Viewpoints of Prominent PKS Parliamentarians on the Future Development of PKS in Indonesia

May 19, 2012 by Dr. Farish A. Noor

The State of the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) in Indonesia Today:

Viewpoints of Prominent PKS Parliamentarians on the Future Development of PKS in Indonesia

The Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) today is at the forefront of Islamist politics in Indonesia and is certainly a major political party with national aspirations: With more than two and a half million members and a support base that is five times bigger than that, and with a national headquarters in Jakarta, provincial headquarters in all the island provinces and around 66 thousand village-level bases across the vast country, it has established itself on almost all levels of Indonesian society and politics.[1]

The PKS first appeared during the tumultuous period of Suharto’s downfall that culminated in major student demonstrations in Jakarta and the other major cities, and the President withdrawing from power in May 1998. It contested the elections that were held immediately after the fall of Suharto, but failed to reach the 2.5 popular vote threshold that was set in order for it to qualify for representation in Parliament. In the following elections its performance has improved significantly. In April 2002 the party was reconstituted and it came under the leadership of Hidayat Nur Wahid. At the elections of 2004 PKS won 7.3 percent of the popular vote, earning it 45 (out of 550) seats in Parliament, making PKS the 7th biggest party in the country in terms of Parliamentary representation. Boosting the party’s image further was the election of Hidayat Nur Wahid as the Speaker of the House of Representatives as well. In 2009 Hidayat Nur Wahid was replaced by Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, who has been the President of the party ever since. At the last election PKS went one step further, and even fronted Christians as its candidates in some of the Christian-majority provinces and areas in Indonesia, such as West Papua.

Many questions, however, remain as to what the PKS really believes in and what its long-term interests and objectives might be. Since it appeared on the scene of Indonesian national politics, its detractors have accused it of being a ‘Trojan horse’ for an eventual Islamist take-over of Indonesia. Secular liberal critics of PKS accuse it of pandering to the populist Muslim vote and of furthering exclusively Islamist causes and concerns such as the campaign against America’s role in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. They also argue that PKS is a conservative right-wing party that takes a very conservative stand on issues such as gender equality, citing PKS’s support of the anti-pornography bill in Parliament that was vehemently opposed by liberals as well as non-Muslim minorities such as the Hindus of Bali who regarded the bill as another injection of Islamist politics into Indonesian society.

Cynics accuse PKS of selling out and using religion to further their political ambitions, and cite numerous instances where the PKS – or rather its leaders – have been accused of corruption and abuse of power. Notable instances of such contradictions in recent times include the embarrassing case of a PKS parliamentarian caught on video looking at pornography sites on his laptop during a sitting in Parliament, when PKS was one of the parties supporting the anti-pornography bill in the country. Some other PKS leaders have also been cited in investigations of a more serious nature, such as the scandal over the import of beef from India (which was stopped by the government for fear of foot-and-mouth disease) when PKS representatives were put in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture. These instances have provided PKS’s critics with ample opportunity to accuse the party of hypocrisy and double-standards.

Notwithstanding the criticisms from PKS’s secular-liberal detractors; and the criticisms they have also received from other more hardline Islamist groups who in turn accuse PKS of ‘selling out’ by actively participating in democratic politics; the PKS maintains that it is a mainstream political party that is committed to the rules of the democratic game. But does this mean we should see the PKS as primarily a political (rather than religious) party? And does this mean that the PKS’s Islamist stance is to be tempered by political and realpolitik considerations in the long run?

The interviews below were done in Jakarta and feature the opinions of two of the high-ranking leaders of PKS today: Fahri Hamzah, PKS member of Parliament and the Commission III of the Peoples’ Assembly; and Zulkieflimansyah, also member of Parliament and who is widely speculated to be appointed to the Commission III of the Parliament next year. Both PKS leaders are widely known in the party and in the country at large. At the time that the interviews were conducted, Fahri Hamzah was widely in the mainstream news for his outspoken comments about the Anti Corruption Agency in Indonesia and his critique of the extensive power of the Agency and its authority to question Parliamentarians. Zulkieflimansyah is also noted as one of the reformers of the party, and is also of a technocratic background.

