A New Islamic Populism and the Contradictions of Development

Author: Vedi Hadiz, Chuan Ming Ong

This is a shortened, revised version of an article that first appeared as: Vedi R. Hadiz (2014) A New Islamic Populism and the Contradictions of Development, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44:1, 125-143, DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2013.832790

New Naratif thanks the author and the publishers of the original article for permission to publish this version.

The last decade has seen the emergence of a vigorous new form of Islamic populism in parts of the Muslim world, which mainly articulates both the rising ambitions and the growing frustrations of urban populations across the Muslim world. While reaching out to marginalised sections of the bourgeoisie, this “New Islamic Populism” displays little attachment to the political liberalism often associated with middle classes. Neither does it express the anxieties of urban poor populations with reference to leftist ideologies. Representing newly emerging cross-class coalitions, it focuses on winning greater access to state power and tangible material resources for the ummah (the community of believers).

The constituency to which it appeals is notably conceived as both downtrodden and homogeneous, contradicting the reality of its increasingly diverse internal composition. It is also increasingly national, rather than Pan-Islamic, because the New Islamic Populism has predominantly evolved out of struggles taking place against the overseers of authoritarian national states. Importantly, there is nothing that is innately anti-capitalist, in spite of the egalitarian rhetoric, nor anti-democratic in the resultant agenda.

All this is demonstrated here through a discussion of Indonesia, host to the largest Muslim population in the world, and by comparing it to Egypt and Turkey. 

Islamic populism in the 21st century

There has been renewed emphasis on populist politics over the last decade due to responses made in the name of “ordinary people” to the practice and social effects of capitalist development and global integration. At the same time, there has been an explosion of new interest in Islamic politics. The link between populism and Islamic politics is not new, but today it is taking a new form. 

The older Islamic populism was concerned primarily with safeguarding the position of petty propertied urban and rural interests in an age of Western colonial domination. Some organisations associated with the older Islamic populism continue to be strong, such as Indonesia’s Muhammadiyah, the “reformist” vehicle of urban traders and its competitor, and the Nahdlatul Ulama, traditionally led by rural-based land-owning clerics and their followers. Both were established in the late colonial period.

In contrast to that traditional, older form, the newer Islamic populism in Indonesia and elsewhere is more distinctly cross-class in its social base, strongly embracing sections of the urban middle class and poor and even relatively marginalised sections of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the older movements, which were led by small-scale merchants and well-to-do land owners that won broad followings among the peasantry, the newer form tends to be led by educated professionals and powerful businesspeople. 

Because of its composition and leadership, the agenda of the New Islamic Populism is thoroughly modern: to reorganise power in ways that favour an ummah that is increasingly diverse in its class bases. This entails efforts to ensure greater access to, and control over the state and tangible resources. Such an agenda was harder to conceive by the dominant representatives of the older form of Islamic populism, composed as they were by petty landowners and merchants who had encountered capitalism through the prism of Western colonialism.

By contrast, the social agents of the New Islamic Populism are quite comfortable working within contemporary capitalism. Furthermore, though calling for change, they do not envisage an overhaul of the economic system except through appeals to Islamic morality, thereby facilitating the political and economic ascendance of the pious. Indeed, the conception of the ummah has evolved to highlight a mass of socially and economically deprived but morally upright and virtuous “ordinary people” who stand opposed to rapacious and immoral elites. Such a conception is a hallmark of populist ideology more generally.[1]

The constituency to which the New Islamic Populism appeals is… increasingly national, rather than Pan-Islamic, because the New Islamic Populism has predominantly evolved out of struggles taking place against the overseers of authoritarian national states.

