A comparative analysis of the strategies the New Order and UMNO regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia adopted to deal with Islam in 1965 - 1998

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

43 Pages, Grade: 65





1 The relationship of Islam to politics
2 Comparative study of Muslim politics in Indonesia and Malaysia

1 Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia - Similarities and differences
2 Two regimes compared
2.1. Regime origins
2.2 Authoritarianism

1 The promotion of cultural and social Islam
2. Politicizing Islam in Malaysia and de-politicizing Islam in Indonesia
2.1 Through laws
2.2 Through bureaucratization
2.3 The Islamic state
2.4 Through manipulating the media





This dissertation provides a comparative analysis of the strategies the New Order and UMNO regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia adopted to deal with Islam from 1965 to 1998. During these three decades, the two regimes were similar in viewing Islam as a big challenge. However, the strategies they employed to deal with it were different. President Suharto followed a two-pronged strategy of promoting cultural Islam and at the same time, emasculating political Islam. Meanwhile, the UMNO leadership embarked on their comprehensive Islamization project. As a result, Islam as a social and cultural force grew tremendously in Indonesia and Malaysia. Yet in national politics, Suharto pushed Islam from center to periphery, then since mid-1980s he courted Islam and pulled it out of the periphery again. In Malaysia, the Islamization race between UMNO and PAS moved Islam from the fringe to the center of mainstream politics. The work concludes that Islam was systematically manipulated by both regimes in the period of 1965-1998, and the two strategies led to the emergence of two different models of Islamization in two countries: a “think-tank” focused project in Malaysia and a bottom-up process in Indonesia.


The thought of doing my dissertation on a comparative study of Muslim politics came to me when I read about an UMNO[1] ’s proposal of changing the “M” in its acronym to stand for “Muslim” rather than “Malay” (Miller, 2004: 5). I knew that at the same time (1980), in the neighbouring country Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population on Earth, there was no parties that claimed themselves to represent the interests of Islam and Muslim (Esposito, 1987b: 203). Then I wonder what made Malaysia’s largest party that has ruled the country continuously since independence consider altering its identification from an ethnicity to a religion whose adherents count a bare majority of the citizenry? And what happened to Islam in Indonesia where about 90 percent of the population professed Islam?

Another paradox appeared 10 years later. In September 2001, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad shocked everyone when he announced Malaysia is already an Islamic state just days after Al Qaida attacked the superpower United States in the name of Islam (Liow, 2003: 19). Around that time, two Indonesian presidents, Abdurrahman Wahid - the highest leader of the largest Muslim organization of the world Nahdlatul Ulama and Megawati Sukarnoputri - a nominal Muslim both emphasized that Pancasila[2], or religious pluralism is and will still be the foundation of the nation (Abuza, 2003: 190-201). What lies behind these announcements? What made the position of Islam in national politics of the two countries so opposite?

The two foregoing paradoxes and the questions that linger are all about the relationship of Islam to politics in contemporary history. At a time when Islam is the significant factor in national and international politics, a comparative research on Muslim politics in Malaysia - a model of Islam’s compatibility with modernity and developmentalism (Stauth, 2002: 47) and Indonesia - the country which has the biggest number of citizens who are Muslims in the world (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 3) is surely not redundant. That is why I chose to pursue a comparative analysis of the strategies the New Order regime[3] and the UMNO regime[4] employed to deal with Islam from 1965 to 1998.

This introduction is followed by Chapter 1 which consists of two sections. The first provides a brief study of the relationship of Islam to politics that introduces the “pitiable subjugation” of the former to the latter (Eickelman&Piscatori, 1996: 139-140). The second in turn includes two parts: first, a quick glance at the two countries in question as well as their illuminating similarities and fundamental differences; and second, a literature review of works done on the subject I am so engrossed in. Surprisingly comparative scholarship of the two countries is embarrassingly rare and as far as I am aware, no systematic comparative observations of Muslim politics has been done, not to mention those of the strategies the two regimes adopted to exploit Islam for their interests. The content of Chapter 2 is indicated in its title: the historical and political context which affects the strategies. In this chapter, I examine the similarities and differences between Indonesian Islam and Malaysian Islam as well as those between the New Order and the UMNO regimes, all of which left their marks on the strategies towards Islam of the two regimes that are discussed in details in Chapter 3 - the main chapter of my dissertation. I found that President Suharto, the master of the New Order, pursued a two-pronged strategies of supporting cultural Islam while suppressing political Islam. Whereas in Malaysia UMNO promoted both aspects of Islam. These different strategies, of course, led to different results. In Indonesia, Islam was pushed from center to periphery, then pulled out of the periphery since mid-1980s when Suharto courted Muslim forces. In Malaysia, the “politics of outbidding” between UMNO and its arch nemesis PAS for the leadership of the Malay-Muslim community moved Islam from the fringe to the center of mainstream politics (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 95; Liow, 2003: 1). Besides, two different models of Islamization emerged in two countries: a “think-tank” focused mode in Malaysia and a bottom-up mode in its neighbour.


1 The relationship of Islam to politics

According to conventional wisdom, Islam is a comprehensive system, making no distinction between spiritual and temporal realms, no division between church and state (Esposito, 1987a: 28). It was described by Sayyid Qutb as a tall tree with many branches and deep-spreading roots, covering not only political but all other aspects of life (Piscatori, 1994: 11); or by Benard Lewis and W. Montgomery Watt as an indivisible whole way of life consisting of political, economic, social, ritual, and moral components (Lewis, 1993: 4; Watt, 1968: 3). This view finds support in more than forty references in the Holy Quran (Eickelman&Piscatori, 1996: 46) and a historical example of the Prophet Muhammad founding a political community at Medina based on religion. The indivisibility of religion and politics that follows from this premise is generally reflected in Muslim discourse and practice (Piscatori, 1994: 11), for example in Ayatullah [5] Khomeini’s will, in which he wrote: “As for [those] who consider Islam separate from government and politics, it must be said to these ignoramuses that the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah[6] of the Prophet contain more rules regarding government and politics than in other matters” (Eickelman&Piscatori, 1996: 49, quoting Khomeini, 1983: 22).

Yet an opposite standpoint has rivaled it for centuries (Piscatori, 1994: 11). A careful reading of the historical record indicates the cleavage between religious and political authority became apparent not long after the death of the Prophet, especially after the Buwayhid intervention in Baghdad in 945 and the victory of the Turkish Seljuk dynasty in mid-11th century. Since then, the conduct of Muslim states has not been much different from that of other states ever in existence (Eickelman&Piscatori, 1996: 46, 53).

The history of all states, not only Muslim ones, shows that religion and politics are distinguishable spheres that intersect and overlap (Eickelman&Piscatori, 1996: 57). Religious and political institutions operating in society are very often rivals, for people’s loyalties and thus for power. In this sense both are political, but in the end, the religious is usually subjugated, or used by the explicitly political (Piscatori, 1994: 13) as the modernist Fazlur Rahman wrote: “Instead of setting themselves to genuinely interpret Islamic goals to be realized through political and government channels - which would subjugate politics to interpreted Islamic values… - what happens most of the time is ruthless exploitation of Islam for party politics and group interests that subjects Islam not only to politics but to day-to-day politics; Islam thus becomes sheer demagoguery” (1982: 140). Agreeing with him, John Esposito states in a realist way: “Islam proved to be a faith in which religion was harnessed to political power” and “Islam has been a means, not an end in itself” (1987a: 28, 93).

In fact, throughout Islamic history temporal authorities have wielded more power than their spiritual counterparts (Piscatori, 1983: 2). In the 8th century, the 6th Imam [7] Jafar al-Sadiq, formally conceded the institutional division of the Imamate and caliphate until the time God would give victory to the Imam. He thereby indirectly acknowledged the superior temporal power of the Caliph, by which he meant the political authority. Since then, the political developments in Muslim societies have tended to enhance the importance of Islam as a political ideology (Piscatori, 1994: 13, 32). And increasingly, both Muslim rulers and their opposition appeal to Islam to legitimate themselves and to induce or compel obedience to their will (Esposito, 1987b: 10).

This dissertation is a monograph that examines the relevance of the foregoing argument in the context of Indonesia and Malaysia in the period of 1965-1997. It has two principal foci. First, it investigates in details how Indonesian and Malaysian governments dealt with Islam to serve their own ends. Second, it offers a comparative discussion of the two to reflect the kaleidoscopic reality of Islamic politics rather than the regional or country-by-country approach taken by nearly all the existing work on the subject, which will be reviewed cursorily in the following section.

