Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

Before last week’s bombings, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, completed a presidential election.  Similar to the 2004 election (which I monitored with the Carter Center), there was the requisite hand wringing in the Western media about the influence of Islamist parties such as the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, PKS) and the National Mandate Party (Partai Amanat Nasional, PAN). Some of it focused on the supposed emergence of the headscarf (jilbab in Indonesian, hijab in Arabic) as a political symbol.

Attempts by the Western media to explain the complicated nature of Indonesian politics usually fell short, and the headscarf “controversy” is no exception. Writing in the New York Times, Norimitsu Oshimi (“Head Scarf Emerges as Indonesia Political Symbol”) doesn’t just overstate the importance of the headscarf  as a political symbol. He also incorrectly asserts that the increase in wearing of jilbab began three years ago, and ignores the party affiliations that were a factor in the candidates’ decisions to emphasize their wives’ choices. He fails to inform us of recent backlashes against wearing jilbab, for example among Muslim and non-Muslim schoolgirls now required to wear the jilbab in some areas.

Although he correctly points out that Indonesian women wear jilbab for many reasons, Onishi seemed caught up in the electoral politics of the moment. Jilbab were once rare in Indonesia, but in the 1980s they became increasingly fashionable in Indonesia (and Malaysia) for a plethora of reasons, and even more so following the abdication of Suharto in 1998. Onishi isn’t the first to read more into the wearing of jilbab; Christopher Hitchens wrote of the implied subversion of a young Indonesian girl not wearing one (as well as smiling) in a January 2004 Vanity Fair article (the article is no longer available, but my response in Indonesia Alert is still up).

Onishi’s sigh of relief came just six days later, after the election:

For the United States, which is seeking to re-engage with the Muslim world, Indonesia increasingly presents tantalizing possibilities: a democracy that is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where more people are continuing to turn to Islam in their private lives even as they reject political Islam in favor of secular democracy.

Perhaps most remarkably absent from the jilbab story is the fact that the Jusuf Kalla-Wiranto ticket, which used ads of the candidates’ wives in jilbab, was supported by secularist parties. Appealing to the Islamic vote was simply an attempt to broaden the pair’s support base. Despite their secular leanings, the SBY-Boediono ticket was supported by the leading Islamic parties, including PAN and PKS. (PKS also played the base-broadening game in the parliamentary elections by featuring ads of women without jilbab.) It is this fact that leads to speculation as to how much influence these small parties will have over SBY when he continues into his second term; the party asked SBY to appoint PKS cadidates as ministers of religion and education, but SBY demurred. Despite this support for the SBY-Boediono ticket, Kalla supporters spread untrue rumors that Boediono’s wife is Catholic . This, of course, echoes doubts about Megawati’s faith in Islam expressed in prior campaigns, as well as the false rumors in the United States (and elsewhere) that Barack Obama is or was a Muslim. Some elements of politics are universal, I suppose.

So despite the lack of jilbab for SBY’s and Boediono’s wives, the country re-elected Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by a sizable margin (around 62 percent, precluding a run-off between the top two vote getters). Political Islam rejected, we can breathe easy now (at least until the 2014 election cycle when the handwringing will commence anew). Although there is no doubt that these parties have affected the political climate — coalition building between parties is important and small parties can have outsized influence — most forget that the influence works both ways, and that to find electoral success Islamist parties need to appeal to broad bases for support.

We must remember that Islam has been an important factor in politics since the conceptualization of Indonesia in the early 20th century by emerging nationalists, and it will continue to be so in the future. Islamic parties may promote policies that non-Muslim western liberals might find unappealing, such as the implementation of shariah or mandating the wearing of jilbab. We cannot conflate, however, these positions with Islamist terrorism, or even assume that sliding toward Islamic policies is cause for concern. Rather, we should keep in mind that in an emerging, consolidating democracy there will be many voices and sides jostling for influence, and that ultimately it is the Indonesian people who will decide (and live with their decisions). In this context, using jilbab in campaign ads isn’t all that interesting, but it may take focus away from more substantive issues.

Politics in Indonesia can be complicated, but most consumers of mass media want a simple to understand story, which eliminates nuance. Further complicating matters is the general lack of substance in the 2004 and 2009 presidential campaigns. Candidates’ policy platforms tended to be vague; fear of alienating potential voters outweighed the desire to attract voters with bold position statements. As a result, charisma and coalition building seem to be two chief elements of electoral victory in Indonesia, outweighing even party support. SBY’s Democratic Party is small, but the candidate steamrolled both Megawati Sukarnoputri (despite her somewhat bizarre claims about voting irregularities and her unwillingness to concede) and Jusuf Kalla (his current vice-president). These candidates were supported by the huge secularist party machines of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia – Perjuangan) and Golkar (Golongan Karya, Suharto’s former party), respectively. SBY proved capable in his first term — much more so than Megawati during her 2001-04 term — and he was rewarded with reelection.

Buried deep in these stories is another, perhaps more significant element of the election results: the losing candidate’s running mates, Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, are both former generals accused of grave human rights violations during and after the Suharto period. Ironically, Megawati’s running mate Prabowo led the movement to crush her rising opposition to Suharto in 1996. Although SBY is a former Suharto-era general as well, he remains relatively untarnished by accusations such as these.

Indonesia is now regarded the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, something unfathomable a mere 12 years ago. It remains a complicated country worthy of analysis but also, unfortunately, one susceptible to error-producing oversimplification, especially in the context of mass media that require a catchy headline and quick turnaround in news cycles. There are still many areas in which Indonesia can improve, including in the areas of military influence in politics, human rights (especially the ongoing trouble in West Papua), poverty reduction, and disease prevention. 

As last week’s bombings at the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels show, threats of terrorism remain.  But it’s not because of women’s headwear.  Indonesia has been consistently traveling down the path of democracy since SBY’s first term. Let us hope it continues to do so, but continue to recognize that it is ultimately the Indonesian people who will decide what Indonesian democracy looks like.