Islamic Caliphate and the 21st Century Nation-State: The Dilemma of Indonesia

Al-Baghdadi announcing the Caliphate in Mosul on 29 June 2014

Al-Baghdadi announcing the Caliphate in Mosul on 29 June 2014


Is Islam compatible with nationalism? Can a “true” Muslim reject a call to create a global caliphate, regardless of how violent that call is? These are some of the questions that Muslims need to pay immediate attention, as they manifest a direct challenge of faith by fundamentalists who demand Muslims either be with them or against them in understanding the religion. This issue is particularly pressing in Indonesia, as well as neighboring Malaysia and across the Middle East. A bastion of tolerance in the Muslim world, Indonesia is facing a tremendous ideological threat by fundamentalists domestically and abroad on its legitimacy as a country with a deep pluralistic tradition. This requires Indonesian Muslims to undergo a major soul-searching in further defining what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century.

In the early 1990s Francis Fukuyama anticipated the 21stcentury to be “the end of history,” where secular democratic worldviews would prevail as the status quo. Instead, what we see today is the rise of transnational religious fundamentalism at an unprecedented scale. Islamic fundamentalists such as the Islamic State, though representing a small percentage of the world’s Muslims, have led a brutal but successful campaign to gain the attention of the world in a quest to redefine the Muslim identity.

One of their key pitches in attracting Muslims around the world to join their messianic cause is to re-invoke the concept of the Caliphate. Historically, the Caliphate as an institution ended with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Since then, Muslims have joined hands with non-Muslims to actively establish, or at least become members of, separate nation-states around the world. Today, in an attempt to re-promote the Caliphate, fundamentalists portray a Muslim’s political allegiance to a nation state to be against the religion.

Indonesia is a prime example of a 20thcentury nation-building project, where the people of a vast colonial territory united to fight for independence. Previously-called the Dutch East Indies, modern Indonesia includes most of the world’s largest archipelago of around 13,000 islands, where over 300 ethnic groups live and over 700 languages are spoken. Four world religions, namely Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, are practiced alongside numerous animist beliefs within the territory. During the colonial era, the Dutch government categorized all the natives of the archipelago under one class category and positioned them at the bottom of the social order. This policy played a major role in creating a common identity among such a diverse population. When Indonesian nationalists declared independence in 1945, the Dutch faced a collective resistance by Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others who fought under one single national identity. The Dutch finally recognized Indonesia as an independent state in 1949.

Today Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest population, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, and, since the fall of a military authoritarian regime in 1998, the world’s third largest democracy after India and the United States. Indonesia also has the largest Muslim population in the world; more importantly, it is viewed by many as a success story where Islam and modernity can coexist. Pluralism is a major characteristic of Indonesian Islam, which is reflected in the nation’s national ideology of Pancasila or “the Five Principles”. It was formulated in the early years of the republic by the first president Sukarno who attempted to incorporate Islamic, nationalist, and socialist values into the national psyche: a belief in one God, a just humanity, Indonesian unity, people’s representation, and social justice. Pluralism is reflected further in Indonesia’s chosen national symbol, the Hindu mythical bird Garuda, which bears the national motto written in Sanskrit: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (roughly meaning: “Unity in Diversity”). Forefathers of Indonesian nationalism such as first president Sukarno also often referred to the mighty ancient Buddhist Srivijaya and Hindu Majapahit Empires as their sources of inspiration for Indonesian unity.

However, pluralism in Indonesia has also been dilemmatic for Indonesian Muslims. Islam was spread in the Indonesian archipelago roughly between the 12th and 14th century through contacts with Yemen, Gujarat and China, when many of the native Indonesian cultures at the time already had deeply-rooted Hindu, Buddhist, and ancestor-worship belief systems. This resulted in various adaptations of local culture and beliefs into the practice of the religion that persist to our times today. For instance, offerings to the Hindu goddess Drupadi are prevalent in rice fields across rural Java, where farmers are predominantly identify as Muslim. Another popular custom is conducting a ritual bath for traditional Javanese weapon or keris, which are believed to contain supernatural powers, on specific Islamic dates such as the birthday of Prophet Muhammad.

