Islamic Politics and Populism

The research project examines Islamic populism in post-authoritarian Indonesia by drawing comparisons with North African and Middle Eastern experiences. It explains the evolution of Islamic populism in relation to outcomes of Cold War-era social conflicts, state formation and social changes associated with capitalist development, particularly in its neoliberal and globalised phase. In a nutshell, the study attempts to understand the development of Islamic populism as a response to the contradictions of contemporary capitalism.

The project emphasises newer forms of Islamic populism which potentially merges the interests, aspirations and grievances of a range of social classes, especially the new urban middle class, the urban poor and peripheralised sections of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. This broad social base distinguishes the newer from older forms of Islamic populism that had been more fully rooted in the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie and whose political projects were often necessarily confined to salvaging the position of social forces that were in decline.

Such a project requires the infusion into the Indonesian literature of the kind of broad political economy and historical sociology considerations that have been mainstays in debates on North Africa and the Middle East in recent decades. While the majority of works on Indonesian Islamic politics more broadly have focussed on competing religious traditions, cultures or interpretations of Islamic doctrine, a significant portion of the literature on North Africa and the Middle East have linked the vicissitudes of Islamic politics to issues of socio-historical trajectories, changing material conditions of life in the Muslim world, existing modes of distribution of economic and political power as well as contests over tangible resources.

I suggest further that infusing the literature on Islam and politics with such broader political economy and historical sociology concerns could help analysts to avoid the pitfalls of the highly alarmist security-oriented narrative, which dichotomises 'good' and 'bad' Muslims largely according to Western geopolitical interests and concerns (as was cogently observed by Mahmood Mamdani). The failure to avoid the caricatures emanating from this point of view has allowed security-oriented analyses to dominate the study of Islam and politics and to practically subsume it under the study of terrorism and violence in recent years.

In spite of such alarmism, those who have championed Islamic-oriented political agendas in Indonesia have in fact operated within both authoritarian and democratic environments without presenting fundamental challenges to the secular order. Those who wage their struggles within and outside the institutions of formal democracy – whether through political parties, mass organisations, paramilitary groups or shadowy terrorist cells – have only made limited advances in the post-Soeharto era and are clearly in no position to seize state power at any time soon. Why is this so?

The answer to this question is sought in this project through comparisons with the Turkish and Egyptian cases, where new Islamic populist tendencies have also evolved concurrently with social, economic and political transformations related to the Cold War, capitalist development, and greater integration into the global economy. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the political opposition for decades under harsh authoritarian conditions. Tantalisingly, it now confronts the challenge of responding effectively to the new and still fluid post-Mubarak environment. There is no doubt that some of these responses will be mediated by the interests of sections of the bourgeoisie and middle class that have developed strong Islamic self-identities. In Turkey, the threat of suppression by the staunch guardians of Kemalism – especially the military – has encouraged the kind of Islamic populism that aligns the downtrodden urban poor, an ambitious educated middle class and a rising 'Anatolian' bourgeoisie in an embrace of democracy (and the global market), but also the ideal of a moral and just society. This has transpired, significantly, without overt appeals for the establishment of an Islamic state. In what ways do such trajectories converge or diverge from that of Indonesia, and why? The research project also incorporates the case of Morocco, thus providing an opportunity to reconsider Clifford Geertz's famous comparison of Islam in Indonesia and in that country after many decades of profound social change in both since the publication of his seminal work.

All enquiries should be directed to Professor Vedi Hadiz, at