2 Comparative study of Muslim politics in Indonesia and Malaysia

Indonesia and Malaysia are next-door neighbours with illuminating similarities and fundamental differences. They differ as far as population, geography and their recent history are concerned, and as such they are of different geo-strategic importance. Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world (more than 240 million), of whom about 90 percent confess Islam. Firmly it claims the largest Muslim population on Earth. Meanwhile, Malaysia is a relatively small country which has gained international importance as a model for the Islamic and developing world in term of economic growth and social development. Its politics is remarkably divided along the racial and ethnic lines which nearly match lines of religious cleavage. The Malays, the largest ethnic group (about 58 percent of the population) is dominant politically and culturally while the Chinese (24 percent) and Indians (8 percent) control commerce and professional activities. Almost all Muslims are Malays, while other groups tend to maintain the traditions they brought with them from China and India. In Indonesia, the majority of its population consists of peoples generally described as being of “Malay stock”, which is a term covering a wide range of ethnic groups, such as the Acehnese, the Bataks, and the Minangkanau of Sumatra; the Javanese and Balinese; and the Makassarese and Torajas of Sulawesi - all distinguished from each other by language, social structure, preferred occupations, and religious traditions. The Javanese are numerically bigger and politically more dominant than other, including ethnic Chinese (3 percent). (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 3, 6; Stauth, 2002: 47; Ramage, 2004: 21; Esposito, 1987b: 178, 202)

The two countries have different, contested interpretations of bilateral history and their political relationship has been largely defined by rivalry. However, there are historically intimate ties that link two cultures and societies (Liow, 2005: xi). Both countries belong to the “exotic” world of the East Indies, the world of the Indo-Malay archipelago and, therefore, combining certain characteristics. Indonesia and Malaysia are both new nations which came into being only in the colonial era and they have faced many similar problems as well as obstacles in the nation-building process (Stauth, 2002). The people of the two are “blood brothers” and of the same “rumpun” (racial stock), which is often evoked as a rhetoric premise for their “special relationship” (Liow, 2005: 2).

Since 1972, they have also shared similar official or national languages, the variants of Malay called Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia respectively. Notably, in contemporary politics, both are known for long-standing authoritarian regimes (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 3, 119).

Despite the compelling and long-standing connections, academic interest in comparative study of Indonesia and Malaysia has been remarkably limited in the general public discussion of the two Southeast Asian countries and among scholarly observers. When editing Challenging authoritarianism in Southeast Asia: Comparing Indonesia and Malaysia, Ariel Heryanto and Sumit K. Mandal made a fair and accurate claim that: “Comparative scholarship on the two countries has been embarrassingly rare” and “most comparative observations of Indonesia and Malaysia take the form of partial and passing statements in works devoted to Southeast Asia as a whole, or in collections of essays devoted to specific countries in the region” (2003: 11, 16). This thoughtful collection of essays, which was released in as late as 2003, was hailed as one of the first substantial comparative overviews of contemporary Indonesia and Malaysia by the recognized international publisher RoutledgeCurzon as well as big online booksellers such as Amazon and SelectBooks. 6 years earlier, in his book Democracy and authoritarianism in Indonesia and Malaysia, Syed Farid Alatas did make a similar comment: “there has not been any comparative work done on the state in Indonesia and Malaysia” (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 11, quoting Alatas, 1997: 150).

In both countries Muslims are, in different degrees, the majority part of the population. When comparing the two, an apparent paradox has appeared (Stauth, 2002: 49). In Indonesia, whose Muslim population is the world’s largest, Islam is just one of the five legitimate faiths (Hefner, 2000: 18). In contrast, Islam is the state religion in Malaysia[8], where Muslims count a bare majority of the citizenry (Esposito, 1987b: 177). In comparing these conditions, one would have to go a step further and to ask about a variety of strategies which the regimes employed to deal with Islam.

Yet, like the comparative discussion of Indonesia and Malaysia, comparative analysis of Muslim politics in the two neighbours has been surprisingly rare. Even when politics in general and Muslim politics in particular are directly compared in comprehensive books such as Challenging authoritarianism in Southeast Asia: Comparing Indonesia and Malaysia and Politics and cultures of Islamization in Southeast Asia: Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1990s (Stauth, 2000), etc., no systematic comparative observations of Muslim politics have been done. Apart from various paragraphs with actual comparison, the books are mainly comprised of chapters based on regional or country approaches. In other research, the comparison usually falls under the rubric of general scholarship on Southeast Asia, for example in the works of M.B. Hooker (1988), Vincent Houben (2003) and Greg Fealy (in Beeson, 2004). There are times Muslim politics in each country occupies separate chapters written by different contributors in the same books, among which the most noteworthy is Islam in Asia edited by John Esposito (1987b). But in most of the cases, they stand alone as an independent part in different works, e.g. of Syed Ahmad Hussein (in Loh&Khoo, 2002), Joseph Chin Yong Liow (2003, 2004a, 2004b) for Malaysia, of Douglas E. Ramage (1996, 2004), Robert Hefner (2000), International IDEA (2000), etc. for Indonesia. Not just that, after the September 11 attacks in the United States, the comparative understanding has been forced to accept a more modest position by the emergence of academic interest on radical Islam and terrorism in Southeast Asia, especially in the two countries concerned here.

The modes that the New Order regime in Indonesia and the UMNO regime in Malaysia used to deal with Islam in the period of 1967-1998 have been analysed in various aspects in the books, essays and articles mentioned above. Nevertheless, as far as I am aware, a thematic comparative analysis on this lacuna is non-existent. With the end of the Suharto and Mahathir’s era, Islamic forces in the two countries both burst into what has been described as a “euphoria” of political activities or the politicization of Islam (International IDEA, 2000: 7). When Malaysia remains religiously harmonious and “perfectly peaceful” as Edward McBride of The Economist noted though several internal radical networks have been uncovered, Indonesia has suffered a series of religious conflicts and home-made terrorist attacks which have given rise to its reputation as a hotbed of Islamic extremism (2004: 4). This difference is one result of the policy towards Islam of the former governments. To understand what is going on, what will happen next and why, it is always necessary to look back to the past. This is the starting point of my dissertation, which focuses on the differences and similarities in the forms of manipulation used by the two regimes and their repercussions.

Why do I choose the two milestones of 1965 and 1998? Because the events of 1965 and 1998 marked the end of one chapter in modern Indonesian and Malaysian histories and the beginning of another (Hefner, 2000: 58).

1965 has been the bloodiest and most chaotic time in the Indo-archipelago so far. It witnessed the peak of the anti-communist massacre which claimed the lives of half a million to a million Indonesians (Boudreau, 1999: 5), the fall of the “Founding Father” Sukarno and the rise to power of General Suharto. The year began more than three decades of authoritarianism, national construction and economic boom. As for Malaysia, 1965 saw the final big change in the consolidation of the nation-states, namely the expulsion of Singapore (Beeson, 2004: 34). 34 years later, in 1998, both Indonesia and Malaysia were struggling with an economic crisis which had been leading to political and social upheavals. Among many profound consequences of the crisis was the widely-expected resignation of Suharto in May 1998, which started the democratization process and overall reforms in Indonesia. By the time the transition was complete, everything in the nation’s politics had changed. Another indirect implication was the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim - Malaysia’s Prime Minister-in-waiting in the same year following his premature move for power to take advantage of the turmoil (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 7-8). His fall from grace created uncertainties and a political vacuum later filled by the current PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. In a historical view, the period can be called a phase of nation building and consolidation. In a political view, it was a time of pseudo-democracies under the rule of Suharto and the UMNO elites (Beeson, 2004: 84). In an economic view, it was a time for stabilizing, building and developing the immature national economies. And the most important to my dissertation is that this period saw the two different ways to mobilize Islam for political mileage which led to different impacts.


In this chapter I will compare the historical and political context which affects the strategies the New Order regime and the UMNO regime used to deal with Islam.

1 Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia - Similarities and differences

Islam was first brought to the islands of Southeast Asia by Arab traders via India during the 8th century, but it was not until approximately the 13th century that large-scale conversions took place, first on the island of Sumatra of Indonesia. It is noteworthy that Islam advanced in this region peacefully by trade and commerce, not by conflict and conquest. Herein lies one of the fundamental distinctions between the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia and the spread of Islam in the Middle East. By the 16th century, Sunni Islam was well on its way to becoming the most pervasive religion throughout most of the archipelago which was to become Malaysia and Indonesia. However, it never fully displaced other religions, and hence today the two countries still have millions of citizens who are Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. It did not replace folk religions, but became thoroughly synthesized with the vernacular animism, Hinduism, Buddism and Javanism. Thus, Indonesia and Malaysian Islam, which developed autonomously from that in the Middle East and coexisted with preexisting structures and systems, are multifarious and fissured, but generally moderate and tolerant. (Ramage, 2004: 21; Abuza, 2003: 61; Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 3; Miller, 2004: 1; Beeson, 2004: 154; Loh&Khoo, 2002: 80)

The first difference between Islam in these two countries is that Muslim communities in Indonesia in general are far more diverse and divided than their counterparts in Malaysia. This condition is due in part to the diversity of more than 300 ethnic groups living on some 6,000 inhabited islands separated by marked divisions of language and culture as well as the syncretic inclinations of local folk practices. While Islam in Indonesia was even considered by several Dutch colonialists as no more than a “thin veneer” over a largely non-Islamic culture (Heryanto & Mandal, 2003: 3; Hefner, 2000: 26, 32), Islam and Malay identity are intertwined:

“Malay means a person who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs” (Esposito, 1987b: 179, quoting the Constitution of Malaysia).

