Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward*

(Yogykarta, October 2008) Accounts of the “War of Words” or the “Battle for the Soul of Islam” or whatever else one choose to call the ideological struggle between “radicals” and “moderates” in the Muslim world tend to focus on elite level intellectual discourse that is largely divorced from the daily realities of Muslim life. This is understandable. Most western observes of Muslim life are political scientists or pundits who are at home conversing in terms of political theory, in abstract discourses on such topics as “religion-state relations.”

While it is understandable it is also unfortunate. For one thing, the vast majority of the world’s more than one billion Muslims do not find this intellectual environment comfortable or even comprehensible. They are more concerned with being Muslims than with conversing about the contrast between inclusive and exclusive variants of Islam, political thought and praxis or terrorism. These are conversations that, even when they are in Muslim languages, are so littered with English terminology as to make them little more than word salad for most Muslims. For another thing, ultimately, these are the people who matter. They are the ones who will decide the course that Islam takes in the twenty-first century.

PKS Flag

PKS Flag

Here I describe one skirmish in this “War of Words”: One for the meaning of the fast of Ramadan and the feast of Id al-Fitri that marks its conclusion in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta in south central Java in the Republic of Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation and the world’s third largest democracy. The skirmish I describe pitted the Islamist political party Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS, The Justice and Prosperity Party) against most other Muslim groups in the Sultanate. The struggle was not overtly political. It was about the content of sermons, the spirit with which the fast should be observed, and how the Id should be celebrated. It was also a battle of symbols that pitted the PKS party flag, which is of great political (but not cultural) importance, against the bedug, an oversized drum that in Java accompanies the azan or call to prayer. The bedug is among the most important symbols of traditional Javanese Islam, but heretofore, has been entirely apolitical.

A Bedug

A Bedug

This essay delves deeply into the particulars of Javanese Islamic culture and symbolism, which are almost certainly uncharted territory for most COMOPS readers, and certainly for the pundits whose voices dominate western discourse about political Islam. The outcome of this struggle might seem to be of minor significance, except, of course, for Javanese and other Indonesians. It is, however, one that is repeated in culturally distinctive ways across the Muslim world. In that sense it is at the very center of the struggle for the soul of Islam. Struggles like this one will determine the degree to which the Muslim world falls under the sway of Wahhabi religious exclusivism or, alternatively (and to my mind hopefully) the degree to which Muslim peoples retain their locally distinctive religious and cultural traditions.

The Traditionalists

The Sultanate of Yogyakarta is the last of the nearly two hundred Islamic kingdoms in what is now Indonesia to retain any degree of political significance. Like the other “native states” of South Asia today, they are nothing more than quaint anachronisms if they survive at all. Yogyakarta is home to a rich Islamicate culture heavily influenced by Sufi traditions and a Hindu-Buddhist heritage dating to at least the eight century. The Sultan—who is also provincial governor and a major national level political figure—is believed to be a living saint who communicates directly with God, and is the channel though which divine blessing and mercy are conveyed to the populace.

Yogyakarta Province

Yogyakarta Province (red)

Javanese political thought is based on the mystical-social concept of the “Union of Servant and Lord” according to which the Sultan it linked by spiritual bonds to both God and his subjects. An important element of this culture include the veneration of the graves of Saints, Scholars (Ulama, or in Javanese kyai), Sultans and heroes. It also honors the quest for intuitive understanding of (even union with) the divine, and belief in the power of sacred heirlooms (pusaka). It also honors the bedug. Every traditional Javanese mosque has one. Many are pusaka are said to have been made, or at least played, by important saints. There are also very strong links between the palace and the mosque. Many of the most important mosques in Yogyakarta were founded by members of the royal family who chose piety instead of politics as a vocation, and are built on land donated by the Sultanate. They display the royal coat of arms and are staffed by kyai who are also abdidalem (palace officials).

The Reformists

Yogyakarta is also home to Indonesia’s largest Modernist Muslim organization Muhammadiyah. Theologically Muhammadiyah shares much with PKS and other Muslim “reformists” sects, including Wahhabis, who are commonly referred to as Salafi. It rejects most, if not all, aspects of Sufism, particularly the veneration of graves. It considers such practices to be bidah or unlawful religious innovation that departs from the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. Ironically, Muhammadiyah was born within the walls of the Yogyakarta palace and continues to maintain its headquarters there. It was founded by Kyai Achmad Dahlan, an official at the Sultanate’s Grand Mosque in 1912.