In other words, the New Islamic Populism envisions a kind of state led by the righteous that would facilitate markets that operate in ways favourable to the ummah. But this does not necessarily require the establishment of an overtly Islamic state, though such a call is often made by those least positioned to make headway through the formal mechanisms of politics. Nevertheless, even such actors complain little about the principle of capital accumulation as such.[2] Representatives of the New Islamic Populism more commonly aspire toward a capitalist state and society that would see power and resources redistributed more “justly”[3] and, by consequence, benefit those currently marginalised within existing social hierarchies.[4] 

This is one reason the successful struggles of the New Islamic Populism in Turkey have focused on issues of governance based on conservative Islamic morality, rather than on an Islamic state-proper. The New Islamic Populism in Turkey is in fact strongly wedded to neo-liberal economic policies that intensify the engagement of the Turkish economy with global capitalism.[5] A similar phenomenon has occurred in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has steadily placed less emphasis on establishing an Islamic state, eschewed violence, while embracing the principles of a capitalist market economy.

In Indonesia too, the PKS (Justice and Prosperity Party)—the most successful of the country’s post-authoritarian Islamic parties so far—has shifted its focus from concern for the Islamic state to issues of good governance. Such re-strategising is not merely a matter of opportunism nor of the internalisation of values associated with globalisation. It has to do, more fundamentally, with the changing social bases of Islamic populism resulting from capitalist transformations and the need to respond to new exigencies presented by changing social, economic and political environments.

There are clear overlaps, therefore, between populism and recent expressions of Islamic politics. Exploring such overlaps shifts attention from less productive efforts, such as those that seek to understand Islamic politics through the prism of religious zealousness or through the psychological make-up of today’s Muslim “extremist” or “militant”.[6] 

Like all political projects, the New Islamic Populism is a product of specific historical and social processes. Among the most important are those consequent to outcomes of Cold War-era social conflicts as experienced within the Muslim world. These typically saw the eradication of organised Left alternatives, from North Africa to Turkey to Indonesia, at points that preceded accelerated integration into the globalised economy. 

Indeed, the post-Cold War environment has made it easier for Islamic movements to overtly embrace aspects of capitalism. This was difficult to do when coexisting and thriving socialist movements served to recall how modern capitalism was first introduced to Muslim societies during the age of colonial empires. In the New Islamic Populism, there is no outright rejection of capitalism, just complaints about its domination by those outside of the ummah, which is exemplified in the case of Indonesia by vilification of ethnic Chinese-held businesses. Emphasising their positive attitude toward business, they point out that rich traders abounded in the heyday of the Caliphate, while claiming that Islam can do a better job of realising social justice ideals than socialist movements.[7]

Populist politics

Populism is a term that can be associated with right and left tendencies of politics.[8] It was linked in the 20th century to both ends of the political spectrum: rural-based movements in the United States typified by icons like Huey Long; labour-based movements of Peronism in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil; and belligerently anti-communist Fascist regimes of Europe.

The existence of both left and right variants of populism suggests that analysis of the phenomenon could benefit from a social examination of its social bases rather than settling on simplistic explanations that dismiss populism as extreme examples of political opportunism that lead inevitably to economic mismanagement. Such views are hard to reconcile, for instance, with the development in the 1990s of populisms in Latin America that went together with neo-liberalism,[9] as in the cases of Fujimori in Peru and Menem in Argentina. It also cannot take into account the Turkish experience, where the AKP has grafted an agenda of neo-liberal reform on to the concern for promoting the economic and social position of the ummah[10]. Opposing populism to modern rationality is also problematic because it can lead to an underestimation of its potential durability. It is more fruitful to seek an understanding of the materiality of populist politics through scrutiny of the social bases that could give rise to populism and to locate these within specific social trajectories.

More than four decades ago Ionescu and Gellner identified how populist movements have emerged under diverse circumstances and with varied social underpinnings.[11] In doing so, they basically paved the way for class-based understandings of populist politics. Thus, Oxhorn argued that populist movements in Latin America represented a specific form of “social mobilisation based on asymmetrical multi-class coalitions.”[12] Tapping into the frustrations of lower classes produced by the inequalities of Latin American development, these movements are nevertheless led by members of the middle class, who may be less marginalised than workers or peasants yet found their upward social mobility blocked by small powerful cliques. It is in this sense that the New Islamic Populism is understood in this article—as embracing and identifying with the new poor produced by the modernisation process but led by those ensconced in more privileged positions within existing social hierarchies. Diverging from Oxhorn’s Latin American cases, however, the class coalition that underpins the New Islamic Populism is ideologically glued together by religious rather than nationalist symbolism, imagery and terminology.