In feudal times, in Java, the Malay Peninsula, and southern Sulawesi, imperial Islam helped to create an environment in which the concern for Islamic orthodoxy was relaxed, allowing localized or syncretic traditions to survive in court ritual and folk religion. At a few times and in a few places, of course, some Muslim rulers promoted a strict application of shariah (Islamic divine commandments or law). These periods coincided with the archipelago’s commercial boom and the efforts of local sultans to tighten their grip on society. (Hefner, 2000: 29)

European colonialism had a major influence on the fate of Indonesia and Malaysia. The Dutch replaced contentious city-states with a unified colonial empire which later became Indonesia. During their domination, they stiffened controls on “political Islam” while relaxing those on “religious” Islam. To prevent it from becoming a focus of nationalism, the authorities placed strict limits on Muslim participation in public affairs, trying to restrict the faith to private life. Rather than reinforcing a union of religion and state, then, colonialists pushed Muslim leaders away from the corridors of power and forced them to rely on their own resources to locate themselves deep in native society. As a result, in the 18th and 19th centuries a vast network of Koranic schools spread across the archipelago. The leaders of these schools were cautious and critical of Europeans as well as their native allies, and they kept an arm’s length from political centers. In the early twentieth century, when the first modern Muslim organizations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) - the Revival of Religious Scholars were established, most showed a similarly healthy skepticism toward the pretensions of colonialist rulers. Keeping their distance from state power and emphasizing autonomous self-organization later became salient characteristics of Indonesian Islam. (Hefner, 2000: 14-35; Abuza, 2003: 61)

Their situation contrasted with the experience of Muslims in the nearby Malaya where British colonial authorities (from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th) worked with the preexisting Malay aristocracy and ruled in the name of the sultans (Muslim rulers).

In their view, Islam was a useful and important centripetal force that pulled the various colonies in the Malaysian region together (Hefner, 2000: 34-49; Esposito, 1987b: 178). Therefore, the British “advised” on all matters except those involving Islam and Malay customs. Islam remained the exclusive domain of the sultans who, of course, sought to retain and develop one of the only areas over which they had any practical control (Miller, 2004: 2). As a result, Islam itself was never at odds with the colonial power (Abuza, 2003: 49) and it was not emphasized in the early development of Malay nationalism (Esposito, 1987b: 16).

In its neighbour, Islam already became a rallying point for anti-colonialism and nationalism (Esposito, 1987b: 16). No state governed all the ethnically and linguistically diverse thousand islands of the archipelago before colonial rule, so that there was no historical or cultural basis for national consciousness. Naturally Islam which around 90 percent of the population professed, however many did nominally, became the ground they first conceived their unity against the colonial order. The first supraregional nationalist movement in Indonesia was the Sarekat Islam, founded in central Java 1912 (Piscatori, 1983: 199). Then Islam continued to be the foundation of other sociopolitical organizations and parties representing a spectrum of Muslim orientations from conservative to modernist, such as the Muhammadiyah, Masyumi, and NU (Esposito, 1987b: 16). Later in the war against the Dutch’s re-colonilization (1945-1949), Muslims played a significant role in fighting. They established armed organizations. Many joined the official army, and many military commanders came from a Muslim religious background (Hooker, 1988: 184).

The Japanese, who occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945, began to use Islam to build up anti-Western sentiments and the kind of popular support they needed. They nurtured Muslim leaders and, at least implicitly, promoted Muslim aspirations for an eventual Islamic state of Indonesia. Even so, they were aware of the potential dangers if such a powerful force as Islam were not tightly controlled. In 1943, they required all Muslim organizations to be folded into a single federation to be known by the acronym Masyumi, which was in many ways a two-edged sword: It gave the Japanese the central authority they wanted; at the same time, it gave to the Muslim groups a unity and national stature that they had not previously had. The idea of Islamic statehood spread rapidly throughout the archipelago in the 1940s and 1950s, and many devout Muslims were upset at Sukarno’s ideology of Pancasila, which did not make Islam the state religion or turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. (Esposito, 1987b: 208-209; Abuza, 2003: 61-62)

Sukarno and his comrades did not want to establish an Islamic state for fear of backlash from non-Muslim minorities who dominated the outer islands. Yet, Indonesia should not be a secular one either because “a national unitary state does not mean a state with an a-religious character… no, this national unitary state is to have a lofty moral base” (Esposito, 1987b: 209, quoting Boland, 1971) as Supomo, a prominent figure at that time stressed. That is why they dropped the demands enshrined in the draft constitution, known as the Jakarta Charter, that called for the new state to be governed by shariah and included instead the principle of belief in one God, rather than Islam by name (Esposito, 1987b: 210; Abuza, 2003: 62).

After Indonesia declared independence in 17 August 1945, the situation began to shift in Malaysia. Following the return of the British, Malays became increasingly concerned about the colonial government’s proposal to reorganize the traditional Malay states with their sultan-rulers into the Malayan Union which comprised of representatives from each of major ethnic groups: the Muslim Malay majority, the Chinese and the Indians. They particularly feared the reorganization would affect their political dominance and economic well-being vis-a`-vis the immigrant, prosperous non-Malay communities. Initially the British wanted to downgrade the power of the sultans and allow non-Malay minorities the rights of citizenship. But instead this move incited a sudden Malay backlash that marks the inception of modern Malay nationalism and Muslim politics. Large protest rallies later transformed itself into the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 1946. (Esposito, 1987b: 16; Miller, 2004: 2; Beeson, 2004: 35, 37)

Following constitutional talks, the Federation of Malaya became independent on 31 August 1957 and power was transferred from the British to the UMNO-led Alliance (Beeson, 2004: 36). Among the compromises they made in turn for citizenship and full legal as well as economic rights, the Chinese and Indian communities accept Islam to be prescribed as the official religion[9] in the constitution with the clear implication from UMNO that Malaysia was not an Islamic state (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 83).

Since independence, Islam has served as both a mobilizing and polarizing force in national politics of Indonesia and Malaysia (Miller, 2004: 7; Piscatori, 1983: 200). The two countries have had a number of parties which represent Muslim interests. However they have not ever come to take the lion’s share of the parliament or to lead the government. The best they have achieved so far is partnership in a coalition[10], though, sometimes they have managed to be the dominant partners. Within these parties always exist a lack of consensus on how the state should be defined, or on the role of Islam in the state (Hooker, 1988: 15).

In the case of Indonesia, during the years of parliamentary democracy (1950-57), Islamic parties seized an important place in the political arena but no dominance (Houben, 2003: 158). In the 1955 elections, contrary to general predictions, the majority voted for secular parties or parties not principally defined as Islamic. The progressive NU, which always supports secularism, won far more than any Islamic political party (Abuza, 2003: 63). Tensions between the central government headed by Sukarno and the provinces, however, led to a series of regional unrests in which Islamic fundamentalism played a role. In 1948, separatists in West Java proclaimed the independence of Darul Islam (House of Islam). Later South Sulawesi and Aceh joined the movement, but in 1958 Jakarta was able to restore unity through military intervention. Since Masyumi had been involved, it was banned from parliament[11] and other political institutions (Houben, 2003: 158). In the early 1960s, Sukarno’s populist economic policies and close coalition with the Communist Party (PKI) alarmed the conservative Muslims in the countryside who jumped up at the PKI’s calls for land reform, armed social revolution, and a secular state. In the end, the religious leaders threw their support behind the military coup led by Major General Suharto and even called for a Holy war against the PKI (Abuza, 2003: 63, Hefner, 2000: 108).

In Malaysia, the main opposition party is Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which was founded in August 1951. Its highest vote at a general election is just 15 percent but it intermittently controlled the two northern peninsular states of Kelantan and Terengganu and relentlessly attacks UMNO’s Islamic credentials (Beeson, 2004: 142). Although PAS has relied on its Islamic roots and Islamic rhetoric, Islam as a system of governance was not placed at the forefront of the party’s agenda in the first three decades of its existence. In fact, the party congress in 1954 rejected a proposal that sought the immediate establishment of an Islamic state. The party’s objective of Islamic governance was to be achieved peacefully through educating the public and nurturing an Islamic society, and through the ballot box (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 85).