The salient points that were raised in the two interviews, and which we would like to draw the reader’s attention to, include:

In all, this small sampling of political opinion among the two PKS leaders would suggest that there are indeed pragmatic, technocratically-inclined leaders among the PKS’s top leadership who recognise the prevailing socio-political realities of Indonesia today, and who wish to keep the party on the course of constitutional democratic politics.

I. Interview with Fahri Hamzah, Member of Parliament/Commission III of the PKS, Jakarta, 4th October 2011.


Q. The PKS today is seen as the most upcoming and forthright Islamist party in Indonesia, but there remain many Muslim groups, including even radical ones, that claim that PKS has ‘sold out’ in a sense because it has become a political party. Looking at the political landscape of Indonesia today we see all sorts of Islamist groups, organisations and movements that operate according to a logic that is different from the PKS. On the one hand there are Salafi-fundamentalist movements like the Tablighi Jama’at who regard politics as something un-Islamic, not because it is haram, but because it is not Sunnah. They take the view that during the Prophet’s time there were no political parties, so why ought there be Islamist political parties today? Then there are the more vocal and hardline groups like the Fron Pembela Islam, the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia, and the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia who regard populist democratic politics as un-Islamic on the grounds that democracy is haram and that there is no room for democracy in Islam. How do you – the PKS – deal with these criticisms and where do you locate the PKS in the constellation of Islamist movements in Indonesia today?

FH: I have two things to say to that: Firstly, how do you define religion in this case? Is religion for them (critics of PKS) something that is specific and limited, something that has a limited meaning and application? As far as we (PKS) is concerned, Islam is not a thing that has limits: Islam is not something that is confined to specific margins, and you cannot say this is Islamic and that is not. Islam as far as we are concerned is and has to be comprehensive. (Islam itu secara seluruhan.) So where does this dichotomy between Islam and politics arise from? Are they suggesting that Islam’s limits stops at politics?

Secondly, we in PKS see Islam in terms of an idea, and a universal idea. In fact I would argue that for centuries the idea of Islam has been part and parcel of Muslim social life and that this was only interrupted during the colonial period when suddenly Muslims were cut off from their religious roots and identity, as Tanzim Ansari argues in his work ‘History Disrupted’.

Between the 19th and 20th centuries many Ulama argued that there was this dichotomy and that it had to be overcome. As an idea, Islam shares continuities and similarities with other ideologies: As an ideology we can see similar themes and concerns, such as for equality and social justice, in other ideologies such as Communism. In terms of economics there are similar ideas in the critique of usury and some other practices that have become the norm in Capitalism. Thus there is nothing outside the idea of Islam, and nothing that is un-Islamic

That is why in Islam – understood as an idea that is universal and a way of life – there is emphasis on micro-concerns as well. Note how Islam guides our lives in all things, even how we bathe, eat, do our toilet, etc. Nothing is ever entirely outside the idea of Islam, so why should politics be outside Islam?

Groups like the Tablighi Jama’at or even the FPI or HTI do not see that the rise and fall of Muslims depends on the resources we have at our disposal, and that among those resources we have is the state. The state is one of the resources that Muslims must avail themselves to. We cannot neglect the state in that respect.

But at the same time we (PKS) do not believe in empty rhetoric or nostalgia about quick solutions, like the idea of the Islamic state. The state is a resource, like I said, but there is no such thing as an Islamic state. The state is just a tool, it can and has to be used by Muslims. But that does not mean it is Islamic. Talk of such an Islamic state has just made so many Muslims confused (keliru). Even Medinah was not an Islamic state I would insist: The Prophet Muhammad did not create a state in the modern sense, but what he did was introduce the concepts of a civil society and concerns about social and civic welfare, etc. That doesn’t mean that this was an ‘Islamic state’. The state is a new concept and has only come about over the past couple of centuries, but now that it is here and it is a reality, it is a resource we need to learn and control.