Muhammadiyah initially strongly opposed most aspects of the Sultanate’s official Islam and traditional Javanese Muslim ritual practices. It has long since moderated its opposition to traditional rituals, describing them as culture, rather than religion. A compromise dating to the 1930s gave Muhammadiyah control of the Grand Mosque, but left other “Sultanate Mosques” in the hands of traditionalists. It also required leaders of the organization to officiate at palace rituals, including the Garebeg held on Id al-Ftri, at which “mountains” of offerings believed to be charged with the mystical power of the Sultan are carried from the palace to the mosque and distributed to crowds of thousands of traditionalist Muslims. The fine batik that can be worn only by royalty are made in workshops staffed by Muhammadiyah women who proudly boast that what they make, they could never wear. Sufi shrines and royal mosques scattered throughout the Sultanate are administered by the office of the Penghulu, or chief cleric, who is also a senior member of Muhammadiyah. This not the exclusivist, intolerant “Salafi” Islam so often described in the literature. It is rather a “purist” or “reformist” Islam that remains deeply rooted in traditional culture.

Coexisting Traditions

Muhammadiyah and Yogyakarta traditionalists share the notion that Islam is a religion, not a political movement, and that a mosque defines and provides ritual space for a locally defined territorially and socially based Muslim community. In rural and traditional urban areas ties to these mosque based communities are many generations deep. Because the community is divided between traditionalists and Muhammadiyah “reformists” so are the mosques, or at least most of them. Modernists and traditionalist pray in slightly different ways and in slightly different directions: traditionalists towards the west reflecting pre-modern geographic knowledge and modernists towards the north-west, reflecting twentieth century knowledge of the direction of Mecca. Modernist prayers are typically restrained, while those of traditionalists are punctuated with ecstatic cries of “ALLAH!” and “AMIN!” During Ramadan traditionalists perform 22 extra prayers in the evenings, modernists 11. Typically prayers of both numbers and in both directions are conducted in the same mosque. This is always the case at the Grand Mosque of the Sultanate.

The Special Region

Yogyakarta owes its special status as “a province with the status of a kingdom” to the central role Sultan Hamengukubuwana IX played in the Indonesian Revolution against the forces of resurgent Dutch colonialism in the late 1940s. Yogyakarta was the “Mother City” of the Indonesian Revolution from which it was fought. It was very nearly lost but ultimately won. Hamengukubuwana IX played a critical role in formulation of the policies that led to a retreat from radical nationalism and three decades of sustained economic growth following an abortive Communist coupe in 1965. He was later Vice President. His son and heir, Hamengkubuwana X, played a central role in the Reformasi (Reformation) movement that led to the democratic transition of 1998. Yogyakarta is a “Special Region” of Indonesia in more than the legal sense of the term.

Yogyakarta, PKS and Wahhabi Colonialism

Today Yogyakarta struggles with a different form of colonialism, the religious and cultural colonialism of exclusivist Wahhabi Islam originating in and financed by wealthy Gulf Arabs and the Saudi state. The Saudi government offers attractive scholarships for study in its Islamic universities. It continues to support graduates who return home and start schools ranging from kindergartens to universities. Middle Eastern Wahhabis are active is social welfare organizations and contributed significantly to relief efforts following a devastating earthquake that struck Yogyakarta in 2007. However, aid often comes with theological strings attached. Schools founded by Saudis teach Wahhabi Islam and they often attempt to link funds for mosque construction or restoration to the acceptance of Wahhabi imams.

Theologically PKS espouses positions similar to those of Muhammadiyah, but rejects its religious and sociological inclusivism. PKS is widely believed to be to be the local agent of Wahhabi colonialism and is often referred to as “the party that waits for instructions from Arabia.” PKS is very well funded. What the sources of its funds are is not clear, but many suspect that it receives financial support from the Middle East. Ideologically and politically PKS is more closely tied to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood than it is to the Saudi monarchy. PKS’s public political program resembles that of the “liberal” wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. It emphasizes good governance, efficiency, fighting vice and corruption coupled with a vaguely populist economic program shared by most of Indonesia’s religious and secular political parties. They strongly oppose the consumption of alcohol, smoking, gambling, prostitution, pornography and other “vices.” PKS emphasizes social responsibility and roots its political program in the Qur’an and Hadith, often citing passages according to which all humans are leaders in some sense and are accountable to God and their fellow humans.

Participation in politics is often described as a religious obligation (wajib) like the five daily prayers or fasting during Ramadan. PKS is the most thoroughly organized of Indonesia’s political parties. Cadres receive intensive training. They are taught that Islam is a totally encompassing system and that Shari’ah is the model for individual and collective behavior and that those who do not accept this view are kafir (unbelievers). Potential candidates for legislative office are tested on their ability to read the Qur’an in Arabic. Few PKS leaders or supporters are religious scholars. Many hold university degrees in technical fields. Some have studied in the US, Europe or Australia. Those who have pursued advanced religious training have most often done so in Saudi Arabia or in fundamentalist schools in neighboring Malaysia. Few have studied in traditional Indonesian religious schools (pesantren) or Islamic universities.