2 Two regimes compared

2.1. Regime origins

Despite various similarities, Suharto's New Order regime differed significantly from the UMNO’s. One of the most important differences is the fact that Suharto's and UMNO's social and institutional position during their rise to power, particularly in relation to established social forces, led to different state and social legacies as well as distinct challenges to their reign.

In the middle of 1960s, rightist segments of the powerful Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI) led by Suharto came to political prominence in direct confrontation with the PKI, the largest communist party in the world outside China and the Soviet Union. With tacit assistance from the major powers of the Western bloc, the military took control of the government and overthrew the first President Sukarno in 1966 following one of the bloodiest massacres in modern history; between 500,000 and 1 million suspected communists and their sympathizers were killed. At the same time, at least 200,000 people were imprisoned with about 55,000 of them still in jail a decade later. In late 1965, the New Order began to take shape and for 33 years formal political and military power was highly centralized in the hands of one person - President Suharto, a master of the political manoeuvre. (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 4-5; Boudreau, 1999: 5-6; Beeson, 2004: 47)

The state that emerged in the aftermath of this conflict was considerably more powerful, more centralized and more functionally effective over the civil society since independence (Hefner, 2000: 66). The above-mentioned “wholesale killings” fundamentally reshaped the dimensions of social power by decisively eliminating any organized or coordinated challenge to Suharto's New Order regime from the outset (Boudreau, 1999: 5; Beeson, 2004: 47). They also served as a precedent for the fact that the state would not hesitate to use violence in the interest of power (Hefner, 2000: 66).

In the massacre, Suharto and the military cunningly incited civilian forces such as student groups to oppose Sukarno and the PKI fanatically. By doing this, they succeeded in pushing these action groupings to play a vital role in legitimating the change of regime and muting Sukarnoist opposition in the armed forces. In addition, their participation helped shift responsibility for the PKI’s bloody destruction away from the military and onto the population as a whole. This shared responsibility decreased the possibilities of anti-military recrimination (Hefner, 2000: 66-70). Pitting one force against one another in a high-stakes game of divide and conquer was a tactic used by Sukarno and repeatedly employed by Suharto later on (Beeson, 2004: 46; Boudreau, 1999).

Indonesia’s bloody struggle for independence and capitalism found no equivalent to Malaysia, whose interdependence was granted rather than fought for. After its establishment in 1946, UMNO described itself as a liberal nationalist party dedicated to Malay political dominance but committed to inter-ethnic harmony, democracy, capitalism and developmentalism. It forged an alliance with the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) to stand for elections to the Federal Legislative Council in June 1955 on a common political platform. Each component of the coalition had the responsibility of mobilizing support from its own ethnic constituency. The result was that the Alliance (which became the core of the ruling National Front in 1974) won 51 of the 52 seats contested. When the Federation of Malaya became independent on 31 August 1957, power was handed over to the elected authority led by UMNO (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 4-82).

According to Syed Ahmad Hussein, the evolution of UMNO as the ruling force can be divided into three main eras. The first was between independence in 1957 and the racial riots following the May 1969 elections under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman and an alliance between Malaya elite and Chinese business. To Hussein, “it can be described as a period of liberal democracy and continuity of the colonial structures”. The second (1969-1981) under Tun Razak and then Hussein Onn, was an era of increasing authoritarianism, Malay economic nationalism, and the beginnings of what could be described as the retreat from the secular path. The third under Mahathir Mohammad (1981-2003) can be divided into an earlier period of liberalism and, beginning from the late 1980s, a period of modified authoritarianism. The “era of Mahathirism” also witnessed impressive economic growth and the politicization of Islam as well as the Islamization of politics. (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 83-84)

The regime origins in Indonesia and Malaysia indicate differences in the use of repressive powers in the two states. The New Order rose on the basis of mass violence and secured its militarist rule by dealing with political opposition in a brutal manner. UMNO earned legitimacy through the electoral participation and took over power as well as bureaucracy peacefully from the British. Therefore, the Malaysian state’s repression has been largely exercised through bureaucratic measures rather than violence and comprised a variety of institutional mechanisms. (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 6, 64)

2.2 Authoritarianism

The authoritarian architecture of the two regimes strongly reflects their leaders' social and institutional origins. Suharto had been a soldier before he climbed to the rank of General and leadership of ABRI (Boudreau, 1999: 9). It is not surprising that he was military-minded and got used to using violent measures to overcome challenges throughout his political career. Unlike Suharto, Mahathir Mohammad, the strong man who sealed his name on Malaysian history in the last two decades of the 20th century was a doctor by training and a politician by profession (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 55), which most explains why he cared much about values, bureaucracy and demagoguery.

Philip Kelly commented “Malaysia’s political system is characterized by what has been variously termed statist democracy or bureaucratic authoritarianism. Oppositional political visions and activities may exist, but they are subject to the strict and variable control of the state.” Their control was kept through draconian legislative tools such as the Societies Act, Official Secrets Act and Internal Security Act (ISA), which sanctioned detention without trial for indefinite periods; the close regulation of trade union formation; the ‘non-level playing field’ which the ruling coalition imposed upon its challengers via money politics, gerrymandering, coercion and repression; the weakening of the judiciary’s role as an impartial arbiter; the manipulation of the media; and, a blurring of lines between the state, the government, the executive and UMNO. Many of these restrictions were routinely justified, under Prime Minister (PM) Mahathir Mohammad in particular, as essential to the national development and inter-ethnic stability and legitimized in terms of an “Asian” alternative to Western liberalism. (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 4, 64; Loh&Khoo, 2002: 5, 58)

And the best summary of Suharto’s authoritarianism in my opinion is that of the same Philip Kelly. In an essay on civil society in Indonesia and Malaysia, he wrote:

The structural conditions for alternative political space in Indonesia have been quite different from those created by the bureaucratic authoritarianism of Malaysia. More than three decades of Suharto’s New Order created an environment in which the state’s capacity to repress, neutralize, or co-opt opposition was highly developed. Power was increasingly centralized with the President and Jakarta while the military remained closely involved in many aspects of economic and political life. Add to this was the brutal suppression of alternative political voices in the late 1960s and the continued buttressing of state power through violent coercion. The result has been until the tumultuous changes of the late 1990s, a political context characterized by centralized and coercive authoritarianism. (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 76)

Besides, contemporary Malaysian political and institutional life is much more divided by ethnicity[12] than Indonesia (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 5). In Malaysia, ethnicity and religion have become intimately entwined, meanwhile social policies, politics and economics are all heavily influenced by communal considerations. The governing elite therefore had no other way but maintaining a delicate balance between promoting Malay political, economic, social interests and placating other communities. Too Malay-Muslim chauvinist rhetoric and politics threaten the maintenance of the coalition and possibly national stability.

But at the same time, UMNO is always under pressures of holding the loyalty of a Malay-Muslim constituency that remains deeply conscious of its ethnoreligious roots and fears the encroachment of other races and cultures (Esposito, 1987b: 177, 183).

And last but not least, the relationship of political and military power in both countries differed in ways significant for regime rule and for the resolution of challenges. In Indonesia, owing to its decisive role in the war against the Dutch (International IDEA, 2000: 13) and in the process of national consolidation (Hefner, 2000: 95), the ABRI had a far stronger sense of its independence and centrality to Indonesian political life than did the Malaysian army. It had also developed formal doctrines - most prominently the doctrine of dwi fungsi, or dual function which was promulgated in 1958 - to assure its freedom from civilian control and its independent role in Indonesian role (Boudreau, 1999: 4, 9; Beeson, 2004: 46). While Indonesia is not the only country having a politicized military, the extent of its involvement in government and the economy is unique because, unlike most other militarist regimes in Latin America or East Asia, this political privilege was legitimized in law and passed through Indonesia’s highest legislative body, the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), in 1982. Under Suharto’s presidency the military’s fortunes waxed and waned, but overall it remained central to the political life of the nation and a challenge to the dictator himself. (International IDEA, 2000: 85, 87).