That’s what the Tabligh and other groups like the FPI, HTI do not seem to understand, because they do not understand what we mean when we say that Islam is an idea that can be inculcated into governance and state-building.

Q. The Tablighi Jama’at would maintain, however, that the Prophet was never a politician or political leader as you in the PKS are and wish to be now. They insist that the Prophet was primarily that: A prophet who delivered divine revealed knowledge as a model for living.

FH: But how can they say the Prophet was never a political leader when we all know that the Prophet was forced to fight wars as well? Wars are political, and that means that the Prophet was also engaged in political contestation and political struggle. Wars are part of politics, so how could there have been wars if there was no politics at the time of the Prophet?

I understand that groups like the Tabligh will always exist and that there will always be some Muslims who will reject the path of politics for they regard politics as a whole as contaminated and contaminating. But these are fringe groups, and in the long run they will become marginal groups because they have no power. That’s why in the world today the Muslims who are in positions of power are those like us, of the Ikhwan.


Q. And your attitude towards the Tablighi Jama’at? That is, the PKS’s attitude towards them

FH: We do not see the Tabligh as a problem, frankly. If they wish to conduct their missionary work the way they do, then that’s fine by us, as they do not represent a threat to us. In fact we are quite happy with the Tabligh because in their own way their missionary work helps us, since they are sensitising people to become better Muslims, so how can that hinder our work as an Islamist party?

So I say, live and let live: We (PKS) have our political work to do, and they (Tabligh) have their dakwah work to do. In the end, they are still orthodox Muslims and there is nothing wrong with their interpretation of Islam, so we do not see them as a threat or as deviants, etc.


Q. And the PKS has never tried to counter the influence of the Tabligh among the Muslims of Indonesia?

FH: Never, for we cannot and will not fight their brand of dakwah with counter-dakwah of our own. That would be counter-productive. Our objective, unlike the Tabligh’s is to win the state, or what you call state capture. The state is hegemonic, and that is why if we win the state the state will be able to regulate the lives of all.

The Tabligh are an extra-state movement that bypasses the state and hopes to escape the state. I don’t think this is possible in the long run, for the state, as a tool, is hegemonic and it has to ability and power to regulate the lives of all of us through laws and political authority. That is why in the end we aim to win the state, for once that happens then through the state we can deal with such groups – through more effective means like education, laws, rules and regulations. The state in the end may render groups like the Tabligh ineffective.

So no, the Tabligh is not a problem for us in the PKS. Modernity and the state will render them redundant in the end, not us.

Q. And what about the more vocal Islamist groups like the Fron Pembela Islam or the Hizbut Tahrir of Indonesia. Unlike the Tabligh that has been passive thus far, these groups (FPI and HTI) openly criticise the PKS at times and even claim that you have sold Muslims out to democracy, which they claim is haram and un-Islamic. How do you deal with such groups?

FH: Yes, these groups are more vocal and even more aggressive at times, but again they are making the same mistake of neglecting politics or thinking that we can live outside or without politics.

Anti-political Islamist groups that criticise Islamist parties are naïve because they often fall back on nostalgia and Utopian visions of the future. Some talk about the ‘Khilafat’ and the coming of a new Caliphate rule that is extra-territorial, beyond the nation-state, etc. But honestly, how many times have we heard this, and has any of this become reality?

As a political party, we (PKS) say: Be realistic. There is no point boasting about Islamic ‘resurgence’ when you have no concrete results to offer. And that’s what we want: State capture and state control is less about just gaining power and more about showing that with power we can deliver real, tangible results that are meaningful and real to people.

Hizbut Tahrir does not believe in a democracy for example. Well, then, tell us what sort of system do they have in mind then? All this talk of non-democratic Khilafah governance has just been promises with nothing tangible. Show us some results then! How will they govern and manage the most basic things like wages, public transport, water for the people?


Q. So you do not see groups like the Hizbut Tahrir of Indonesia as a real problem or challenge to PKS?

FH: No. We in PKS have always taken the middle path and we work towards winning control of a plural state. The state is therefore the resource base (sumberdaya) for us: Through the state we can do many other things, including dealing with radical groups like that.