In spite of the notion of representing a supposedly undifferentiated “people,” populism is simultaneously geared to uphold the interests of very specific fractions within the “people”.

The caveat would be to recognise the potential internal contradictions within any populist agenda. In spite of the notion of representing a supposedly undifferentiated “people,” populism is simultaneously geared to uphold the interests of very specific fractions within the “people”—those who perceive themselves as being marginalised in some way. Thus populism depends on a suspension of “difference” that is usually contradictory to social reality.[13] 

The same principle applies for the New Islamic Populism. It sustains a world-view that allows ambitious but frustrated members of the middle class, relatively excluded entrepreneurs and the downtrodden to find common ground in Muslim-majority societies that have moved along certain historical trajectories. These are characterised by transformations and contradictions resulting from economic development and greater integration with the global economy and Cold War-era conflicts that had largely removed leftist competitors from the political arena.

The appeal of populism lies in the way it resonates with people of varying social positions who nonetheless commonly experience deprivation and who understand that their life chances are similarly being systemically constrained within the institutional mechanisms and relations of power of an existing social order.

The appeal of populism lies in the way it resonates with people of varying social positions who nonetheless commonly experience deprivation and who understand that their life chances are similarly being systemically constrained within the institutional mechanisms and relations of power of an existing social order. This means that those who are only relatively deprived can find the “equivalence” of their own anxieties and frustrations within the social structures and processes that “cause” the grievances of the oppressed.[14] The social effect is to potentially develop a unity of cause across different segments of society against the alleged perpetrators of social injustices. It is therefore no coincidence that the most ardent New Islamic Populist today does not typically hail from the ranks of the most exploited. Writing on the Middle East, Ayubi identifies the sociological origins of those who may be counted among them in professions associated with the educated urban middle class.[15]

Roy’s conception of new urban middle classes in Muslim societies whose ambitions remain frustrated and blocked is therefore relevant. He describes people who are products of “the modern education system” (rather than the result of traditional religious schools) and who hail from “recently urbanized families or from the impoverished middle classes.”[16] Relatively well educated and skilled, they remain excluded from the apex of societies controlled by entrenched elites and characterised by rampant cronyism and may even lead lives that are materially not so much different from those considered poor (and much less educated). From this standpoint, it is possible to appreciate the evolution of Islamic populism from a petty bourgeois-dominated form arising in the age of colonialism, and struggling for relevance in the early post-colonial period, to one that is more distinctly cross-class in the present age of globalised capitalism.

Social bases of the New Islamic Populism: A comparative perspective

The New Islamic Populism mobilises a cross-class constituency in modern struggles over power and resources and control of the state. Nevertheless, it is readily apparent that the educated middle class have played a key role in organising broad-based social coalitions that have agitated against the depredation and corruption of the secular social order in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey. Economic development, no matter how faltering at times, and the proliferation of educational institutions, has guaranteed the growing numbers of the urban educated middle class, yet many of its members, who also tend to be young, have been let down by the promises of social advancement offered by modernity.

Relatively well educated and skilled, they remain excluded from the apex of societies controlled by entrenched elites and characterised by rampant cronyism…

Such is the case especially in societies where highly predatory and centralised capitalist oligarchies, dominated by ruling families, have long prevailed. In Indonesia some of these oligarchic families have maintained their social ascendancy by navigating through the change from authoritarianism to electoral democracy, using the instrument of money politics.[17] To young and educated individuals—for whom middle class status may be uncertain because of high levels of youth unemployment in countries like Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey—Islamic-derived ideas of social justice are useful to make sense of their relative marginality and to forge political responses.

Two decades before the Arab Spring, Ayubi had noted the existence of middle-class individuals in Arab societies who were as ambitious as they were frustrated.[18] It is not surprising therefore that many press reports dealing with uprisings in Egypt and other Arab societies in 2011 have emphasised the role played by young, educated and technology-savvy—but often precariously employed—individuals in street protests against corrupt authoritarian regimes. It is no coincidence either that groups of a similar demographic profile were visible too in the student-led protests that helped to bring down Indonesia’s President Soeharto in 1998.