By virtues of the Muslim majority in the two countries, whether it was the developmentalist programme of Suharto’s “New Order” or Mahathir Mohammad’s “Vision 2020”, the New Order and UMNO regimes had to contend with the political challenges of Islamic forces (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 119). Owing to the similarities and differences in historical and political context, they pursued different strategies which had a lot of similarities.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, religion presented even more of a challenge to the regimes than ethnic or cultural grievances. Demands that there be an Islamic state, a special recognition of Islamic law and state support for Islamic activities have been a constant source of tension and occasionally led to violent conflicts. Suharto, in particular, viewed Islam as a discordant element in national affairs as well as the most serious potential threat to his dominance for several reasons. First, he himself witnessed the role of Islam, Muslim organizations and Muslims in the fight for independence. Second, he himself fought against the very serious separatist Islamic uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus Suharto clearly understood the potential power of the faith in politics. Third, Islamic parties were significant forces which directly challenged his position in elections. Fourth, the bids to seek a stronger constitutional and political role for Islam have been made repeatedly since 1945. These moves went against Suharto-treasured Pancasila and therefore threaten religious pluralism as well as the national unitary state. By 1968 it was easy to recognize the tension between government and Islam; from then on, Muslim parties and activists appeared ever more clearly as a leading opposition force, and with the general election of 1971, Islam established itself as the chief popular voice against the regime. (International IDEA, 2000: 204; Beeson, 2004: 140-141; Esposito, 1987b: 209, 216; Boudreau, 1999: 9; Piscatori, 1983: 205)

Knowing the potential power of Islam which he could never eradicate, Suharto copied the strategy of Snouck Hurgronje, the renowned Islamicist and Dutch colonial administrator. Between 1889 and 1905, Hurgronje created a distinction between “cultural Islam” and “political Islam”, supporting the former but contain and control the latter (International IDEA, 2000: 204). This crafty approach, and the secular-modernist perception of religion it implied, was to have a lasting impacts on state-Muslim relations (Hefner, 2000: 32).

In much the same way, Suharto ruthlessly “manipulated the Muslim community, controlling them and ensuring that they were serving his political purposes” (Abuza, 2003: 64). He was quick to demonize Islam, to portray Islam as a threat to the state and to Pancasila. His regime supported and facilitated “spiritual” expressions of Islam, such as providing funds for the pilgrimage to Mecca and for mosque constructions. At the same time, he set out to emasculate Islam politically. Signs of uprisings by political Islam were destroyed without mercy, as in the case of the Tanjung Priok killings of 1984. (International IDEA, 2000: 205; Abuza, 2003: 64; Ramage, 2004: 21). The result is correctly reflected in Douglas Ramage’s comments: “This approach maintained a facade of tolerance - a forced tolerance - but also severely curbed the power of previously vibrant Islamic institutions” (2004: 22).

By the mid-1980s, Suharto was concerned about the worsening relationship with powerful military commanders and the growing power of the Muslim community in the context of global Islamic resurgence. He changed course and, rather than suppressing Muslim, courted them to help legitimize the regime, to find a counterbalance to the dissident faction within the ABRI and to cultivate Muslim support. As part of this process, he made a number of concessions to Muslims including expanded powers for the Islamic courts, the introduction of Islamic banking and insurance, easing restrictions on Islamic dress for students, and accelerated recruitment and promotion of Muslims to upper levels of the military and bureaucracy. Whether he meant it or not, Suharto’s rapprochement with Islam did facilitate the Islamization process in Indonesia, especially in cultural and social areas. (Abuza, 2003 64-65; Beeson, 2004: 141; Hefner, 2000)

Things were different in its neighbouring country. The serious threat to UMNO for the leadership of Malaysia in the name of Islam is PAS - the sole Muslim opposition party (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 85). PAS has long called for the establishment of an Islamic state, though not through radical revolution but through the electoral process. It has challenged UMNO in every national and state elections since 1951 and forced the ruling party into a defensive position, particularly in Islamic issues[13]. Zachary Abuza pointed out that, to cope with PAS, the ruling party has to choose between two options: to reinforce its secular policies to distance itself from PAS or to become more Islamized itself to attract PAS supporters or prevent UMNO members from defecting to PAS. So far the UMNO leadership, especially Mahathir Mohammad and Anwar Ibrahim has clearly chosen the latter course of action (Abuza, 2003: 52, 60). It has built up its own Muslim credentials through the politicization of Islam as well as its other half Islamization of politics and the promotion of cultural as well as spiritual aspects of the religion.[14] When comparing two strategies, we can see they have half in common (supporting cultural Islam) and half in difference (politicizing Islam in Malaysia and de-politicizing in Indonesia).

1 The promotion of cultural and social Islam

The two regimes followed a very similar path in promoting cultural Islam. The programmes were many and varied. They both increased time for Islamic programmes on radio and television, emphasized on Islamic holidays, encouraged the printed media and politicians to make constant references to Islamic subjects, etc.

In Malaysia, at one time women were encouraged to wear conservative Muslim dress in government offices. In Indonesia, Suharto lifted the ban on the veil worn by women in schools and opened an Islamic newspaper called Republika in 1992. In both countries, there was an upsurge in mosque construction, Friday worship, and alms-collection (zakat). (Abuza, 2003: 65; Esposito, 1987b: 194; Loh&Khoo, 2002: 88)

Both regimes paid special attention to religious education. Soon after they seized power, Suharto and Mahathir passed regulations mandating religious instruction in both public and private schools, which were vigorously enforced (Abuza, 2003: 53, 64). Suharto and his regime also sponsored a series of program for cultural “building up”, in fact religious indoctrination in ex-PKI strongholds (Hefner, 2000: 80). Since late 1970s, the Javanese dictator pumped more funding for Islamic schools (Abuza, 2003: 65). As a result, the State Islamic Institute Colleges (IAIN) was expanded significantly. Between 1979 and 1991 the academic staff at these institutes more than doubled to 2,800. The total number of students almost quadrupled, from 28,000 to 100,000 (Hooker, 1988: 203).

Suharto himself, in the early 1980s, began to study Arabic-language passages from the Qu’ran with several of his children, at the same time, seriously learned basic Muslim greetings, prayers, and devotion. As news of the president’s piety spread in the early 1990s, many progovernment Muslims pointed out that Suharto had briefly attended Muhammadiyah schools when he was young. This kind of propaganda implied that the president had always had modernist sympathies, which were now only becoming more pronounced. (Hefner, 2000: 83)

These actions helped create a more Islamic image and credentials for Suharto in the time of Islamic resurgence. However, due partly to the incompetence of state-certified Muslim teachers and lecturers in religion as well as their insufficient number, less religiously pious citizens have begun to wonder about the efficiency of compulsory religious education. There were suggestions that general religious knowledge rather instruction in particular religion be given at school. This, they argued, would promote a better understanding among the various existing religious groups who had so far been considered knew only their own faith. (Hooker, 1988: 196)

Meanwhile the UMNO regime set up regular upgrading religious courses for religious officials, civil servants, and the people in general. It provided various publications, including a translation of the Qu’ran which used to be imported from Indonesia and tracts of an elementary character for distribution among the mass. In 1983, a government-sponsored International Islamic university was opened in Kuala Lumpur that submitted a curricula in which Islam appeared in all subjects. State, national and international Qu’ranic reading contests were held annually and attended by top UMNO politicians. The authority also promoted the research by the Islamic Research Center on contemporary problems and solutions on the basis of Islam. It gave moral and financial support to Islamic conferences or seminars organized by government and private or international agencies as well. However, some opponents argued that UMNO’s efforts were in part aimed at taking education out of the influence of local religio-political PAS teachers who run a network of Islamic schools and teach some 700,000 students. (Esposito, 1987b: 192; Abuza, 2003: 57; Hooker, 1998: 203). Like under Suharto, under Mahathir, UMNO began to encourage the use of Islamic greetings and salutations, and many government speeches now start with the Arabic greeting “a salam a’laikum” (peace be up on you) (Miller, 2004: 6). In their speeches, PMs Hussein Onn and Mahathir often urged Muslims to implement Islamic teachings in their life. Hussein Onn pointed out that he did not wish to violate God’s instructions and encouraged his fellow Muslims to be sincere, honest, full of faith and committed to God (Hooker, 1988: 206).

At the same time, the two regimes actively facilitated the haj, the pilgrimage to holy Mecca which had not been popular in Malaysia and Indonesia. By the 1980s, more than 80,000 Indonesians and 15,000 Malays went to Mecca annually (Abuza, 2003: 17). The UMNO government aided in developing savings for the haj, organizing the trip and seeing to the comfort and safety of pilgrims (Esposito, 1987b: 182). In the mean time, under the New Order, since 1969 the authority monopolized the handling of the haj (Hooker, 1988: 195). Suharto even went to Mecca himself to make political capital out of his pilgrimage and the adoption of a Muslim name - Muhammad (Smith, 2005: 101).

UMNO and Golkar (Suharto’s party) also protected Muslims from proselytizing. In 1978 Indonesia banned missionizing by the members of any one religion (Christians being the main target) among citizens among who already professed, however, nominally, another government-recognized religion. Christians protested that many Javanese are Muslim in name only and thus should not be subject to the stricture. But the government brushed these objections aside. As the Indonesian anthropologist Bambang Pranowo has observed, “The Islamic groups enthusiastically welcomed these decisions, for they were directed especially toward the Christian missionaries actively carrying out religious propagation amongst the Muslim community.” Meanwhile, UMNO actively engaged in dakwah or proselytising to non-Muslims through the establishment of the Malaysian Muslim Welfare Organisation. This has included the expansion of Islamic programmes over public radio and television, more stringent legislation controlling the building of non-Muslim religious buildings, and the curtailment of land plots for non-Muslim burial sites (Liow, 2003: 195).