In the end we wish to win power over a plural state because we want to prove that Islamist politics is plural and that it can deal with pluralism for the common good of all. I emphasise the point of the common good here, for this is where we differ with some radical groups that say ‘Muslim power for Muslims only’. That’s not true. Islam is for everyone and if we come to power we wish to prove that we can cater for the common good of all people, including non-Muslims.

Now some radical groups don’t like that, and don’t agree with that- but that’s our position because we see Islam in universal terms. If they wish to limit themselves then that’s their right, but not ours.


Q. And you don’t take the challenge of groups like HTI or FPI seriously then?

FH: There is no challenge, because compared to us their knowledge of Islam is shallow (cetek). Ismail Yusanto (leader of the HTI) cannot debate with his, as his own knowledge of Islam is shallow compared to our cadres. The same goes for groups like FPI or MMI. Look at Abu Bakar Ba’asyir now- where is he? Before he was arrested he was even ousted from the MMI he created. These groups will splinter and collapse because they are focused on narrow concerns based on their shallow understanding of religion and their narrow approach to dealing with real socio-political challenges. These groups are institutionally bankrupt of ideas, and that is why they fragment all the time. They challenge us, but who is in power- us or them?

All this criticism of PKS’s role in politics is based on a shallow form of escapism. They reject democracy because they know that they do not stand a chance in an open, plural democratic space.

Q. And you (PKS) are not worried about the image of a militant and violent Islam they create?

FH: When they end up making all Muslims look bad, intolerant and violent, then yes we are upset. But on their own they are just a nuisance. And why should we worry if they look like extremists? Its even better for us because that makes PKS look even more moderate in the eyes of outsiders! (laughs)


Q. And how does the PKS deal with the possibility that some of its members might be attracted to the sort of violent, uncompromising rhetoric of groups like HTI, FPI, MMI, etc? It is well known by now that PKS is a cadre-based party where membership and promotion within its ranks is linked to a cadre-training system that is strict and regimental. Has this saved PKS from losing its members to the more radical groups?

FH: Of course we as a party cannot be responsible for each and every one of our members, and even I have to admit that there is no total control over everyone in PKS. But our cadre-training system is focused on the individual, so that it ends up creating independent-minded Muslims who know why they support PKS, and want to support PKS.

The main idea that we inculcate in our cadre training is the concept of universalism and the value of rationalism. We tell our new members from the outset: “Even anarchy is better than authoritarianism” (“Kebebasan yang anarkis jauh lebih baik dari autoritarianisme”) Why? Because our cadres need to be thinking cadres, who think and know and want to support our cause. It has to be part of them, it has to come naturally from them, and not out of force or fear.

Our training sessions do not just include the works of the thinkers of the Ikhwan or the Jama’at-e Islami, but also philosophical texts that force them to think outside the box. We need them to be thinking cadres, and it is this that emboldens them as well.

That’s the difference between our cadre training and that of groups like FPI, HTI or whatever: They just spread fear among their members, fear of punishment, fear of hell. (Anti-dosa, anti-kiamat). But we on the other hand want our members to act out of conviction and that can only come about when they have been tried and tested intellectually.

While the state is the goal of our party, we point out to all our members that the state is just part of our social obligation as Muslims. But remember, as believing Muslims we are tested and judged in the hereafter not on the basis of collective action, but private, individual action. On the day of judgement God will not question humanity as a collective, but rather each and every believer as an individual – hence the focus of our cadre training is to the building of the individual member.


Q. But it is state capture that you teach as the primary objective of political struggle isn’t it?

FH: Not solely. For the state is just part of the struggle. True it is the main goal and the main prize so to speak. But we also remind our cadres that there is also the civil society, the media, the market, etc.

Some political movements almost come to see the state as something magical, like Hobbes’ Leviathan. It is as if they think that once you win the state then you have everything in your hands to control. But today the state is just the overarching superstructure. There is the media, the market, civil society movements, the education system, etc. which have to be won over as well.