PKS rejects accusations of religious extremism, especially during election campaigns. During the 2007 Jakarta provincial elections the party went to great pains to deny that it would outlaw public celebrations of the Maulid, the Holy day commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad that Wahhabis and other Muslim fundamentalists consider heretical.[1] However, PKS is among the primary legislative backers of a draconian “anti-pornography” bill that would ban, among other things, young couples holding hands in public, and would allow vigilante groups to enforce this and other equally extreme provisions. Most other Muslim organizations and almost all women’s organizations very strongly oppose the measure. They think of it as a thinly veiled attempt to impose Wahhabi morality on a population that is far more liberal than the measure’s supporters.

In this and many other respects PKS is clearly closer to Wahhabi moralism than to Islamic Brotherhood pragmatism. This is a very different portrait of PKS than emerges from the literature on its overtly political activities, where it is often described as a moderate Islamist party (as I have done in my own recent publications). Seen from this perspective, PKS can be understood as a movement that seeks to radically transform Indonesian Islam in the image of Arabian Wahhabism.

Expanding Influence

For the past several years PKS has attempted to define itself not only as a political party, but as a social-religious movement structurally similar to the older and more established Nhadlatul Ulama, (NU), the largest traditionalist organization, and Muhammadiyah. It now has an independent Shari’ah Council (Dewan Syariah) that often follows the Saudi lead, especially in ritual matters. It has also sought to become a mosque based movement. At the local level NU and Muhammadiyah are community and territorially based. For both a mosque defines both a geographic (wilayah) and a ritual (ummah) space. These are the spaces within which ritual activities (ibadah) and community based social, educational and economic programs are located. Until recently PKS has not had the advantage of this mode of social organization. The party’s base is primarily University students, most of them at technical, secular schools, and the new urban middle class. These social groups are largely cut off from traditional rural and urban communities. For many the local mosque is a place one goes for Friday prayers, not the center of an organic community also bound by social ties that transcend religion. PKS has, in the past, relied primarily on a “cell structure.” In these cells individuals relate to each other primarily as party members. The party has usually staged political meetings and rallies in non-religious public spaces.

This has begun to change. PKS has not built its own mosques, but has attempted to take control of those dominated by other organizations, and especially those defined on the basis of community, but which do not have clear organizational affiliations. They are not interested in sharing sacred space, but in monopolizing it. This is not terribly difficult because mosques are vacant most of the time. These actions are almost always local. PKS cadre move, often temporarily, into a neighborhood and gather at the local mosque. They take charge of cleaning and refurbishing those that need it. They erect flags, put up placards and stickers displaying the party’s logo throughout the neighborhood. Sometimes they seek permission, sometimes they find unused spaces and sometimes they pay poor people to let their walls and gardens be used as propaganda platforms.

Party cadres make certain that meetings of mosque governing boards are packed with supporters. They offer to supply speakers, books and instructional materials for children free of charge. They often distribute literature, stickers and T-shirts before and after Friday prayers. Sermons and religious talks by PKS speakers push the party’s political agenda and a Wahhabi religious agenda that denounces the veneration of holy graves, “musical” devotions and often the bedug as unbelief. As one informant put it: “You wake up one morning, and your ancestors’ mosque has become the PKS mosque.” Party cadres often explain they are purifying mosques and that have been led by kafir posing as Muslims for a very long time.

PKS steadfastly denies that it uses mosques for political purposes and officially supports a government ban on their use in political campaigns. Party President Tifatul Sembiring explained that because mosques should be “neutral” spaces PKS would never use them for political purposes. He continued that PKS only uses mosques for dakwah, or propagating the faith. Given that the party defines politics as ritual, this is disingenuous at best.

PKS has also attempted to infiltrate and take control of schools, clinics, hospitals and other social service organizations. This has evoked strong responses from national level Muslim organizations especially Muhammadiyah which operates a vast network of social service and educational institutions. The organization has taken steps to expel PKS members and supporters.

Ramadan and Resistance

Some the stiffest, and ultimately perhaps the most important, resistance to this new religious colonialism has come at the local level. This was readily apparent during the recently completed fasting month of Ramadan and the Id al-Fitri celebrations that marked its conclusion. During Ramadan, observant Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations between dawn and sunset. There are also special prayers, some of the required by Shari’ah others that are optional. In the evenings many people gather in mosques to break the fast together, pray and perform other devotional acts including reciting the Qur’an. It is, or should be, a time of introspection during which one contemplates mistakes of the past and resolves to do better in the future.

It is especially important that those who are fasting remain in control of their emotions and avoid interpersonal or social conflict. Ideally it is a time when sectarian differences should be set aside. In Yogyakarta at least, religious inclusivism is a major theme. At one of the Great Mosque in Pleret, which is among the oldest in the Sultanate, entire neighborhoods gathered for communal fast breaking (buka puasa) ceremonies, without regard for sectarian differences. In the Grand Mosque in Yogyakarta there were meals and later snacks for everyone who chose to attend, no matter exactly how, over in exactly what direction they prayed.

