Islam in SEA Politics
January 28, 1999

Far East Economic Review

The tumultuous events of the past year have made Islam, more than ever, a force to be reckoned with in 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 notions 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 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, tolerant 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 instalment in an occasional series, we look at one piece of the Islamic mosaic: Indonesia's newly formed justice Party and its quest for a modem, moderate brand of Islamic politics.