Another component of the broad social base of the new Islamic populism may be found in largely disorganised new urban working populations. Working classes more materially and self-consciously urban than their predecessors have long become fixtures in societies as diverse as Iran and Indonesia.[19] They are not composed only of formal sector or industrial workers but also huge numbers of people ensconced in the highly flexible urban informal sector or within the ranks of the permanently unemployed.

Yet another component of the cross-class alliance that may give rise to the New Islamic Populism is the bourgeoisie, specifically sections that have been relatively marginalised for historical reasons. In Indonesia the phase of export-led industrialisation that began with the fall of international oil prices in the early 1980s did not result in the transformation of the culturally Muslim petty bourgeoisie into a more powerful big bourgeoisie. This was due to the position of ethnic Chinese businesses—by definition outside of the ummah—in the private sector of the economy, cultivated and entrenched since late colonial times.

In this connection, it is important to note that the older form of Islamic populism bestows certain historical legacies on the successor form. In the Indonesian case, this is seen most obviously in the anti-Chinese sentiment so strongly embedded in both versions. The traditionally anti-left nature of the older form, arising out of petty bourgeois opposition to the socialist project of eradicating private property, is another ideological facet maintained in the newer version. Here lies some of the limits of “equivalence” in the New Islamic Populism in Indonesia: it cannot breach the barriers that had helped to constitute and define its antecedents. The origins of Islamic populism in the colonial milieu are also on display in the criticism of imperialism expounded by representatives of organisations like the largely student and middle class-based Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia or HTI.[20] These have been given a new lease of life by notions of conspiracies being hatched “against Islam” by agents of “American imperialism” after 9/11.

Nevertheless, the New Islamic Populist project has always had limited prospects for success in Indonesia. It is true that some of its social agents have recently pursued issues of public morality with great vigour—successfully pushing for anti-pornography legislation and some local government edicts regulating the attire of women—although these are regularly ignored in everyday life. But such initiatives are hardly reflective of growing self-confidence and betray a lack of ability to make concerted advances into state power itself. These initiatives may be seen also as an attempt to have a cultural impact on society prior to the attainment of political power—à la Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood before 2011.[21] The subsequent failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to hold its ground in Egypt, in spite of highly touted strengths, has therefore delivered bad news to Indonesian would-be emulators. At the same time, terrorist attacks, which took place in Indonesia especially in the early 2000s, expressed desperation accruing from accumulated failures and broader societal isolation rather than the might of its instigators.[22]

It is hardly coincidence, therefore, that those that espouse violence in Indonesia to promote the cause of the ummah have tended to be those with the least access to formal institutions of power. It is also significant that compared to Turkey and Egypt the route to power through electoral democracy has long been less promising in Indonesia. Thus, the relative absence of violent terrorist activity undertaken lately in Egypt and in Turkey in the name of Islam when compared to Indonesia, especially after the Bali Bombings of 2002, points to the relative failure of the New Islamic Populist project in the latter country to exploit avenues presented by electoral democracy.

Indonesia: The limits of the New Islamic Populism

Chuan Ming Ong

About 88% of Indonesia’s population of 240 million people claim adherence to the Islamic religion. Indonesia has experienced decades of uneven though significant economic development which has involved profound structural change, a contradiction-ridden embrace of globalisation and, more recently, a contentious transformation from centralised state authority to a highly decentralised form of democracy.[23] No serious attempt to take control of the state, whether during the authoritarian New Order period (1966–1998) or in the current democracy has been mounted by representatives of the ummah.

Similar to the Middle East, the earliest expressions of modern Islamic politics in Indonesia emanated in the late colonial era from urban traders and petty commodity producers and rural elites. This was most vividly seen in the establishment, in the early twentieth century, of the Sarekat Dagang Islam (Union of Islamic Traders; later simply Sarekat Islam or SI), whose main apprehension was the encroachment of Chinese businesses apparently favoured by the Dutch into their niche areas (e.g. textiles).[24] Interestingly, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had historically emerged from within the SI. Though Muslim Communists were not a sociological oddity until later in Indonesian history,[25] the petty bourgeois roots of Islamic populism ensured that it would fiercely reject the communist project of eradicating private property.

