Indonesia’s Islamist party: hijabs, uniforms and a Hitler tweet

June 21, 2010

Jakarta’s Ritz Carlton hotel this weekend was a sea of brightly coloured Islamic headscarves and the crisp white uniforms of the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the third biggest party in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet. PKS held their national congress at the luxury hotel

, the site of a deadly July 2009 bomb attack perpetrated by Islamist militants,

and the topic on everyone’s lips was how to broaden the party’s appeal and shake off their image as hardliners.

CORRECTION: This post originally identified this Ritz Carlton as the site of the 2009 bombing, which occured at a different Ritz Carlton location.

pks 1It’s a reputation the party earned by pushing conservative policies such as Indonesia’s anti-pornography law and supporting the introduction of stoning for adulterers in semi-autonomous region of Aceh, where sharia law is practiced.

(Photo: Sharia police check women caught wearing tight pants in Aceh province May 26, 2010/Junaidi Hanafiah)

But a tough moral line has not proved a great vote winner in majority Muslim Indonesia, where most people practice a very moderate form of Islam that incorporates pre-Islamic traditional beliefs. PKS increased its vote only slightly in the 2009 election and all other Islam-based parties actually lost votes.

Hence the push to open up the party. Secretary General Anis Matta has set a goal of 1.2 million new members over five years and non-Muslims are now being invited to join PKS.

Senior PKS member Hidayat Nur Wahid in a speech on Saturday reiterated the party’s commitment to Pancasila, the national ideology that promotes pluralism. Keynote speakers included U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume, German-born Catholic priest Franz Magnis-Suseno and Australian Ambassador Bill Farmer.

“I truly expect all cadres of this party to improve and expand your knowledge regarding inter-society and community interaction so that we can realise what has been taught by our religion, which is peace, prosperity and justice,” said PKS party president Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq.

pks 2These are noble goals but it seems PKS still has a long way to go before it will be seen as a mainstream, middle way party. Part of its image problem is Tifatul Sembiring, a former PKS president and current information minister, who seems to court controversy wherever he goes.

(Photo: Tifatul Sembiring, April 13, 2009/Crack Palinggi)

He told Reuters last year that he supported the death penalty in the worst cases of corruption and that he couldn’t understand how atheists could have any moral control. During a tour last year of West Sumatra’s quake-hit capital, Padang  – where more than 1000 people had died — he linked natural disasters to immoral TV shows.

Earlier this year, Sembiring, an avid user of Twitter, quoted Hitler in a tweet that read “The union between two children, when both of them complete each other, this is magic — Adolf Hitler.”

He was given a dressing down by the Indonesia’s Catholic Bishops Conference on Saturday after comparing a celebrity sex tape scandal to a theological debate between Christians and Muslims on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

He was also reported by local media saying the case of a Bali teen caught in flagrante delicto with a cow was an example of why sex outside of wedlock is a social problem.

“Sometimes he speaks before he thinks,” one PKS cadre, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

But Greg Fealy, an expert on Indonesia’s Islam-based parties from the Australian National University and a keynote speaker at the PKS congress, said Sembiring’s gaffes should not be overblown.

pks 3“The party is relieved he is no longer the [party] president. Obviously he has some ill-effects for PKS but he is not an unpopular figure and is a nice man. He is not an obstacle to PKS going places,” he said.

(Photo: Soldiers at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Jakarta on July 18, 2009 after suicide bombers struck/Supri)

Fealy said he expected PKS to get more heterogenous and progressive over time, but that this process would take years.

“There’s still a big gap between rhetoric and reality. The reality is it is very difficult for non-Muslims to rise to important positions in the party. That’s the real test of whether the party has opened up,” he said. “But right now, everyone in a decision-making role is not only Muslim but a certain type of Muslim.”

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