Orthodox Islam views these practices as a form of shirk or idolatry, indeed one of the gravest sins in the religion. Today, pre-Islamic local beliefs, rituals and practices are mostly practiced by those that Clifford Geertz classifies as ‘Abangan’ or ‘Easy Going’ Muslims. Meanwhile, adherents of orthodox Islam are classified as the ‘Santri’, traditionally a term referring to students of traditional Islamic boarding schools. What defines the tolerant character of Islam in Indonesia today is the widespread acceptance among the santris for such practices to exist. Santris have expressed their tolerant attitudes toward such customs in different degrees. Some actively support to preserve such cultures in the name of human rights and religious tolerance based on the popular qur’anic term that Islam is “rahmatan lil alamiin”, meaning, “a mercy to all beings.” Other santris avoid referring to such customs explicitly when discussing contemporary socio-religious issues. At the very least, the tolerance in Indonesia’s Islam is the avoidance of invoking violence in reaction to such customs and the acceptance of personal freedom of beliefs.

However, in today’s virtually borderless access to information, combined with Indonesia’s democratic setting, such a dilemma can no longer be ignored. Lay Muslims in Indonesian society are beginning to revisit their religion, including how to deal with customs that can be viewed as shirkas fundamentalist narratives slip into Indonesian society. The challenge arises when fundamentalists begin to dominate the discourse and to promote, directly or indirectly, the use of violence as a means to resolve religious disputes. This becomes apparent in examining the failure of many Indonesian Muslims and the media to condemn violent attacks against minority sects deemed as heretical, such as the Ahmadiyyah community in West Java in 2011, and the Shiite community in Madura in 2012. With limited understanding of the religion, lay Indonesian Muslims cannot argue back for their own sake. They are confused on where they should stand.

The implications of such confusion cannot be underestimated. Left unsolved and unanswered, this could strengthen local fundamentalist movements who proselytize based on extremist ideological grounds. The fundamentalist call to create a global Caliphate, supported by their own fundamentalist religious and historical justifications and interpretations, directly challenges the very concept of the Indonesian nation-state with its Pancasila ideology, Hindu-Buddhist symbolisms, and its unwillingness to fully adopt Sharia law into the national system. This trend of challenging the status quo in the republic by Indonesian fundamentalists has proven a major challenge for the Indonesian authority.

The ultimate question that needs to be addressed by Indonesian Muslim scholars and leaders is: based on religious tenets, how can we justify our allegiance to the Indonesian nation-state? Are there any historic references featuring Muslims who fought for Indonesian independence based on moderate and inclusive religious justification? Is there any way to defend the concept of a nation-state over an attempt to build a global caliphate? Is it a sin not to support, to reject, or to fight against such an attempt?

These are some of the most fundamental questions the global Muslim community must answer and act upon today, specifically in Indonesia. The majority of Muslims around the world do not approve the senseless, brutal, and sadistic acts by those calling for the so-called Caliphate. However, they need scholars’ help to continuously formulate and develop a solid theological and jurisprudence defense, such as the effort of the 120 Muslim scholars from around the world who issued open letter deconstructing ISIS’s ideology in 2014.Equally important, the media should help these scholars to communicate to the Muslim community around the world, especially their youths, to tell them that that Islam obligates the rejection of violence and terrorism. In this regard, perhaps the best of the Indonesian experience can serve as a counter narrative to the fundamentalist story.


Abdullah Fahrizal Siddik works as a Senior Consultant at an Indonesian consulting firm. He is a keen observer on nationalism, fundamentalism, and religious pluralism. Rizal is a fellow of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, Cornell University and holds a Masters in Southeast Asian Studies from Cornell University. This article does not reflect the opinion or position of any of the institutions the author is affiliated with.


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