The outcomes of the conflict between the petty bourgeois and communism respectively represented by Muslim organisations and the PKI would have great ramifications during the post-colonial era. Between 1949 and 1962, the Darul Islam movement, mainly in West Java but also in South Sulawesi and Aceh, waged guerrilla warfare with the aim of establishing an Islamic state. Nevertheless, the movement was as much religiously inspired as it was by discontent on the part of local militias with their fate as the new Indonesian Armed Forces regularised and rationalised. Mobilising the peasantry, it was also spurred by the concerns of local elites and notables with maintaining their social position in the face of an encroaching new central government.[26]

Importantly, though militarily defeated, the Darul Islam would be partially resuscitated when some members were mobilised by the military to help smash the PKI in 1965-66. In the 1970s and 1980s a new generation of more urbanised and educated Darul Islamists would provide a source of political opposition to a New Order regime, by that time considered to favour big Chinese business and fearful of organised political efforts on the part of the ummah. Still without a place in the formal sphere of social and political life, a section of the movement would evolve in the 1990s into the Jemaah Islamiyah, who are believed to be responsible for most terrorist attacks in the post-Soeharto period.[27]

Though not supportive of the Darul Islam’s chosen path of guerrilla warfare, a host of Muslim political parties and associations competed with the PKI in the early post-colonial period in developing support among the masses in the environment of a relatively short-lived experiment with parliamentary democracy that followed. By the late 1950s many of these—having failed to enshrine Islam in the national constitution—had developed a close relationship with the Indonesian army. These same parties had also attempted but failed to push for the strengthening of businesses owned by medium-scale Muslim entrepreneurs.[28] They tried as well to move organised labour outside of the path of class struggle. Significantly, the military was simultaneously developing a stronger material interest in curbing the PKI, having taken over managerial control over a host of nationalised foreign companies.

Not surprisingly, the communist agenda was being perceived as a growing threat to both the military and the petty bourgeois-based Muslim organisations by the mid-1960s. That President and nationalist hero Sukarno had banned a major Islamic party, the Masyumi, for involvement in a separatist rebellion, made him appear to favour the communists.[29] The struggle was only resolved with the establishment of the New Order in 1966, after the infamous bloodbath that saw the massacre of hundreds of thousands of real and imagined communists. Vigorously supported by the USA and Great Britain, the New Order thus basically constituted a counter-revolutionary bloc formed on the basis of a common need to eliminate the PKI and Sukarno from the political stage.

The question now was whether there would be a place for the petty bourgeois agenda of reserving important niches for the ummah within the emerging New Order political economy. It became quickly evident that the answer was a resounding “no”. In the absence of the communist threat, there was simply no requirement to submit to petty bourgeois demands, leaving many of the leading exponents of the old Islamic populism in the political wilderness. From 1973 until the fall of Soeharto in 1998, just one ineffectual Islamic party was allowed to exist and, like other vehicles, it was constrained by the obligation to profess loyalty to a vague official nationalist ideology called Pancasila.

Importantly, however, the colonial era-rooted animosities among the ummah toward ethnic Chinese were strengthened as a big bourgeoisie came to emerge through alliances involving top state officials and Chinese businesspeople. The evidently close relationship between the top state official, President Soeharto, and the top Chinese businessman, Liem Sioe Liong, became an apt symbol of widely disdained alliances and served to merge ummah hostility directed toward the state and big business.