Although UMNO leaders insisted that its interest in Islam was not based on political expediency, external pressures had clearly been a catalyst. Prime Minister Hussein Onn conceded, “You may wonder why we spend so much on Islam… [If we don’t] Parti Islam [PAS] will get at us” (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 86). “Feel good” initiatives and actions such as these are generally politically safe in a highly pluralistic society like Malaysia and Indonesia, as they do not substantially infringe upon the vital rights and interests of non-Muslim sectors, but at the same time are politically advantageous in that they do appeal to citizens who are Muslim. (Miller, 2004: 6). Both UMNO and Golkar of Suharto were keenly aware of this “politics of symbolic action” (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 88) and used it to their advantage.[15]

2. Politicizing Islam in Malaysia and de-politicizing Islam in Indonesia

2.1 Through laws

The Islamization project carried out in Malaysia, particularly from the 1980s, tended to focus on the jurisdictional expansion and institutionalization of the Islamic (Shariah) judicial mechanism. It took seriously the expansion of both civil and criminal shariah laws as well as the dramatic amendments to the Muslim family laws in the 13 states and three federal territories that constitute the Federation of Malaysia. (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 119, 131; Hamayotsu, 2003: 56)

An outstanding feature of the increased application of Islamic Enactments (shariah criminal laws) was the prurient obsession with moral surveillance and compulsion of individual piety or its ritualized public expressions as eating during Ramadhan (the fasting month), consuming alcoholic beverages, and committing the “sexual offence” of improper covert association between sexes. At the same time, some of the existing procedures of rulings within Muslim family laws were changed or reverted to earlier and more traditional, patriarchal interpretations of gender rights to make them more Islamic. Besides, in 1986, Mahathir and Anwar proposed a crucial constitutional amendment which was then embodied in the 1988 Amendment under Article 21 of the Federal Constitution. This amendment divided the areas of jurisdiction of the civil and the shariah courts, giving the latter a parallel rather subordinate place. Since then, a dual legal system has operated in the country: the secular British-style laws and a separate and autonomous shariah system. (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 125, 131; Horowitz, 1994: 236-260)

The Islamization of laws was observed by Donald Horowitz as “Nowhere… in Asia has the Islamization of law proceeded more methodically than in Malaysia where, in the span of a decade, dozens of new statutes and judicial decisions have clarified, expanded, and reformulated the law applicable to Muslims” (1994: 236). Yet Muslim women’s rights in the family and marriage were undermined as a result. The particular kind of legal dualism, established within a short period of time, has hence brought out a number of conflicts in the working of the law of in cases where the interests of Muslims and non-Muslim parties are involved. But the most noteworthy feature is that the government has been impelled along the path by pragmatic political imperatives, not by Islamic, democratic or constitutional principles. It has set this course not simply in order to counter the ideological challenge of PAS but also to compete with the various states that frequently have their own reason for forcing the federal government’s hand or outdoing its efforts at Islamization (Heryanto& Mandal, 2003: 126-140).

Apart from the elevation of religious laws and values to out-Islamize PAS, a dangerous tool of UMNO’s efforts to wipe out Islamic rivals was the draconian ISA, whose use is often justified in the name of “upholding the faith of Muslims in Malaysia” (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 127-128). The ISA allows UMNO to detain individuals for up to two years without trial, for political purposes. Even Anwar Ibrahim who later became deputy PM was arrested in 1974 under the ISA and held for two years after leading a demonstration against the government’s failure to cope with rural poverty (Abuza, 2003: 52-53). This Act was also used during the infamous Operation Lalang[16] of 1987, in which 106 people were detained without trial, to “neutralize” the political “threat” of civil society and Islamist movements. The Darul Arqam[17] was banned in 1994 and its leaders arrested, once again, under the ISA. The Act was used at the height of the Reformasi movement in 1997-1998 and well after to quell political opposition (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 6, 128). The implications of ISA on the prospects of democracy in Malaysia were analysed by Norani Othman as:

The intermittent and habitual resort to the ISA by the Malaysian state poses a great obstacle towards the democratization of the legal and constitutional bases of state and governance. The potential abuse of the law and state power remains a constant threat to the sustenance of democratizing impulses within Malaysian society. (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 128)

While UMNO was under parliamentary and electoral pressures to further Islamize Malaysia, the New Order regime did not meet any significant resistance to their efforts to take away the potential power of political Islam through electoral laws as well as laws on political and religious organizations. Holding military, political and economical power in hand, Suharto and his government were possessed of the view that the central state which was responsible for the nation’s unity, stability and development should be privileged over individual or group interests. They felt free to introduce laws that replaced independent labour unions with state-sponsored associations, or forced independent political parties to merge into state-sanctions parties that were, nevertheless, still underprivileged relative to Golkar, the power base of Suharto (Boudreau, 1999: 8).

In 1973, the government forced all political parties, except for Golkar to merge into two amalgam parties. Without any significant resistance, the four Islamic parties fused into a single body identified by a name that had nothing to do with religious affiliation, the United Development Party (PPP). The NU, which was very moderate and tended to support the status quo under the New Order, was the largest component of the PPP (Abuza, 2003: 63). At the same time, the government merged five minority parties, including the Catholic party, the Protestant party, and the remnant of the former Indonesian Nationalist Party to from the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). At a single stroke, the number of parties competing in elections was reduced to three and religion ceased to define any political party ideology. The new federation of Muslim parties[18], which was stripped of much Islamic identity, was set the task of working out internal difficulties so complex and personal rivalries within it so deep that its role as an effective political party was limited. It was 11 years before the PPP sufficiently came to terms with its internal difficulties to hold its first national conference[19] (Esposito, 1987b: 217). Indeed, the fusion of the disparate Muslim parties significantly weakened the Muslim vote, which was clearly demonstrated in the results of national elections (Hefner, 2000: 100).

The second component in the regime’s restructuring of the party system was its imposition of far-reaching campaign restrictions. Its goal was to deconfessionalize politics and encourage people to express their political aspirations in a manner free of ethnic or religious passions. To reach this end, the state forbade political parties but Golkar from having branches at the subdistrict or village level. Government regulations also barred the two parties from campaigning at any time other than one month before elections. Each parties also had to hand in a list of candidates to security officials, who had the right to cross out any name to which they objected. Party members had no right of appeal. This showed that depoliticization was less the goal than political control. Robert Hefner concluded: “Through these and other measures, the Suharto government transformed Indonesia’s once vibrant electoral system into an empty shell”. (Hefner, 2000: 100-101; Schwarz, 2000: 265, 272)

The third element was the establishment of Golkar. The government forced all state officials to swear their “singular loyalty” to Golkar. The ones who refused had to resign. This requirement posted particular problems for officials in the Department of Religion, the majority of whom came from the ranks of Muslim parties. (Hefner, 2000: 101)

The culmination of the de-politicization process came in the 1980s when the regime obliged all Islamic organizations to have the religiously neutral state philosophy of Pancasila as its sole ideological basis rather than Islam (Beeson, 2004: 141). If not, they would be banned. In 1984, the NU and later the PPP decided to comply with the government’s wishes (Esposito, 1987b: 221). This obligation had an especially devastating impact. The already fractured leadership splintered further as fierce disputes exploded over how to respond to the new regulations. Some Muslims were even convinced that the real goal of the “sole foundation” policy was to destruct their organizations (Hefner, 2000: 121).

In the electoral arena the state regulations dealt a severe blow to the PPP, and decisively enhanced Golkar’s electoral advantage. This was especially apparent after 1984, when NU quitted the PPP to emancipate itself from state dominance and announced that it was returning to be an organization for social and religious welfare, not politics[20]. With NU’s withdrawal, Muslim support for the PPP plummeted. At the same time, the government party, Golkar, enjoyed an increase in its share of the Muslim vote. Robert Hefner concluded that: “To many, Islam seemed finished as an organized political force”. (Hefner, 2000: 121; Houben, 2004: 158)

From the analysis above, we can see that both UMNO and the New Order regime actively used the legal systems for their political expediency. While UMNO expanded Islamic laws to secure the support of Malay-Muslim constituencies and counter endless attacks on its Islamic credentials from PAS, Suharto changed electoral laws and laws on Islamic parties and organizations to undermine political Islam. Their tactics yielded great successes reflected in election results and the weakening of challengers, which cemented authoritarianism and dictatorship. And they both played the biggest role in Islamizing Malaysia and de-politicizing Islam in Indonesia.

