ESSAY – Islamic Parties in Indonesia in the 20th century: an analysis on their inability to gain power.

Indonesia is the largest predominantly Muslim country in the world. Although Islamic organizations are spread all over the archipelago and many institutions are devoted to the preservation of Muslims’ interests, since the independence of the republic, political Islam has failed to gain enough power to control the government. The new Indonesia was proclaimed in 1945[1]. The nationalists, backed by the Japanese and their military equipment, lunched an armed insurgency against the Dutch who were determined to retain their control on the East Indies for economic reasons. The struggle between the old colonial power and the Indonesian nationalists culminated in the United Nations conference that officially transferred the sovereignty of the state from the Netherlands to the United States of Indonesia in 1949. Sukarno’s new Indonesia, however, entered the phase of nation-building in a climate of political polarizations: the struggle between the Islamic and the secular forces for the future trajectory and inclination of the new republic.

The main Islamic parties that were united in Masjumi under the Japanese administration became a new political force intended to gain control by establishing an Islamic state or at least by giving it an Islamic imprint represented in its institutions. Masjumi and the Islamic parties that were absorbed in it as united Islamic front had a long history of being supported by the people for representation both during the Dutch and the Japanese rule but they ultimately failed to gain power between 1945-1965. This paper will explore this failure by supporting the argument that although internal divisions between the Islamic parties alienated part of the electorate because of the ideological differences presented two divergent conception of political Islam, the reason why the Islamic parties ultimately failed to gain substantial powers lays in the fact that the foundations of the republic omit the possibility for Islam to become the major political force, promoting religious diversity and a secular state.

The period of the actual revolution – from 1945 to 1950 – was characterized by a short but crucial period of ‘unanimous patriotic unity’.[2] Above all, the goal of all the Muslim leaders and their movements was in fact to defend the new Indonesia and the freedom of their religion and nation.[3] Despite the ‘perceived’ homogeneity of the political forces against the former colonizers, the main political parties were based on three divergent ideologies – Islam, nationalism, and Marxism[4] – that will in turn prove to be the main obstacle for the formation of a stable government and for the rise to power of the Islamic parties. Between 1950 and 1957, as matter of fact, all the coalition governments that were formed failed to address the issues of the new state, such as corruption, education, and economic stagnation. The split between Masjumi and the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama – conservative Islamic organization) coupled with the gradual rise of the communists characterized this phase. Ultimately, it resulted in the establishment of Sukarno’s Guided Democracy.

After the declaration of independence, a committee of 62 members was set up to discuss the preparation for independence.[5] The first session dealt with the basis of the Indonesian republic.[6] Islam and its role in the new state emerged as the main controversies: the question was if Islam would be included in the principles of the state and its the terminology, or if Indonesia would be based on the pancasila and become essentially a laic state.[7] The Muslim leaders’ endeavours were met with stiff resistance from the intelligentsia, the aristocratic bureaucracy and Sukarno’s nationalists; as a result, the Indonesian republic was not proclaimed a Dar al-Islam.[8] However, the ‘Jakarta Charter’ temporally gave some important concessions to the Muslims.[9] The document was in fact intended to serve as a preamble for the constitution and entailed the obligation for Muslims to follow the sharia.[10]

The ideology of pancasila was expressed into five principles that emphasized nationalist ideals of humanism, consent, nation, justice and one God, but did not include Islam specifically. In this sense, it smartly encompassed the social and religious divergences of the forces that participated in the unite struggle against the Dutch. [11] As a matter of fact, pancasila’s first principle – ‘Belief in the One and only God’- was interpretable in different ways.[12] The constitution of 1945 finally dropped the ‘Jakarta Charter’ that was ‘promised’ to the Muslim leaders during the committee. The motto of the new republic was ‘unity in diversity’ to celebrate the pluralism of Indonesia and the tolerance for free religious practice.[13] These early premises in the foundation of the new state, clearly show the tendencies of the revolutionary leaders and the other secular forces to exclude Islam from the ideological base of the republic, de facto limiting its political potential on the electorate. In the new Indonesia, Islamic affairs, such as prayers, education, and mosques, were under the supervision of the Ministry for Religious Affairs, established in 1946. The ministry was essentially set up to please Muslim groups for the omission of the Jakarta Charter from the constitution and the fact that sharia law was not implemented in the new state.[14]

Masjumi was given the 21% of seats in the unelected assembly that governed between 1950 and 1955 and Mohammad Natsir became prime minister in 1950. The NU temporally retained control of the Ministry of Religious Affairs but, after loosing the institution in 1952, It left Masjumi and became and independent political party. The split between the two marked an irreparable rupture in the Islamic united front of the revolutionary years. At this point the two organizations entered the political sphere independently and in 1954 – the year preceding the general elections – presented different, yet similar, political programs.[15] The two parties both pushed for a democracy based on the law of Islam, however, the NU stretched the national character and Masjumi the republican form of government.[16] Overall, both organizations avoided the term ‘Islamic State’ but the NU was firmer on its views on the role of Islam in the republic, for example by stressing the need for a Muslim president and the administration of Islamic law. Masjumi, on the other end, had to accommodate the modernist and reformist elements that composed it.