In the meantime, economic growth was maintained: initially premised on foreign aid and investment, it was later ensured by windfall oil revenues that allowed the state to act as the “engine” of development. Once the oil “boom” ended in the early 1980s, economic growth depended on export-led industrialisation that relied on cheap labour, which was accompanied by a host of economic liberalisation policies as Indonesia began a phase of greater integration into the world economy. Such policies also served to entrench oligarchic rule in Indonesia.[30] Privatisation policies, for example, typically favoured the politically connected cronies and relatives of Suharto. It was in this context that a new urban Muslim middle class began to appear among an array of professions, now equipped with enhanced education and harbouring new social ambitions. Not surprisingly, Islamic self-identities first came to be visibly asserted in the 1970s and 1980s among the urban middle class, especially its youth. But this upsurge in piety did not occur just randomly. As student organising on campus became ever more suppressed, activists strategically retreated to form prayer and religious discussion groups which acted as vehicles through which numerous young members of the middle class were politically socialised. They learned to make sense of the social order developing under the Soeharto dictatorship where politico-business oligarchic families gained ascendance with such a high level of rapacity. Thus, an important source of grassroots support for the PKS derives from the campus-based tarbiyah (education) movement,[31] the structure of which was borrowed directly from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Darul Islam too, though continually working underground, recruited more new members from the 1970s onward in secular university campuses than through traditional religious educational institutions. Recruits were put through a variety of training programmes including the so-called pesantren kilat[32].

The Indonesian development process also produced large numbers of urban poor residing in the slums of Indonesia’s larger cities, which had grown into sprawling urban behemoths. It should be recalled that in the absence of free trade unionism, Indonesia’s working class had waged a struggle for labour rights mostly through community-based vehicles throughout the last decade of the New Order.[33] While these rights have been won now, the quality of working class organisation remains poor. Sidel’s view that New Order-era development produced a proletariat that is potentially amenable to mobilisation as members of an ummah is therefore of considerable merit.[34] In fact the irregularly employed provide a pool from which Islamic-orientated paramilitary organisations like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) draw their people.[35][34]

The New Order was not blind to the socio-structural changes taking place in Indonesia. During the last decade of Suharto’s rule, some representatives of Islamic politics were invited into the fold through the establishment of ICMI (Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals) in 1990.[36] With ICMI, the New Order attempted to politically harness sections of the upwardly mobile Muslim middle class. In spite of the fanfare, however, ICMI had only a fleeting and superficial effect; thus after Suharto’s demise the organisation became increasingly irrelevant. It had no consequence too in terms of nurturing anything that resembled the Anatolian bourgeoisie in Turkey, nor did it attempt to organise the swelling ranks of the urban poor – which would have contradicted Suharto’s strongly pursued obsession with keeping the masses out of politics.

The New Order was not blind to the socio-structural changes taking place in Indonesia. During the last decade of Suharto’s rule, some representatives of Islamic politics were invited into the fold…

The ramifications of the inability of the social agents of the New Islamic Populism in Indonesia to forge cross-class alliances has been continually revealed in the democratic era that began after the end of the New Order. So the PKS, which won between 7% and 8% of the votes in the last two Indonesian general elections (in 2004 and 2009), has been criticised for its neglect of the aim of establishing an Islamic state in favour of short-term objectives of winning votes. But clearly these results pale in comparison to the approximately half of the vote won by the AKP and half the seats won by the FJP, respectively in Turkey and Egypt, in the most recent elections, both of which took the same route. The PKS has not been helped by its implication in serious and highly publicised corruption scandals, which have undermined the claim to morality that is supposed to distinguish it from other political parties.

The prospects are even bleaker for those who eschew the electoral route and engage in violent activity. While their sporadic actions have periodically hogged the headlines of the world press, recently it is the capture or death of terror suspects at the hands of Indonesian security forces that has occurred more regularly. It is widely believed that the most well-known terror network—the Jemaah Islamiyah—has splintered and is perhaps devoid of clear leadership.[37] In any case, its actions never enjoyed broad public support, as some of its main actors now concede.[38] Significantly, many individuals associated with aggressive postures have now turned to mere dakwah—preaching—as the most viable strategy to adopt under present conditions.[39] Continued failure on the electoral front may mean that newer cohorts of disgruntled educated youths or precariat will be attracted to more disorganised but similarly futile violent activity.