This past Ramadan I spent many evenings sitting in mosques, ranging from the Grand Mosque in the city to very small ones deep in the countryside. I did not happen upon any “PKS” mosques and was not looking for them. I was not sitting in mosques to talk about PKS or Saudi’s or Wahhabis. I was there to get a better sense of the variety of Ramadan experiences in Yogyakarta than I had when I was first there in the late 1970s – and just because I wanted to. But the subject almost invariably came up, in part because 2009 will be an election year and in part because the party had mounted an intensive and entirely obvious campaign to capture the fast by attaching its’ own symbols to it.

A PKS Banner

A PKS Banner

At the beginning of the month PKS flags, banners and placards appeared everywhere, even in villages where the party has no members or supporters and no one knows what it stands for. There were regular PKS ads on Yogyakarta Public Television. It can very realistically be called “Yogya Palace TV.” The news is presented by men and women wearing traditional palace clothing and regalia and the background image is a collage of royalist images. PKS went so far as to stage prayer and video-tape prayer services in royal mosques, to which it could not be denied access. This was particularly outrageous because PKS was taking the lead in a political struggle to disestablish the monarchy at the time. They also publicly advertised the fact that they were providing “reduced cost” fast breaking meals. Most mosques provide free ones. It stated that it would handle the collection and distribution of zakat, the alms payable at the end of the month in modern professional ways. Most people prefer to give them directly to religious scholars, institutions and the poor. They offered to provide speakers for mosque events “free of charge.” There were few takers.

A Truck-Mounted Bedug

A Truck-Mounted Bedug

The bedug emerged spontaneously as a symbol of resistance. Yogya Television continually broadcasted a small one in the upper left hand corner of the screen. There were giant bedug prominently displayed in malls and supermarkets. Even international companies got into the act. Coca Cola displayed bedug adorned with its corporate logo. Politicians, other than PKS politicians, attempted to play it at rallies and “on air.” Small paper ones hung from the ceilings of shops and restaurants. A Ramadan festival sponsored by Muhammadiyah featured brightly lit floats that emphasized both the local and universal significance of Ramadan and the Id. There were children dressed as Egyptians, Chinese, and in costumes resembling the uniforms of the palace guards. There were floats featuring giant Qur’an. There was also one with a cardboard replica of the very distinctively Javanese Grand Mosque. Another was a giant papier-mâché bedug, despite the fact that Muhammadiyah does not normally approve of them! When I asked one of the organizers about this he replied: “It’s Ramadan and we have to be inclusive and besides, its part of Javanese culture.” There were no PKS flags or other Islamist symbols at the festival.

The clearest and definitely most amusing example of cultural resistance to Wahabbi colonialism this Ramadan was in Pleret, one of several former royal capitals in the Sultanate. The old mosque, which dated to the sixteenth century, had been completely destroyed in a major earthquake in 2007. While sitting talking about God and the world and snacking I asked my hosts about the new, very beautiful mosque. They explained that the Saudi Government graciously offered to build it. The community accepted the donation subject to the provision that it be a Javanese, not Middle Eastern style structure, and that is naturally include a bedug. They also agreed to put up a marble plague thanking their benefactors – in Arabic – which very few people in Pleret can read. I could not help but ask about the Saudi practice of attaching religious strings to development and reconstruction aid. One of the men laughed and replied that they had sent a Saudi trained religious teacher, and that he had been politely received, but told firmly that “We don’t need any Arabs to teach us how to be Muslims.” We all laughed and went back to snacking on fried bananas, fried cassava and fried bean curd – a very Javanese and therefore very Muslim thing to do on a Ramadan night.

The PKS attempt to disestablish the Sultanate ultimately failed largely due to overwhelming support for what can only be called Yogyakarta Royalist Nationalism. There were demonstrations supporting the Sultan prior to the measures final consideration by the national government at which speakers expressed the hope that “ … this matter can be resolved without bloodshed.” When it was announced that the Sultan would retain his position as governor there were enormous processions of courtiers dressed in traditional garb and carrying sacred heirlooms that circumambulated the palace and the royal cemetery.

This is where resistance to the new Wahhabi Colonialism begins, and where it is most important and effective – at the local level and in culturally meaningful ways. All that western powers can do to facilitate this process is to keep the world market price of soybeans at a reasonable level. Javanese Muslims can take care of the bananas and the cassava, and of course the bedug.


[1] Indonesia’s Religious Political Parties: Democratic Consolidation and Security in Post-New Order Indonesia, Asian Security, 4:1 (2008). pp. 41-60.

*Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta Indonesia. He has been studying Political Islams for more than thirty years. This essay is based on field work conducted in Yogyakarta in September of 2008.