So while we do want political power and we have never hidden that fact, we also tell our cadres that they can change society by operating at all levels, such as controlling the media or setting the agenda in the domain of public intellectual discourse.

Q. How does this make PKS different from other Islamic parties then

FH: Well like I said we do not think that the state is magical or that once we win the state we can cure all of society’s ills. Some of the Islamist movements today seem to think that the state is the cure for all ills. Others seem to think that it is the state that is the root of all their problems, so we hear Islamists say naïve and silly things like ‘Zina (adultery) is getting worse because the state is not doing anything.’ Surely this is an absurd conclusion to make: It is not a weak state that causes adultery, or any other social problem.

That’s why I again say that talk about ‘Islamic states’ is often more confusing than helpful: When it is over-simplified like that it is even dangerous. The evil, so to speak, is in the detail, and not the structure. Social ills are not always the result of the state.


Q. So what is it that you are aiming for, and what are you not aiming for?

FH: Specifically, we reject the empty symbolism of religious politics. As everyone knows, we are not apologetic for being an Islamist party and have never hidden that fact. But what complicates matters is when people outside PKS think we simply want an ‘Islamic state’ as they understand it, not the way we understand it.

Like I said, for us (PKS) the state is simply that: a tool and a resource. There is no way one can ‘Islamise’ a tool or a resource. So we are not bothered about the symbols of religiosity as they have nothing to do with what we are trying to achieve.


Q. And you believe the PKS cadre system can deliver that?

FH: Yes, because as I said it lays emphasis on the individual above all. We are training our members to think as individuals who know what they are doing and why. Like I said, in the end its all about individual responsibility, whether it comes to dealing with the media or even our opponents like HTI, FPI, etc.

For a movement like PKS to succeed, we must build the cadre core first, because that it what will take us to the next level. Look at Erdogan in Turkey. How could he come to power in Turkey for three terms without the support of his cadres. It is the cadre base that lays the groundwork for the party to succeed. But this also means you need cadres who will stick to the course and not be persuaded by any other kind of rhetoric or symbolic politics. Erdogan built his base on the cadre system, and so have we in PKS: We began on the fringes and have now moved to the mainstream and entered politics. Groups that don’t like that may say we have gone off the path, but that is irrelevant to us for reasons I’ve explained earlier.

Now what PKS has to do is expand this cadre base, but also show tangible results in terms of better governance, accountability, transparency, etc. We must show real results to the Indonesian public, because that will be our testimonial. PKS needs that testimonial not only for its image, but also to show to the cadres that the work has paid off, and that yes, the PKS is a different party from all the others.


Q. And the challenge of dealing with your detractors?

FH: The radical groups you mentioned are no challenge to us, for our cadre system keeps us solid. But the real challenge is to speak with and to the liberals in Indonesia, for they are the ones who have the dominance over the media and they control the terms of the mainstream political discourse. Engaging with the urban liberal intelligentsia is, for us, a bigger and more important challenge than dealing with anti-state and anti-political radical Islamist fringe groups; who cannot harm us in the long run.

II. Interview with Zulkieflimansyah, Member of Parliament of the PKS, Jakarta, 5th October 2011.


Q. The Partai Keadilan Sejahtera PKS is well established on the landscape of Indonesian politics by now, but despite the success you as a party have achieved in terms of winning Parliamentary seats, there remain many Islamist movements and groups who do not agree with your approach. On the one hand there are the neo-Salafi groups like the Tablighi Jama’at who seem to think that politics as a whole is corrupt and contaminating, and who think that the PKS has dirtied itself with the business of politics. Then on the other hand there are the more radical and violent groups who say that PKS has chosen the un-Islamic path by choosing to enter the democratic arena, which they regard as not only un-Islamic, but even haram by the standards of some of them. How do you (PKS) deal with these criticisms?

ZM: Yes we know that these criticisms exist, but they are normal for as you say we are part of a broader landscape of Muslim politics in Indonesia. PKS is a community you see, and we see our work as part of the long-term struggle of a community. Our approach is pragmatic and functionalist, for what we want is to deliver results.