Convergences and divergences

The New Islamic Populism is a variant of the more universal phenomenon of populism as a societal response to some of the fundamental problems of social injustice in a globalised world in which leftist challenges have diminished. It is more specifically a product of the outcomes of Cold War-era conflicts in Muslim societies and the social contradictions of capitalist development, particularly in the current globalised and neo-liberal phase.[40]

Yet political ascendancy is not guaranteed. In Indonesia, the objective of reconfiguring economic and political power in favour of the ummah is nowhere near realisable, whether or not through the mechanisms of electoral democracy. Success was indeed achieved in Egypt, even if it did not last for very long. A key difference was that Islamic forces were semi-incorporated into key spheres of societal life during the Sadat Presidency of the 1970s, following their use in subjugating the left in Egypt, unlike in Indonesia where they were stifled by the enforcement of the secular state ideology of Pancasila. Islamic forces continued to be a useful counterweight to remnants of leftist political tendencies in Egypt, which did not experience the sort of complete decimation that occurred in Indonesia in the 1960s. Like Suharto in Indonesia, Sadat (and Mubarak after him) gradually opened up the economy to global markets, ushering in a period of profound social change. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood was internally transformed in this context and dominated the opposition in spite of state repression, and emerged as the best organised civil society-based force after the fall of Mubarak. Counterparts in Indonesia, however, only ever had limited room to manoeuvre at the level of semi-clandestine activity until the advent of the ultimately ineffective ICMI.

It should be pointed out that neither democracy nor authoritarianism inherently provides overriding advantages or disadvantages to the New Islamic Populist project. In Indonesia, the project has been carried out within both highly authoritarian and democratic environments without presenting substantive challenges to the existing social order. In Egypt it was quite successful in spite of authoritarianism while the durable Muslim Brotherhood’s internal make-up was altered. It achieved huge successes before faltering badly in the immediate post-authoritarian period. Turkey offers a scenario where lingering authoritarian tendencies as represented by some of the guardians of Kemalism induce an embrace of electoral democracy and the market by the AKP, though this is also sometimes combined with displays of toughness, as seen against protesters in Gezi Park and elsewhere in 2013.

Nevertheless, the hard-to-resolve contradictions of development under globalised capitalism—especially in the absence of credible challenges from the left—ensure that the New Islamic Populist tendency will persist in Indonesia, albeit without necessarily making greater inroads into state power soon.


