyah – considered it as an effort by NU to impose its own interpretation of Islam in Indonesia’s public discourses, notwithstanding the fact it mainly represented traditions and rituals practiced largely by NU ulama living in Java.[19]


In return, NU leaders declared that their organisation was originally founded in 1926 to unite traditionalist clerics against the reformist agenda of ‘the Wahhabis.’[20] This was a veiled accusation against modernist Islamic organisations like Muhammadiyah that despite its claims of having moderated its ideology, at heart it is still inspired by an agenda inspired by the early 20th century Islamic reformers to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the traditionalist NU ulama.


Beyond these theological disagreements, the renewed sectarian division between NU and Muhammadiyah is also driven by the decision of the Widodo regime to reward NU’s support through political appointments as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and executives of various state enterprises. This is especially prominent within his second-term cabinet in which NU is represented by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin (formerly the organisation’s supreme leader), Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, and three other NU-affiliated ministers.[21] In contrast, only one current minister comes from Muhammadiyah, and the current Minister of Education is a founder of a major Indonesian IT company with no connection to any religious organisation. NU’s close alignment with Widodo has paid off handsomely, while Muhammadiyah is politically marginalised due to the perception that its rank-and-file members are more likely to align themselves to the Islamist cause rather than with the President.


Concluding observations

To conclude, renewed political sectarianism in Indonesia has its roots in the theological differences between traditionalists, modernists, and (since the late 1960s) Islamists. While the theological differences between the three groups were not as divergent as the Sunni vs Shia differences – they are still significant to create identifiable sectarian differences between the three groups – based upon: 1) their interpretation of ‘appropriate’ customs, traditions, and ritualistic practices that is compatible with basic Islamic teachings; and 2) their ideological and political outlook – with traditionalists and modernists have largely see their political theologies to be compatible with the Indonesian nation-state based on the Pancasila ideology, while Islamists largely reject such a compatibility.


However, political sectarianism is not always salient throughout much of Indonesia’s post-colonial history. It tends to be more intense during the time where there is an increased theological and political competition among Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, and the Islamists as more established groups like NU align with certain political regimes to exclude their rivals from gaining access to political appointments and other state patronage,deploying sectarian rhetoric and divisive strategies to marginalise their rivals. Efforts to de-escalate the sectarian divide between these groups may include power-sharing arrangements like those implemented by successive regimes in the 2000s and early 2010s. More importantly, it should incorporate more meritocratic appointments based on talents and capabilities instead of those based on political loyalties and allegiances to the current regime.


Alexander R. Arifianto is currently a Research Fellow with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) – Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research expertise is contemporary Indonesian politics and comparative Islamic parties and social movements in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. His articles have appeared in refereed journals such as Journal of Global Strategic Studies; Religion, State, and Society; Asia Policy; Trans-National and Regional Studies of Southeast Asia (TRaNS); Asian Security; and Asian Politics and Policy.


[1] Abdo, Genevive. 2017. The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide. New York, US: Oxford University Press; Hashemi, Nader and Postel, Daniel. 2017. Sectarianization: Mapping the Politics of the New Middle East. New York, US: Oxford University Press.

[2] Mabon, Simon. Afterword: Sectarianisation Beyond the Middle East. Religion, State, and Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 174-180.

[3] Arifianto and Saleem. 2021, op cit; Kilinc, Ramazan. From Honourable to Villainous: Political Competition and Sectarianisation in Turkey. Religion, State, and Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 93-108.

[4] Ananta, Aris, Nurvidya Arifin, Evi, Hasbullah, M. Sairi, Handayani, Nur Budi and Pramono, Agus. 2015. Demography of Indonesia’s Ethnicity. Singapore, Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, p. 20.

[5] Noer, Deliar. 1973. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1942. Singapore, Singapore: Oxford University Press; Federspiel, Howard. The Muhammadijah: A Study of an Orthodox Islamic Movement in Indonesia. Indonesia 10, (1970): 57-79.

[6] Bush, Robin. 2009. Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power within Islam and Politics in Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, pp. 36-40.

[7] Feith, Herbert. 1962. The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[8] Martin van Bruinessen, Comparing the Governance of Islam in Turkey and Indonesia: Diyanet and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Working Paper No. 312, Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, May 2018,

[9] Feith. 1962, op cit.

[10] Fealy, Greg and McGregor, Kate. Nahdlatul Ulama and the Killings of 1965-1966: Religion, Politics, and Remembrance. Indonesia 89, (2008): 37- 60.

[11] Hefner, Robert W. 2000. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 106-107.

[12] Arifianto, Alexander R. The State of Political Islam in Indonesia: The Historical Antecedent and Future Prospects. Asia Policy 15, no. 4, (2020): 116-118.

[13] Chaplin, Chris. 2021. Salafism and the State: Islamic Activism and National Identity in Contemporary Indonesia. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.

[14] Bush, 2009, op cit; Barton, Greg. 2002. Gus Dur: The Authorized Biography of Abdurrahman Wahid. Jakarta, Indonesia: Equinox Publishing.

[15] Arifianto, Alexander R. From Ideological to Political Sectarianism: Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, and the State in Indonesia. Religion, State, and Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 131.

[16] Arifianto. 2021. op cit, p. 132

[17] Alexander R. Arifianto, Jokowi’s Sixth Reshuffle: Securing His Legacy?, RSIS Commentary No. 21-073, Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, April 2021,

[18] Arifianto. 2021. op cit, p. 135.

[19] Ibid, p. 133.

[20] Ibid, p. 134.

[21] Ibid, pp. 135-136.

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