Indonesian Islamists Stumble But Keep Going

Islamist parties have struggled at the polls in Indonesia, where secular parties have dominated elections in the last decade. One reason might be found in two separate incidents this week, both involving parties that are governing coalition partners with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The first, and juiciest, involved Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, the chairman of Indonesia's Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, known by its initials PKS, who resigned after one of his top aides was found naked in a hotel room with a college girl while accepting a black suitcase stuffed with Rp1 billion ($103,125) in bribes from meat importer Indoguna Utama executives.

"I am announcing to all cadres, executives and members of the party's leadership board that I resign as president of the PKS starting today," Luthfi was quoted as saying as officers of Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) escorted him to the Indonesian Military's South Jakarta detention center.

The Prosperous Justice Party reportedly has extraordinary sway over the Agriculture Ministry. There are reports in Jakarta that the affair could ensnare other officials in addition to Lufthi and his aide. Five PKS members sit on the House Commission IV. Agriculture Minister Suswono is also a party member.

The cutback in beef quotas In recent months has led to sharply rising beef prices, which have benefited local beef producers. That spurred the United States, on Jan. 10, to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization over growing restrictions on imports of horticultural products, animals and animal products.

Indoguna Utama was allegedly attempting to buy the influence of lawmakers in charge of Indonesia's beef quota, KPK Deputy Chairman Bambang Widjojanto told local media at the time of the arrest. The Rp1 billion was reportedly a down payment on a larger bribe expected to total Rp 40 billion, an anonymous KPK source told the Jakarta-based Tempo.com.

When KPK investigators stormed into Ahmad's hotel room, they reportedly found the aide and the naked young woman, a university student, the source said. He allegedly told the agents that he paid Rp 10 million to spend two hours with the young woman..

"Both of them had no chance to get dressed when the room was opened by our team and the hotel's security," the KPK source told Tempo.com.

In another development, the United Development Party Wednesday said it would seek to nominate Munarman, the commander of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), as one of its legislative candidates for the 2014 elections.

Suryadharma Ali, the chairman of the Islam-based party known as PPP, said Munarman had the potential to be a good politician.

"PPP and I see that Munarman is highly qualified; he has good knowledge and he's a lawyer. He will fit into the political arena," said Suryadharma, who is also the country's religious affairs minister.

Thus the country's religious affairs minister has anointed as a political candidate the commander of a notorious Islamic militia associated with strong arming people to follow their version of Islam, including closing down churches, harassing women and intimidating minority groups.

Despite the fact that they don't fare well at the polls, the Islamic parties and hardline groups wield considerable power with most politicians, who are unwilling to challenge them or strongly denounce even illegal acts.

That lack of leadership has given the country embarrassing legislation like an anti-pornography law that undermines civil liberties and was used to jail a pop star over a private sex tape that had been stolen from him and which he never disseminated.

An anti-blasphemy law has been used to jail a man for stating that he was an atheist. A pending halal food bill could force all Indonesians to eat only halal food and threatens to undermine the country's pharmaceutical industry with halal rules.

This is despite the fact that Indonesia is a constitutionally secular country with no state religion.

"The secular parties are becoming more religious," said a very senior politician, speaking of the inordinate influence of Islamists. "The influence goes well beyond parties."

A senior government official as asked recently why the president doesn't vigorously denounce illegal acts led by groups like the PKI, including vicious assaults on Ahmadiya sect members and followers of Shia Islam. "He is getting bad advice," the man said. The influence also spills over into the economy. Chief economic minister Hatta Rajasa is the chairman of the moderate Islamic National Mandate Party and has been behind a rash of nationalist measures in recent months.

He is believed to have supported the recent suit brought by Islamic groups that resulted in the dismantling of the country's oil and gas regulator, BPMigas, and their calls for the energy sector to be eventually taken over exclusively by state-owned companies.

According to Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) spokesman Ismail Yusanto, resource policy is a religious issue. His group was one of the chief advocates of the judicial review that brought down BPMigas, and he says this is just the beginning, according to an interview he gave to the American Chamber Commerce Web site.

He wants to see all laws changed that guarantee equal treatment of foreign companies and state-owned companies.

"This is against Sharia [Islamic Law]. Sharia believes oil and gas belongs to the people. The state is mandated to manage natural resources for the prosperity of the people," Ismail said.

When Islamist leaders like the PKS chairman and the aide caught with a college girl are found to have feet of clay, moderate Indonesians often express the hope that their power and influence will finally be diminished as the public sees their hypocrisy up close.

The reality is that despite such contretemps the power of the Islamic sector is unlikely to be brought down by corruption charges, sex scandals or high-profile endorsements of thugs. The parties and groups are deeply entrenched in the nation's political sector, they control vast amounts of money and with 2014 elections looming enough swing votes ‑ up to about 20 percent in total - that few politicians will risk alienating a constituency they need to attain and keep power.

(A. Lin Neumann is one of the founding editors of Asia Sentinel. He is now a consultant in Jakarta)