Islamists’ appropriation of Pancasila

I followed the recent debate about the first principle of Pancasila in the ongoing presidential race with a mix of grin and dissatisfaction. Grin, for the continual collision between progressives and conservatives; dissatisfaction because the conventional explanation about the Islamists’ outlook is frequently echoed when such controversy happens.

Azis Fachrudin’s recent opinion (The Jakarta Post, Feb. 15) is part of the progressive inclination to warn of Islamist interpretations of Pancasila in both the incumbent’s and challenger’s camps. However, repeated warnings in the last decades seem inadequate in questioning the Islamists’ appropriation of Pancasila and this nation state.

Most Islamists believe their struggle for formalizing the sharia and controlling society is a pious act. When progressives criticize them as deploying conservative, intolerant readings of Islam and hijacking state ideology and democracy, they paradoxically feel more confident. Accordingly, they imagine defending Islam and the nation against secular liberals.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamic party supporting Prabowo, and the United Development Party (PPP), an Islamic party supporting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, share the same tone with the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) in accusing the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), part of Jokowi’s coalition, of not understanding Pancasila and of stimulating a vitriolic reaction from Muslim communities by promoting the prohibition of polygamy for state officials and sharia-inspired bylaws.

The major explanations highlight Islamists’ divergence from our expected democracy and religious freedom. However, while Islamic concepts and practices are part of the story, we must uncover the underbelly of our political and legal system that makes the mushrooming of Islamists’ views possible.

The attempt to understand the Islamists’ reasoning of Pancasila is important. Yet one should ask, what were the conditions that enabled and constrained such reasoning? With this, we may counter such Islamists’ outlook adequately.

When we listen to the Islamists’ rhetoric of Pancasila, we will find them adopting modern modes of thought. The FPI’s call for NKRI Bersyariah (the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia with sharia) is based on national ideology and constitutional claims in proposing to exclude minorities that are accused as national enemies and to keep Muslims from committing acts deemed morally sinful.

This is not simply a misuse of the foundational aims of democracy and constitutionalism by Islamists. It has a long root in colonial and post-colonial history, when the sharia was codified, centralized and bureaucratized by imitating the pattern of modern European law. The modern Islamic law as understood by Islamists is contrary to Islamic legal tradition and methodology (usul al-fiqh), which valorizes diversity of opinion (ikhtilaf) as a core principle.

Consequently, the formalization of the sharia allowed state officials to politically monopolize the interpretation of the sharia and Islamic understanding of state ideology. In understanding such a transformation of Islamic law, instead of naming such a process the Islamization of secular law, which may please Islamists, it is more proper to call it the “secularization” of the sharia.

Therefore, the idea of NKRI Bersyariah is not a new invention. FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, ironically, conceptualized it by recrafting the previous secular idea about incorporation of the sharia into national law.

A case in point is the recent blasphemy trial that raised the political bargaining power of the FPI and other Islamists after the “212” rally of late 2016. When the opinions of Muslim scholars varied regarding whether former Jakarta governor Basuki “BTP” Tjahaja Purnama committed blasphemy or not, the court selected religious authority from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) representing Islamists’ accusation.

The judicial review of the Blasphemy Law was contested three times, and the Constitutional Court justices, except one, were tenacious that the law is necessary and in line with the 1945 Constitution. Apparently, the justices’ reasoning is in the same tone as the Islamists’ in terms of the Constitution’s limitation on human rights based on “public order” and “religious values” (Article 28J), which were deployed to criminalize allegedly deviant groups.

However, there are no such legal terms in Islamic legal tradition. Despite religious values as the limitation of human rights only existing in the Indonesian Constitution following Pancasila’s first principle, the provision follows bifurcated provisions in international human rights law, namely forum internum as freedom from state coercion and forum externum as freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs subject to permissible limitations.

Besides, the provision of public order can be traced from the French civil code that enabled state sovereignty to defend a certain majoritarian sensibility of the social and moral order.

Meanwhile, most of the contemporary discussion is directed at how to transform Islam from within to be compatible with modernity, democracy and human rights against the conservative, dated interpretation manufactured by Islamists. However, with the support of Islamist parties and legal experts supporting the Blasphemy Law and sharia-inspired bylaw, the Islamists have already become engaged in the discourse of modern law, human rights and constitutionalism, partly to control Muslims and to fight non-mainstream religious and sexual minorities.

It is crucial for critique to push Islamists into a different direction by devaluing their conviction that their political struggle is pious and Islamic. This attempt needs recognition of the limits of our democracy and legal system that constructs and secularizes the way Islamists plan to Islamicize society by controlling the state and law. Recent research on sharia law in Aceh by political scientist Michael Buehler shows that the attempt to accommodate the sharia was entangled with secular political interests and collusion amid competitive elections as a medium to mobilize the electorate.

Countering the state monopoly of sharia is necessary by educating legislators, judges, lawyers and lay people on the imperative of Islamic legal pluralism to revise popular consciousness about the significance of sharia formalization. These initiatives can be accomplished by civil society organizations and progressive state officials by avoiding counterproductive mockery of conservatives while building public solidarity at the grassroots level to embrace marginalized minorities.

— This article was originally published at the Jakarta Post, March 1, 2019.

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