2.2 Through bureaucratization

In Malaysia, several institutions were established and vested with the power to further Islamize the country. In 1981, right after being Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammad set up the Islamic Consultative Body (ICB) to ensure that no development plans or government policies were contrary to Islam. In the same year, he announced the Inculcation of Islamic Values Policy that articulated a model of corporate Islam (Abuza, 2003: 51). On the contrary, in 1973, the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly responsible for formulation of guidelines for state policy refused to recognize religion as the foundation of development, which Robert Hefner regarded as “a clear slap in the face of organized Islam” (Hefner, 2000: 80-81).

The two regimes were similar in investing a lot of resources in setting up and maintaining state institutions. In Kuala Lumpur, the Islamic Center (Pusat Islam) was set up as a federal government agency and evolved from the Islamic Affairs Division of the PM’s Office. It was upgraded in 1996 to the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 125), equipped with its own minister and secretariat (Liow, 2003: 15). In Jakarta, the Department of Religion not only survived under the New Order but saw it staffing and programs expand enormously. During 1967-1971, its staff increased by 60 percent, which made the department the largest state ministry. As Donald K.Emmerson noted, this was “by far the highest rate of growth of any comparable department during this period” (Hefner, 2000: 80). What I want to emphasize here is that in both countries, these institutions were set up to control Islam, but for different objectives. In Indonesia, their functions were to contain political Islam; whereas in Malaysia, they helped Islamize the country.

2.3 The Islamic state

There had been a prolonged debate in both countries since preindependence days over whether the state should be based upon Islamic teachings, or whether Islam should occupy the same position as other religions (International IDEA, 2000: 204; Abuza, 2003: 58-60). In response to PAS proposal for the formation of an Islamic state in Malaya in the 1950s, the first PM Tunku Abdul Rahman once commented that such a move entailed ‘the drowning of every non-Muslim in Malaya’. Yet his successors’ policies departed substantially from his (Liow, 2003: 18). Since the 1970s, elements within both UMNO and PAS have called for some form of an Islamic state, although there has been a certain vagueness and disagreement about the meaning of the concept beyond having the government following the precepts of the Qu’ran and shariah[21]. Under a lot of pressures of being outflanked on Islamic issues, Mahathir and his deputy Anwar pursued a two-pronged strategy: forestalling any move towards a well-defined constitutional amendment that creates an Islamic state while continuing political rhetoric and limited actions to increase the perceived role of Islam within nation. They even argued that Malaysia already is an Islamic state (Esposito, 1987b: 187).

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, both the pursuit and avowal of an Islamic state were illegal acts under the New Order. In 1985, the regime obliged all Islamic organizations to have Pancasila as their ideological basis rather than Islam (Beeson, 2004: 141). In Suharto’s view, Pancasila was vital to Indonesian unity and his own power, and he was determined to make it so firmly entrenched that no competing system of ideas could dislodge it. Anthony Johns observed that: “Islam, then, was to have full expression as a religious, cultural, and social complex of ideas and values, but not as a political ideology that could compete with that sponsored by the state”. The regime achieved a major success early when the NU - which alongside its participation in the PPP also retained an individual existence simply as a religious organization - decided to comply with the government’s wishes. The government achieved an even greater achievement when the PPP also passed a resolution recognizing the Pancasila as its sole ideological basis. By accepting the Pancasila, the PPP may well lose its Islamic character (Esposito, 1987b: 216-222).

2.4 Through manipulating the media

UMNO resorted to its control of the mainstream media to generate public apprehension towards the Islamic opposition as well as themselves. It used extensive media coverage to portray its regime as the “progressive” and “moderate” protectors of “correct” Islam, as opposed to the Islamic opposition (i.e PAS) who are “conservative”, “radical”, and even “deviationist” proponents of “wrong Islam”. Indubitably, this tactic has further engendered negative perceptions of PAS fundamentalism. (Liow, 2004b: 191)

Meanwhile, given the government’s control of the media, PAS’ ideological counter-attacks have received less publicity, and have been limited to their own propaganda outlets such as their popular magazine Harakah (Liow, 2003: 9). However, in fear of Harakah’s growing influence, UMNO forced PAS to publish it biweekly, rather than twice weekly as requested. And vendors had to put the publication in a rack for “PAS party members only” (Abuza, 2003: 57).

The situation was not very different in Indonesia. The New Order regime never forgot to minimize the influence of Islamic publications. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s the government prevented the publishers of Media Dakwah from selling the magazine to the general public by refusing to give it the general publication license. As a result, its dissemination was largely limited to an urban network of activists and preachers. (Hefner, 2000: 111)

The Islamic media difficulties worsened after 1974. In January of that year, there were street battles in the capital on the occasion of a visit by Japanese PM Tanaka. The riots were taken advantage of by the regime to crack down on the heretofore outspoken national press. Among a series of newspapers it banned was Harian Abadi, a daily identified with the Masyumi. This closing deprived the modernist Muslim community of its last mass-circulation daily. (Hefner, 2000: 111)

Making the ban all the more bitter was that the late 1970s were years of unprecedented growth in the mass media, driven by sales of print publications to the growing urban middle class. Remarkably, the most successful print media at this time tended to be nonconfessional, and some of the most popular were Christian-owned. (Hefner, 2000: 111). In conclusion, media in undemocratic societies is always manipulated by ruling forces for their own ends. While UMNO exploited it to out-Islamize its arch nemesis and willy-nilly Islamized Malaysian politics, Suharto controlled it to secure his power by minimizing the influence of Islamic ideas .


It is obvious that Islam was systematically manipulated by the New Order regime and the UMNO regime in the period of 1965-1998. During these three decades, the two regimes were similar in viewing Islam as a big challenge. Yet the strategies they employed to deal with it were different. President Suharto followed a two-pronged strategy of promoting cultural Islam and at the same time, emasculating political Islam. Meanwhile, the UMNO leadership, especially Prime Minister Mahathir and his deputy Anwar, embarked on their comprehensive Islamization project. Suharto through repressive measures maintained an artificial harmony among different religions and forcibly prevented political expressions of Islam in public. His Malaysian counterparts through responsive-repressive measures upgraded their Islamic credentials, at the same time retained the largely authoritarian and paternalistic character of its rule. (International IDEA, 2000: 204-205; Stauch, 2002: 9; Loh &Khoo, 2002: 75)

As a result, Islam as a social force grew tremendously in Indonesia and Malaysia. In the political strait-jacket of the New Order and UMNO regimes, “Islam is seen as a safe alternative to the heavily circumscribed political structure”, noted Schwarz (Abuza, 2003: 64, quoting Schwarz, 1994: 164). Islamic schools, mosques, and Muslim publications were popular fora (in Indonesia they were the only fora) for political debate - all the more so because the state was increasingly unwilling to crack down on them (Abuza, 2003: 64). The number of participants in both daily prayers and Friday congregational prayers have substantially increased. In public places, people are more likely to wear Islamic dress. Islamic greetings have become fashionable, etc. In short, Islam has penetrated to every corner of Indonesian society (Beeson, 2004: 139).

Yet in the national political arena, Suharto’s policies of confrontation pushed Islam from center to periphery following a short period of collaboration in the “wholesale killings” of 1965-1966, then since mid 1980s the master of divide and conquer pulled it out of the periphery again (Hefner, 2000). That helps explain why Islam, the declared faith of more than four out of five citizens has been “the Outsider” in Indonesian politics (Piscatori, 1983: 199).

In Malaysia, the Islamization race between UMNO and PAS moved Islam from the fringe to the center of mainstream politics (Liow, 2003: 1) and now as Joseph Liow concluded “Few would disagree that Islam has become a major force in Malaysian politic” (2004a: 1).

The two countries also represent two different models of Islamization (Stauch, 2002: 9). The Islamization project in Malaysia were conscientiously undertaken by the state from the mid-1980s under fairly considerable political pressure, especially when the government found it necessary to legitimate itself as Islamic against the claims of traditionalizing or neo-traditionalist Islamic forces such as PAS and Darul Arqam (Heryanto&Mandal, 2003: 125). This leading role of the state led to a "think-tank" focused mode of Islamization. Meanwhile, Islamization in Indonesia was a bottom-up process of growing religious identification and piety by people of all generations and backgrounds, particularly by the Islamic mass organizations such as NU and Muhammadiyah (Stauch, 2002: 9). Suharto was not the one who led the religious revival in Indonesia, but he was quick to capitalize on it to gain Muslim support and cope with challengers from the military and the pro-democracy movement. These two models are another evidence downplaying approaches that tend to privilege external influences, or at least to regard them in ways that overlay, rather than interact with internal balances of forces in academic discourse on Islamization.