Groups like the Tablighi Jama’at are entitled to their opinion, but for us there is no way we can bring about real results without entering the political arena. Personally I have nothing against the Tablighi Jama’at for they are neither deviants nor heretics, and frankly they do not pose a real threat to us. In my view the Tabligh is part of the overall Muslim phenomenon, but their anti-modern approach makes them out of date and out of time. If they wish to do their missionary work, that is ok; for it doesn’t hurt to make Muslims better Muslims. But we are trying to do something more than that.

The PKS has grown more pragmatic and realist over time; and even as a community ours is one where the learning process is still slow, and I will admit to that. For the PKS has to be more than just a party that seeks to win elections and to gain power. We are not trying to sell religion, in the sense of branding our politics. We are trying to show that Muslims can enter that political space and change it from within, by inculcating Islamic values that bring about positive changes for everyone. That is something that non-political or anti-political groups cannot do; not even the more radical ones like the Fron Pembela Islam or Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia.


Q: But this talk of changing the political system from within, etc. is precisely the reason why some people who oppose you (the PKS) think that you are entering the democratic political space in order to radically change it from within, permanently.

ZM: Firstly, let me say this simply: We cannot knock the system too hard because if we do the system will knock us back harder. Its as simple as that, and the younger generation of the PKS leaders and members are more pragmatic and realistic, and they realise this. So any talk of radical politics is out of the question, for what we want is slow but tangible change

The other problem lies in the mindset of some of the conservative Ulama, be they the Ulama in PKS or even outside the party in the other Muslim groups you mentioned. That’s where the reformists encounter problems in terms of differences of interpretation.

But remember the organic roots of the PKS as a movement. Long before it became a party, it came from the likes of me and my generation who were university students in Indonesia, studying at secular universities like Universitas Indonesia (UI), Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), etc. We were all trained in the hard sciences or the social sciences, and not religion. So our original cadre base does not come from the madrasahs or pesantrens of Indonesia, but rather from the secular universities. Then from the 1970s and 1980s, our generation was seeking answers to the social problems we were facing while living under the New Order regime of Suharto and the army. We turned to religion because many of us felt there was a spiritual vacuum in our lives, but also because we wanted to seek other discourses to express our political vision for the future. With the fall of Suharto in 1998 PKS was formed, but at that time we were mainly professionals and students of secular universities with secular educational backgrounds.

That’s one of the ironies of Indonesia during the Suharto period: The students of the secular universities ended up joining an Islamist political movement, while the students of the UINS and IAINs (State Islamic Universities and Research Centres) ended up becoming liberals who criticised us in the Islamist movement!

Q: And the cadre system that you introduced – with its weekly and monthly meetings, classes and discussion groups, etc. – prevented you from slipping towards dogmatic religious politics?

ZM: Yes, because our cadre training has a lot to do with giving our members the background they need in issues of governance, management etc. but in a very modern sense. Today critics of PKS say that if we come to power the first thing we will do is impose Sharia law and Hudud punishments. There is nothing like that in our training! Hudud is never an issue for us, and it has never been an issue for us. Why? Because we want to show that an Islamist movement can come to power in a plural society through a democratic process that engages with a plural society in a civil manner.

That’s why so much of our training programmes have always been focused on pragmatic skills and knowledge such as business, management, etc. We need to learn how to manage a society through the state apparatus; though again I admit we are still learning and such a learning process can only be a slow one: Sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we need to take one step forward and two steps back. It’s a learning process, but not a radicalisation process.


Q: There are other modern Islamist parties that also talk about skills acquisition, modernisation, etc. but at the same time have been prone to slipping back into their conservative rhetoric about Islamic law, Hudud punishments. Look at the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS for example: For the past few years its progressive leaders have tried to foreground the idea of an Islamic welfare state (Negara Kebajikan), but just recently (September 2011) yet another controversy erupted when out of nowhere the Hudud issue was raised and suddenly PAS stated that it will not abandon the struggle to impose Hudud punishments.