In the 1955 elections, the fist since the establishment of the new republic, Masjumi was regarded as the favourite party.[17] However, the party obtained a disappointing 20 %, behind is prime rival PNI (Indonesia National Party) (22%) and with small margin of advantage from with the traditionalist NU (18%).[18] As a result of the fragmented results, Sukarno, whose power were consistently weakened by the 1950 constitution, tried to unite around his figure an extremely fragmented political arena and public, wishing to associate the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) with the government.[19] The new balance of power required a political compromise between the different ideological forces in Indonesian society: Islamic parties had now to fight in the Constituent assembly.[20] Overall, although on a local level the Islamic organizations maintained consistent influence, as Boland argues, “as a result of the election of 1955, the political progress of Islam was in fact blocked”.[21]

Between 1950 and 1957, all the seven coalition governments that ruled Indonesia – they all included Masjumi and or the NU – failed to deliver consistent reforms and establish a democratic and stable state, resulting in the more centralized and authoritarian rule of Sukarno’s Guided Democracy.[22] In 1957, the government announced the creation of a national council wanted by Sukarno. The council was formed to represent the diversity of Indonesia with representatives of each current to compose the parliament. As Madinier pointed out, “Despite the absence of party formal delegates, the composition of the council also reflected the political balance that Sukarno so desired. Masjumi was the one party without any sympathizers in the new institution; the PNI and PKI shared the seats allotted to peasants, workers, young people, and journalists, and the NU monopolized the seats representing the ulama”. [23]

Sukarno’s attempts to marginalize Islam’s political potential materialised in the ban of Masjumi in 1960, its dissolution in 1961 and the incarceration of its leaders in 1962. Muhammadiyah (Islamic reformist movement previously absorbed into Masjumi) became involved in many non-political missions, such as the islamisation of the civil society and the refuge for many ex-Masjumi members.

The divisions between Indonesia’s Islamic parties, culminated in the split of the NU from Masjumi, did not undermine their attempt to gain power as much as the rise of the nationalists and the foundations of the republic did. Looking at the pre-1945 relations between different Islamic organizations is essential to understand that a tendency toward division – rather than unity – had always regulated political Islam.[24] Consequently, asserting that the split that occurred between the NU and Masjumi and the ideological differences at their base were the main causes for the failure of political Islam in the new republic, is too simplistic. In this respect, both during the Dutch rule and the Japanese occupation, Islam was a diverse social and political entity in Indonesia. Muslim organizations united before against the alien rule of the Dutch, but were never aligned in terms of political agendas and motives. In a broader sense, it should be noted that one of the reasons for the failure of the parties could lie in the fact that Indonesian Islam is too syncretic and ‘unique’ in its innumerable local manifestations to be represented by a single organization. For most of the 19th and part of the 20th centuries it was in fact practiced and protected on a local level but never institutionalized.

In essence, even if Masjumi would have entered the 1955 elections as a ‘united Islamic front’ it is unlikely that it would have gained more than 50% of votes. Furthermore, even in the case of a strong Islamic victory, the principles at the base of the republic and the strong secular opposition would have obstructed the implementation of an Islamic government because considered in opposition the inclusivity of the state.

 [1] J. Lee, “The failure of political Islam in Indonesia”, in Stanford Journal of East Asian affairs. 4.1, (2004),p.89

[2] R. Madinier, “Indonesian Islam facing Communism in the cold War”, in Connecting histories: decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, Stanford: StanfordUPress, p.356

[3] B. J. Boland, The struggle of Islam in Modern Indonesia, 1982, p.40

[4] Lee, “The failure of political Islam”, p.357

[5] Boland, The struggle of Islam, p.16

[6] Ibid., p.17

[7] Ibid., p.23

[8] H. J. Benda, Continuity and Change in Southeast Asia, New Heaven: YaleU Southeast Asia Studies, 1972, p.179

[9] Ibid., p.179

[10] Boland, The struggle of Islam, p.27

[11] Madinier, “Indonesian Islam facing Communism”, p.356

[12] Lee, “The failure of political Islam”, p.89

[13] Ibid., p.86

[14] Ibid., p.90

[15] R. Madinier and A. Feillard, “At the sources of Indonesian political Isam; the split between Nahdlatul Ulama and Masyumi in retrospect”, in Studia Islamika, 6.2, 1999, p.15

[16] Ibid., p.15

[17] Madinier, “Indonesian Islam facing Communism”, p.366

[18] Ibid., p.366

[19] Ibid., p.366

[20] Boland, The struggle of Islam, p.85

[21] Boland, The struggle of Islam, p.85

[22] Lee, “The failure of political Islam”, p.90

[23] Madinier, “Indonesian Islam facing Communism”, p.368

[24] Madinier and Feillard, “At the sources of Indonesian political Isam”, p.9.


  • Benda, Harry J. 1972. Continuity And Change In Southeast Asia, 1st ed., New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies.
  • Boland, B. J. 1982 The struggle of Islam in modern Indonesia, 2nd ed.
  • Federspiel, Howard M. 1973. ‘The military and Islam in Sukarno’s Indonesia,’ Pacific Affairs. 46.3: 407-20.
  • Lapidus, Ira M. 2002. A History of Islamic Socities. 2nd Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lee, J. (2004) ‘The failure of political Islam in Indonesia: a historical narrative’. Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs. 4.1: 85-104.
  • Madinier, Rémy, and Feillard, Andrée (1999) ‘At the sources of Indonesian political Islam; the split between the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Masyumi in retrospect,’ Studia Islamika, 6.2: 6-38.
  • Madinier, Rémy. 2009. ‘Lawan dan kawan (friends and foes): Indonesian Islam facing Communism in the Cold War (1945-1960)- Christopher Goscha and Christian Ostermann, eds., Connecting histories: decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, 1945-1962. Stanford : Stanford University Press..









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