As UMNO attempted to react to increase demands to defend and develop Islam, it helped establish a religious environment in which such religious pressures have had a greater legitimacy and Malay-Muslim expectations of government support have been higher. Therefore UMNO was always under the pressures of a greater Islamization (Esposito, 1987b: 193), whereas Suharto took the initiative in Islamization issues and sought to harness the power of Islam for his own ends. While UMNO’s policies towards Islam departed significantly from their rather “secular” ones in the 1950s-1960s (Liow, 2003: 18), Suharto’s dalliance with ultraconservatives betrayed the principles of Pancasila pluralism earlier promoted, if often hypocritically, by his regime. In exploiting ethnoreligious divisions for personal power, the dictator also made a dangerous run on the reserves of civic decency in society. The modes he pursued to manipulate Islam reveal that what guided Suharto throughout his career was not, as many once thought, his commitment to a consistent ideology, least of all the tolerant Javanism attributed to him a generation ago.

His obsession was power, and he was willing change ideological garb to keep it. A master of divide and conquer, he pitted religious rivals against one another until none could stand on their own. As Robert Hefner commented: “The tactic threatened the most precious of Indonesia's democratic resources: the depth of tolerance and nationalist pride among citizens of all faiths” (2000: 19).

In the mean time, because of UMNO’s much-advertised commitment to Islam, PAS cannot rely only on Islamic credentials to outbid the ruling coalition in elections. It has resorted to building an image of a democratic Islam and attacking UMNO’s low profile of authoritarianism, corruption and money politics. The shifts made by both UMNO and PAS reflect a tendency in Muslim politics: the opposition began to move in the direction of championing democracy and popular participation, while the regimes appeared to move in the direction of Islamization. This tendency may have begun to exhibit a gradual convergence - in arguments, claims and practices - of the concerns of political Islam with the concerns of democratization, or in other words, exhibit a gradual convergence of Islam and democracy. (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 9-10)

Last but not least, the different strategies adopted by the New Order regime and the UMNO regime, of course, left far-reaching implications on Islamic radicalism in the two countries. In Indonesia, a minority of the Muslim population feel their religion has been oppressively fettered for so long under Sukarno and Suharto. Being frustrated with few democratic channels, they have resorted to Islamic extremism, terrorism and violence in order to fight for the status and the power they think Islam deserves. The bombings that killed 202 people in the Kuta resort of Bali in October 2002 was the deadliest terrorist act the world had seen since September 11, 2001 (McBride, 2004: 12; Smith, 2005: 98). It was followed in July 2003 by an attack on the Indonesian parliament, then with the blasts of the Jakarta Marriott Hotel the next month. They have fortunately claimed far fewer lives, but helped to cement Indonesia’s undeserved reputation as a hotbed of Islamic extremism (McBride, 2004: 4). Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the Islamization project and the existence of two biggest parties (UMNO and PAS) which consider themselves as Islamic have satisfied the religious and political demands of the greatest majority of Malay-Muslims counting a bare majority of the citizenry. That is why several radical groups have operated in Malaysia, but violence has not been the means they often choose (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 74-107).


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[1] UMNO is the United Malays National Organization, which was established in 1946. It has been the dominant party in the ruling coalition since independence.

[2] Pancasila is the Five Principles of belief in one God, humanitarianism, nationalism, democracy and social justice. Since 1945, it has been considered the state philosophy and symbol of Indonesian religious pluralism.

[3] Suharto and his supporters set up the New Order regime after eliminating the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and stripping President Sukarno of his power.

[4] Here I mean the regime led by UMNO since Malaysia gained independence.

[5] Ayatullah is the most high-ranking Shi’a religious official.

[6] Sunnah is the custom and practice based on the record of what the Prophet said or did.

[7] Imam is the divinely inspired leader of community after Muhammad, in Shi’a belief.

[8] According to the 1957 Consitution: “Islam is the religion of the Federation” (Esposito, 1987b: 187)

[9] Islam in Malaysia is still the headship of the sultans.

[10] For example, the Nahdlatul Ulama in the Guided Democracy (1957-1965) in Indonesia (Hefner, 2000: 44) and PAS in Malaysia in 1974-1977.

[11] With its popularity as the main Muslim party, the Masyumi was excessively confident before the first general elections in 1955. It expected it could win an outright majority and therefore, easily carry out its Islamic agenda. Yet the results fell short of its expectations. The Masyumi gained 20.9 percent of the vote and the Islamic parties collectively held only a minority in the new parliament. Owing to its vehement opposition to Sukarno’s policies, his person and his Communist alliance, the Masyumi found itself more isolated and removed from the mainstream of Indonesian political life. In frustration, it gave support (along with the CIA) to the regional revolts. (Esposito, 1987b: 214-215; Hefner, 2000: 43; Hooker, 1988: 190) Members of the Masyumi looked with high hope that their party would be rehabilitated under the New Order. However, Suharto, though a Muslim himself, regarded the politically militant understanding of Islam that the Matsyumi embraced as a danger to the unity of the nation and refused to consider any representations on its behalf. (Esposito, 1987b: 215-216)

[12] The population of Malaysia as a whole includes approximately 58 percent Malays (who are predominantly Muslim), 24 percent Chinese, eight percent Indians and ten percent others (Miller, 2004: 3, 8). Ethnic tension increased after independence and reached its peak in the May 13, 1969 race riots in which 196 people were killed. After the unrest, the government pursued affirmative actions both to strengthen the Malay identity of the state and improve the socioeconomic position of the Malay community via the New Economic Policy. From May 1969 to March 1971, the Parliament was suspended and the National Operations Council ruled Malaysia by emergency powers (Abuza, 2003: 50).

[13] Since the first post independence election, PAS on-and-off won control of two state governments out of eleven, in Terengganu and Kelantan (where Malays made up more than 90 percent of the population). It has large bases of support in those two northeastern states as well as in Perlis and Kedah. Following the 1969 race riots, PAS grew into a nationally known party that claimed to be supported by 40 percent of Malays and an alternative to UMNO as a protector of Malay rights. (Abuza, 2003: 52-58)

[14] The politicizing of Islam is defined as the mobilization of Muslims, Muslim laws, values and practices for political power (Liow, 2003: ii). This process inevitably accords greater significance of Islam in politics, which is the Islamization of politics. In its turn, the Islamization of politics inevitably lead to the greater significance of politics in Islamic issues. We can say the politicization of Islam and the Islamization of politics are 2 co-existent, dialectical and overlapping processes. Several scholars even consider them as one (Naim, 2000). In this dissertation, to make things more simple, I combine UMNO’s policies to Islamize politics and those to politicize Islam as they have all intensified the politicization of Islam in Malaysia.

[15] The politicization of Islam, defined as the mobilization of Muslims for political power, has become a key feature of the Malaysian political terrain in recent years. This process has found dominant expression in the so-called “Islamization race” between the two major political party who both look to derive legitimacy from religion - UMNO and PAS. (Liow, 2003: ii). Also see Footnote 11.

[16] Under the ISA, 106 persons - representatives of non-governmental organizations, unionists, opposition leaders, educationists, church social activists, and even ordinary villagers - were detained. Two dailies and another two weeklies had their publishing licences revoked. (Loh&Khoo, 2002: 39)

[17] Start off as a missionary organization, Darul Arqam grew into a fundamentalist movement in the rural and urban areas with more than ten thousand followers (Houben, 2004: 160). It wanted to establish a cooperative, communally oriented model among Muslims in economic, social, educational, and health areas. (Esposito, 1987b: 196). As the movement began to explore its participation in electoral politics, the government accused it of “deviant teachings” thereby “threatening national security” and unity (Loh& Khoo, 2002: 32). Of those grounds, the authority invoked the ISA and conducted mass arrests of Arqam leaders just before the 1995 elections (Houben, 2004: 160).

[18] To ensure loyalty and compliance, all funding for the PDI and PPP came from the state in annual allocations from the state secretariat. Unable to raise their own funds to engage in political activities, the PDI and PPP were completely dependent on the state. Any challenge to Suharto resulted in their economic ruin (Abuza, 2003: 63).

[19] During the same period, Golkar held 3 national congresses and the PDI twice.

[20] Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of NU argued that it was better able to advocate social change outside of politics. According to Wahid, as the New Order did not allow political discourse, membership in the PPP and participating in the charade of politics was actually destructive and distracted the NU from accomplishing its goals. Later developments did prove that Muslim social organizations were always more capable than the two legal opposition parties, the PDI and PPP, in pushing for policy changes. (Abuza, 2003: 64)

[21] To many Malays, including the Ulama, what constitutes an Islamic state remains vague and contestable. Even PAS itself has been unable to provide a practical vision of an Islamic state that is satisfactory to the entire of Muslim community in Malaysia. (Liow, 2003: 4)

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A comparative analysis of the strategies the New Order and UMNO regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia adopted to deal with Islam in 1965 - 1998
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Thi Thu Huong Dang (Author), 2005, A comparative analysis of the strategies the New Order and UMNO regimes in Indonesia and Malaysia adopted to deal with Islam in 1965 - 1998, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/110779


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