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The tumultuous events of the past year have made
Islam, more than ever, a force to be reckoned within
Southeast Asian Politics. Yet far from being a rigid,
monolithic force, its manifestations in the region are
richly varied, and more often characterized by tolerance
and nations of social justice than by the quest for an
Islamic state.


In Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population,
reformasi has led to the flowering of some 30
Islam-inspired parties. In Malaysia, ousted Deputy
Premier Anwar Ibrahim launched his own reformasi
campaign from the steps of a mosque. Outrage over his
treatment has boosted PAS, the opposition Islamic
party. It should become clear, in the months leading up
to Indonesia's June elections, whether the Islamic factor
will enhance democracy and promote positive social
change, or spur a retreat into identity politics. The
stakes are high. By enhancing democracy and
promoting social justice, Indonesia's Muslim politicians
could influence other Muslims in Asia and alter
perceptions of Islam globally. If a liberal, tolerance strain
of Islamic politics fails to take root, however,
Indonesia's non-Muslim neighbours and foreign
investors will continue to view Islamic politics in
Indonesia and elsewhere with suspicion. This week, in
the first installment in an occasional series, we
look at one peace of the Islamic mosaic :
Indonesia's newly formed Justice Party and its
quest for a modern, moderate brand of Islamic

Idealistic new Muslim party draws Indonesian
By Margot Cohen in Bandung, Yogyakarta and Jakarta. 

January 28, 1999.  Achmad Rozi has never voted in his life.
Disgusted by ossified party politics under former President
Suharto, the Jakarta native focused his energies on studying law
at Bandung Islamic University. He spent most of his free time at
the campus mosque, immersed in discussions of Koranic

Now Akhmad's top priority is translating his religious
ideals into political practice. At the tender age of 25, he
heads the economics, politics and law unit of the
Bandung branch of a new Muslim party called Partai
Keadilan, or Justice Party - one of the 134 political
parties borne since Suharto's fall from power last May.
With a fluency perfected at the mosque, Akhmad
speaks earnestly about human rights, interfaith harmony
and bottom-up development.

The most urgent task : elevating politics to a higher
moral plane. "Partai Keadilan cadres and sympathizers
must display very positive morals and ethics," says

Six months after its spirited launch at the Al Azhar
mosque in south Jakarta, the Justice Party is emerging
as a force to watch. Across the country, it has attracted
hundreds of thousands of devout Muslims in their 20s
and 30s who are well-educated, articulate and eager to
promote a fresh political culture. While many other new
parties are appealing to old loyalties among the
nation's 86% Muslim majority-reviving constituencies
and recruiting ageing leaders from major Muslim
groups such as the Nahdlatul Ulama and
Muhammadiyah - the Justice Party is striving to
overcome such boundaries. That means reversing
decades of dependency on well-worn public figures.

Without a headline grabber such as Abdurrahman
Wahid, Amien Rais or Megawati Sukarnoputri at the
helm, the Justice Party hasn't received mush attention
from the international press. The party's 37-year-old
president, Nur Mahmudi Isma'il, is an American-trained
food scientist more renowned for his work on chicken
sausage and cheddar cheese than domestic politics.

The healthy turnout at party rallies and motorcycle
convoys has startled observers. The crowds point up a
well-organized network of activists drawn largely from
campus mosques and Islamic social-welfare
foundations. For the most part, these aren't the same
students embroiled in mass demonstrations against the
government of President B.J. Habibie - the majority of
whom remain wary of party politics. Justice Party
members have tended to keep their heads down, win
scholarships and gravitate towards studies in the
natural sciences, while deepening their knowledge of
the Koran.

Emerging force : The Justice Party's stand on Islamic law
has raised some concern 

Many party members deepened a mutual affinity on the
Internet. Some party leaders and members met via a
religious chatline called The Islamic Network, or isnet,
which started in 1983 as a forum for Indonesian
Muslims students studying overseas. The Justice Party
is now using the Internet to broaden its reach. It has its
own web site ( and disseminates its
take on political issues facing the country through
regular e-mail dispatches to its branch offices and

While the party strives to develop a hi-tech, modern,
moderate and professional image, its cadres adhere to
a social code that appears conservative to some other
Indonesia Muslims. Men and women in the party avoid
any physical contact, including handshakes. Smoking is
discouraged, but not banned. Female cadres tend to
cover themselves with headscarves and long dresses,
stopping short of the full-length chador. And proper
moral behaviour is a prerequisite to rising through party

Some critics recall a holier-than-thou attitude emanating
from the campus discussion groups from which so
many cadres are drawn. "They are rather exclusive,"
says Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a leader on the central
board of the National Awakening Party, which is linked
to the Nahdlatul Ulama. She worries that the Justice
Party is out to "Islamisize" Indonesia, applying "the
parameters of Islam, not the parameters of nationalism
and pluralism."

