The State of Political Islam in Indonesia:   The Historical Antecedent and Future Prospects

The State of Political Islam in Indonesia
The Historical Antecedent and Future Prospects

by Alexander R. Arifianto
October 28, 2020

This article argues that the recent rise of Islamism in Indonesia can be attributed to its proponents’ savviness in utilizing innovative propagation outlets alongside the declining authority of moderate organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.



The recent prominence of conservative and hard-line Islamism in Indonesia—as seen during the 2016 Defending Islam rallies and the 2019 Indonesian presidential election campaign—is not an isolated, one-time phenomenon. Islamism has a long historical precedence dating back to Indonesia’s independence in 1945 when the country’s founders debated whether Islamist principles should be part of the constitution and national ideology. Public expressions of Islamism returned to the fore when Suharto fell from power in 1998. Conservative Islamists have been able to gain followers and political influence due to their shrewdness in utilizing new and innovative propagation methods on university campuses and the internet. In the meantime, the authority of NU and Muhammadiyah—Indonesia’s two largest moderate Islamic organizations—has declined due to the increasing role of quasi-state Islamic institutions like the Indonesian Ulama Council, competition from conservative and hard-line Islamist organizations, and factionalism from within these organizations driven by activists who sympathize with the ideological and political goals of conservative groups. Government efforts to suppress these groups risk further undermining Indonesia’s young democracy. Instead, NU and Muhammadiyah should take the lead in countering the growing Islamist influence.

  • The rise of Islamism in Indonesia has a long historical antecedent and is expected to continue influencing the country’s intermediate political future.
  • Despite their decreasing authority, NU and Muhammadiyah still represent the greatest hope for a moderating force to counterbalance the influence of conservative and hard-line Islamist organizations.
  • Initiatives to counter Islamism in Indonesia are best left to moderate Islamic organizations—with support from the Indonesian government—since they have more authority and credibility among the Muslim community. Assistance from external actors (e.g., Western aid agencies) to NU and Muhammadiyah activists to help counter the influence of Islamist organizations is likely to be counterproductive.

Alexander R. Arifianto is a Research Fellow of the Indonesia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). His ORCID ID number is 0000-0003-1626-4599.

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