ZM: Yes, I know about that; and of course all parties have to maintain some cohesion and discipline among its members. Like I said, PKS is a community, and like all communities there are members who may think differently. What can we do? PKS cannot be authoritarian and demand that all members think alike can we? I accept that we have pockets of different opinions in our party, but isn’t that true of all parties, including secular ones?

Secondly, again I emphasise that what we are trying to do is to demonstrate that Muslims can alter the political system from within, but not by knocking the system too hard. Our approach is pragmatic, calculated. And the cadre system and our training programmes are there to teach our members to be pragmatic in this way: They learn to speak to the public, to convey their message to their constituencies, to promote things like transparency and anti-corruption. That’s what we do. Whats the point of having ceaseless debates about things like Hudud law? When has PKS ever called for that?

We remind our members: We need to convince the electorate that Islamist politics is not just about symbolism and rites and rituals. Its not the dress that counts, but the delivery. Now how on earth can we convince voters to support our programme if all we do is talking about chopping off hands or stoning people to death? Try to win an election on that basis- you cannot. Nobody can win votes by going to the public talking about things like Hudud punishments and the death penalty, nobody.

Q: Let me hazard a guess here and say that this might be due to your cadre training system where you not only read things like the works of al-Banna, Maudoodi, Sidiqi, etc but also works on philosophy, management, economics, etc. In the case of PAS at least, that cadre system is not as focused and the Ulama in the party still have a dominant position thanks to the fact that they are organisationally and institutionally entrenched.

ZM: Yes, and also because in PKS as a party there is perhaps more room for pragmatic younger members who are less concerned about theological disputes and more focused on real-life issues like poverty and corruption.

You see we are aware that the state has enormous coercive power: We learned that during the Suharto New Order era, and that is also another big difference between us in Indonesia and the Islamists of Malaysia. In Indonesia then, to go against the system could leave you dead. We had to be patient, and we had to learn new ways to deal with the reality of a state that had military power in its hands. So our younger members of PKS were patient, and while we worked slowly we trained ourselves for the eventuality of the collapse of the New Order and also to prepare ourselves with real-life skills.

There is still the old guard of course, and I am not going to deny that there are still conservative voices even in PKS, including those who talk of an Islamic state, Sharia Law, Hudud, etc. But in time the new generation will take over, and that’s what the cadre training is all about.

As I said at the beginning, the PKS is a community and it is a learning community. We are learning how to come to power and how to change the nature of power in a state system in a plural society. Look at me: Like you, I studied in the United Kingdom and I am an economist. In 1994 I was President of the Students’ Council.

As an economist I do not look at the world through the lens of some nostalgic Islamic kingdom from the past, but from the present-day reality of markets. What we want to do is engage with that reality and change the way we govern and interact with that reality. Economists see the world in terms of markets, market forces, and we accept that the world is complex and with differences. There are no simple solutions for the likes of me: We don’t accept simple slogans that promise instant results.


Q: And you maintain that such a pragmatic, technocratic approach will prevent PKS from ever going down the radical path? What about your individual members though? How can you prevent them from having sympathies with the more radical groups like FPI, MMI or HTI

ZM: Yes, I believe our approach thus far has kept us on the same path, which is the path towards political engagement. I cannot account for the rise of groups like FPI or HTI, but lets not exaggerate their importance. These are small groups, clusters, and they have minimal impact as far as the political evolution of Indonesia is concerned. These groups make noise, shout, do demos, but have they really changed the face of Indonesian politics? I don’t think so.

As far as our individual members are concerned, like I mentioned we are a political party and like all parties our membership is wide and vast. No party, not even the PKS, can control every single member and we should not be blamed if one or two do things that go against the party’s policy. But the whole point of the cadre training system is to inculcate the values we talked about earlier, and to render them immune to the rhetoric of other more violent or emotional groups.

Personally I don’t even bother with the likes of HTI or FPI, because they have nothing to teach us or to contribute to our cause. And as long as they remain violently radical, then they cannot and will not get the support of the mainstream of Indonesian society. And furthermore, the more radical and extremist they get, the better for us, because as a result PKS looks even more moderate! (laughs)

Q: Fahri Hamzah (of PKS) said the same thing when I interviewed him as well!