Women, marginalized in Suharto-era politics, form a
major source of support for the Justice Party 

While Justice Party leaders insist that they want to build
a country in which the rights of ethnic Chinese and
religious minorities are fully protected, some ambiguity
lingers over the question of Islamic law. Asked whether
Indonesian law should be replaced by Islamic law, the
Justice Party's Jakarta branch chairman Ahmad
Heryawan replies : "why not ? Indonesian law is
manmade. Islamic law comes from Allah." Party
president Nur says thee party may suggest certain
changes in Indonesian law during future parliamentary
sessions if it wins some seats in the June elections. But
he says, the Justice Party is not seeking to impose full
Islamic law, nor establish as Islamic state.

Since so many of Indonesia's laws are inspired by
Islamic values, party leaders say they are most
concerned with enforcing laws already on the books.
"We want to teach people to obey the law, and make
the understand that they are fulfilling their
responsibilities to God when they treat other people
well. There is a transcendental element to it. That way,
people will become more trustworthy," explains Zirly
Rosa Jamil, head of external relations for the Party's
women's affairs bureau.

The party platform condemns the "materialistic
hurricane that has given birth to hedonism." Party
leaders also have reservation about capitalism, but they
aren't seeking to wipe it out. "Capitalism, in a certain
sense, is good. But without morals or ethics, it will be
dangerous." Says Nur. 

On guard against corruption and inefficiency in the post-Suharto
era, party branches plan to closely monitor the generous credit
schemes that Adi Sasono, minister of cooperatives, promotes.
The party also plans to offer advice to small businesses as part
of its aim to pioneer "service-oriented" politics. This will be
done through a far-flung chain of "justice posts," which are now
being set up. Sub-district branches will organize the posts; they
will also extend legal advocacy, free health care and educational
programmes for school dropouts. The scheme appears more
ambitious that those other parties embrace, which so far have
concentrated on distributing free or discounted food to cushion
voters from the economic crises.

It remains to be seen how effective such grassroots
programmes will be, given the party's financial
constraints. The party says it's funded primarily by
monthly membership dues - 2000 rupiah (25 US cents)
- and donations. It says it has received a sprinkling of
large contributions of up to 25 million rupiah from
Muslim business people, both pribumi and ethnic
chinese. Has the Justice Party received any money
from the Middle East ? "Alhamdulillah," - praise be to
God - "no," says Nur. "We don't want to be co-opted." In
Jakarta, diplomats from a number of Arab nations say
they haven't even heard of the party.

The party wouldn't reveal how much money it has
raised. But it appears to have scraped together enough
funds to occasionally distribute envelopes of cash to
local journalists - a practice widely accepted during the
Suharto years. Jakarta branch leaders rallied against
corruption during a December press conference, but
that didn't stop them from slipping 50,000 rupiah to
reporters who were kind enough to show up. Nur does
not approve : "It will belitle the name of the party itself
and disgrace our integrity."

The Justice Party is counting on one formidable
resource for support : young women. During the Suharto
years, women were marginalized from politics, and
generally thrust into ceremonial duties aimed at
supporting their husband's careers. Now, the Justice
Party seems to be devoting more energy than some of
its rivals towards correcting that historical imbalance.
Special leadership training courses for women are
already in progress, and married women with small
children are encouraged to bring babies and toddlers to
party activities, if necessary.

"Not all women must go into politics," says Nursanita
Nasution, a University of Indonesia economics lecturer
and party activist. "The important thing is that they
understand politics."

In Yogyakarta, where 60% of new members are women,
29-year-old Dwi Churnia serves as a party deputy for
politics and law. "I believe that every person has an
obligation to get involved to bring about change," says
the Gadjah Mada University graduate. "There are many
doors. I chose to walk through the door of the party. This
is my chance."   (Finish, retyped by Jenal Kaludin).