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[2]Interview, Irfan Awwas, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia leader, Yogyakarta, July 21, 2010.
[3]Interview, Rama Pratama, Economic Section, Central Leadership of the Justice and Prosperity Party or PKS, Jakarta, July 14, 2010.
[4]Istanbul City Councillor and AKP member Mustafa Ozman emphasises that Islam does not prohibit private accumulation but places constraints for the sake of social objectives, of which the state should be cognisant (Interview, Istanbul, October 20, 2010).
[5]C. Tugal, 2009. Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[6]K. Ramakrishna, 2009. Radical Pathways: Understanding Muslim Radicalization in Indonesia. New York: Praeger.
[7] Interview, Munarman, Islamic Defenders Front or FPI, Jakarta July 8, 2010.
[8]R. Jansen, 2011. “Populist Mobilization: A New Theoretical Approach to Populism.” Sociological Theory 29 (2): 75–96.
[9]K. Weyland, 2003. “Neopopulism and Neoliberalism in Latin America: How Much Affinity.” Third World Quarterly 24 (6): 1095–1115.
[10]M. Yavuz, 2009. Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 58-60.
[11]G. Ionescu and E. Gellner, eds. 1969. Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristic. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
[12]P. Oxhorn, 1998. “The Social Foundations of Latin America’s Recurrent Populism: Problems of Popular Sector Class Formation and Collective Action.” Journal of Historical Sociology 11 (2): 223.
[13]C. Deiwiks, 2009. “Populisms.” Living Review in Democracy 1.
[14]E. Laclau, 2005. On Populist Reason. London: Verso, pp. 77–83.
[15]N. Ayubi, 1993. Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World. London: Routledge.
[16]O. Roy, 1996. The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[17]R. Robison and V. Hadiz. 2004. Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets. London: Routledge.
[18]Ayubi, Political Islam, p. 176.
[19]S. Gabriel, 2001. “Class Analysis of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.” In Representing Class: Essays in Postmodern Marxism, edited by J. K. Gibson-Graham, S. Resnick, and R. Wolff, 206–226. Durham: Duke University Press; T. Skocpol, 1982. “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution.” Theory and Society 11: 265–283; V. Hadiz, 1997. Workers and the State in New Order Indonesia. London: Routledge.
[20]Interview, Ismail Yusanto, spokesman for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, Jakarta, July 14, 2010.
[21]Bayat, A. 2007. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[22]J. Sidel, 2007. “The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment.” Washington: East-West Centre.
[23]V. Hadiz, 2010. Localising Power in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia: A Southeast Asia Perspective. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[24]J. Sidel, 2006. Riots, Pogroms and Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
[25]Thus, the legendary SI activist, Haji Misbach, provocatively proclaimed that a true Muslim must be simultaneously a communist and vice versa. See Misbach, M. 1925. “Islamisme dan Kommunisme.” Medan Moeslimin 11: 4.
[26] C. Van Dijk, 1981. Rebellion Under the Banner of Islam: The Darul Islam in Indonesia. The Hague: M. Nijhoff; B. Boland, 1971. The Struggle of Islam in Modern Indonesia. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
[27]Solahudin. 2011. NII Sampai JI: Salafy Jihadisme di Indonesia. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu, pp. 227–236.
[28]R. Robison, 1986. Indonesia: The Rise of Capital. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
[29]A. Kahin, and G. Kahin.1995. Subversion as Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia. New York: The New Press.
[30]Robison and Hadiz. Reorganising Power in Indonesia.
[31]I. Rahmat, 2008. Ideologi Politik PKS: Dari Masjid Kampus ke Gedung Parlemen. Yogyakarta: LKIS.
[32]The pesantren are traditional Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia, and thus the pesantren kilat were conceived as sites for “crash courses” in religious and political consciousness. Interview with Mursalin Dahlan, senior Darul Islamist as well as member of the Muhammadiyah, Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Bandung, January 23, 2012. Other training programmes were conducted by more shadowy vehicles: the so-called Usroh group in Condet, outside Jakarta and the Lembaga Kerasulan. Interviews with Darul Islamists Nurhidayat, Jakarta, July 9, 2012 and Karsidi, Depok, January 28, 2012.
[33]Hadiz. Workers and the State in New Order Indonesia.
[34]Sidel. Riots, Pogroms and Jihad, p. 52.
[35]Interview, Munarman, FPI, Jakarta, July 8, 2010; Khalid Syaifullah and Totok, Crescent and Star Party members and Hizbullah militia activists, Solo, July 26, 2010. Also see I. Wilson, 2008. “As Long as It’s Halal: Islamic Preman in Jakarta.” In Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, edited by G. Fealy, and S. White, 192–211. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
[36]R. Hefner, 2000. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratisation in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[37]Jakarta Post, November 8, 2010.
[38]Interview with Ali Imron, convicted Bali Bomber, Jakarta, July 7, 2012.
[39]Interview, Abdul Rochim (the son of Abubakar Ba’asyir, the alleged spiritual leader of JI), Solo, July 12, 2011.
[40]See Rahnema, S. 2008. “Radical Islamism and Failed Developmentalism.” Third World Quarterly 29 (3): 283–296.


Research for this article was made possible through Australian Research Council Future Fellowship grant FT0991885. The author would like to thank Andi Rahman Alamsyah (Indonesia), Harun Ercan (Turkey), Abdulla Erfan (Egypt) and Darmiyanti Muchtar and Asep Iqbal (Australia), as well as a number of other people who cannot be named individually, for their assistance. 

Vedi Hadiz

Vedi Hadiz is Director and Professor of Asian Studies at the Asia Institute and an Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor International, University of Melbourne. He was previously Professor of Asian Societies and Politics at Murdoch University's Asia Research Centre and Director of its Indonesia Research Programme.

Chuan Ming Ong

Chuan Ming Ong is an editorial illustrator based in The Hague, The Netherlands. His clients include such publications as the LA Times and The Japan Times. When not at the drawing table you can usually find him engrossed in history books and drinking coffee. You can find more of his work at www.chuanmingart.com or instagram @chuanming_ong.

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