ZM: Its true though- Indonesian society remains wary of such violent rhetoric and no political party can ever come to power in a democratic system through threats and intimidation.


Q: So to look at the state of violence in Indonesia today, what about the PKS’s position on groups like the Ahmadis (Ahmadiyyas) who have come under attack recently? As you know, there have been more and more church burnings, Christians are complaining of being wantonly victimised, and then there are the Ahmadis who have been attacked, their mosques taken from them, and their members killed. What is PKS’s stand on this?

ZM: We (the PKS) are totally and unreservedly opposed to all forms of violence, whoever the targets may be. We are a political party, and so we want to win political power. How can you ever claim to be a national party when you go around persecuting minorities? The groups you mentioned have no political aspirations on the national level. They just cause trouble and break the law to make a point, but sadly when they do that in the name of religion then all Islamist groups get a bad image too. But we as a party have zero tolerance for violence.


Q: Yes but as you said, even the PKS cannot control all of its members. What if one or more of them join in these attacks against religious minority groups? How do you deal with that? I mean, what sort of built-in institutional or organisational safeguards do you have to prevent members of PKS from slipping into radicalism?

ZM: We do, in fact, have standard operational procedures that are followed in such instances, which also apply in any other case when any member breaks our code of conduct. PKS’s cadre system is one with internal checks and balances where the errant behaviour of any member, of whatever level or status, is first reported. The report is then checked and then an investigation will take place to verify the report. In the most extreme cases the case is brought up to the PKS’s Dewan Sharia (Shariah Council); and this applies to cases of misbehaviour or members who go against party directives. So no, though we are a community in PKS and we do encourage our members to think for themselves, its not a free-for-all either.

On issues like the Ahmadiyyah minority, we expect the members of PKS to abide by the party’s ruling. At no point is any member allowed to take the law into his own hands.

Q: And the cadre-training system is meant to ensure this?

ZM: Yes, and in that regard you can call it a sort of preventive radicalisation mechanism that we have instituted inside the party from day one. The way in which we teach our members to understand the struggle of the PKS is such as to focus them on the political path and to adopt realistic, practical and deliverable modes of activism; not something counter-productive like violence. PKS remains opposed to that, for the simple reason that a party can never come to power or gain the people’s trust and support that way.


Q: And PKS still maintains this cadre-training system with its counterparts in other countries? I know for instance that since the 1970s there has been close contact between the Jama’ah Islah Malaysia (JIM), the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) and the forerunners to PKS. I suppose this contact persists until today?

ZM: Only in the sense that the cadre-training system is more or less the same, based on the model that we were all exposed to since the 1970s. Yes, there remain exchanges between us, and common sharing. The issues are different though, for the two countries (Malaysia and Indonesia) have grown in different ways. But they retain common objectives and points of interest: to prepare our cadres for the eventuality of seeking power in a plural society through winning political power; and also as a means to ensure continuity and that the movement does not stray off its course. The other radical groups like HTI, FPI, MMI, etc. are really not an issue with us – in terms of goals, modalities and worldview, we are so different.




Dr. Farish A. Noor is presently Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University; where he is part of the Contemporary Islam Programme. His works include The Madrasa in Asia: Political Activism and Transnational Linkages (with Martin van Bruinessen and Yoginder Sikand (Eds.), University of Amsterdam Press, Amsterdam, 2008; Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS: 1951-2003, Malaysian Sociological Research Institute (MSRI), Kuala Lumpur, 2004, and New Voices of Islam, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, Netherlands, 2002.


[1] The PKS now claims to have the support of more than eight million voters, and a membership (from new recruits to high-level cadres) of 2.5 million. It has one central command (pusat) division in the capital and 33 provincial (propinsi) commands in all the provinces of the country. Additionally it has 500 city/kabupaten offices, 6,000 kecamatan offices and around 66,000 rural (desa) offices across the country. Additionally the PKS has 57 Members of Parliament (DPR) and 1,200 elected representatives at the various local assemblies at kota/propinsi/kabupaten levels.

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