Sharia Politics in 2024: Ideology or Commodity

Bachtiar Nasir, a proponent of sharia politics and influential leader of the 212 Action movement. Credit: Andrew Lotulung.

A Four-Part Series on Political Islam and Pemilu 2024 – Part 2: Sharia Politics in 2024: Ideology or Commodity


Ideologies supporting sharia implementation would never sizzle out in Indonesia, a country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Such ideologies have persisted through different periods of time and regimes, surviving even the country’s shift from authoritarian to democratic rules. Yet, unlike crushed armed insurrections in Soekarno’s and Soeharto’s eras, sharia politics has never found the right momentum, its influence ebbing and flowing but has never really become a dominant force in the political scene.

In this context, sharia politics is defined as a movement – propagated by Muslim actors through formal political processes – which carries the agenda of promoting sharia implementation and other Muslim supremacist narratives.

Historically, proponents of sharia implementation have had close to zero chance at becoming the top force in the country. Even Anies Baswedan, a political figure currently enjoying support from this quarter, has once considered political Islam as an extreme yet marginal force in Indonesia’s realpolitik. Although this movement has successfully pushed for major social changes in the society in the last few decades (as marked with the proliferation of philanthropy efforts, the hijrah phenomenon, integrated Islamic schools and tahfiz schools), the last few years have also seen pushbacks by nationalist, traditionalist and moderate Muslims that resist the Islamization drive supported by such movement.

Two recent political contestations paint a good picture of the aims and methods of this movement. Pemilihan Gubernur Jakarta 2017 (Jakarta’s 2017 Gubernatorial Election – Pilgub) and Pemilihan Umum 2019 (the 2019 General Elections – Pemilu) were important momentums exploited by proponents of sharia politics to grab power. The emergence of “common enemies” in the figures of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo united various Islamist forces in the country.

Highly optimistic, proponents of sharia politics channeled their political capital to support the Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno pair in Pemilu 2019. However, with results that did not meet their expectation, such movement fell apart, rendering their economic-driven agenda to usher a mass social transformation and pro-Islam politics a distant dream.

Despite this, would the forces behind sharia politics reconvene in the run up to Pemilu 2024? How would sharia politics be defined this time around? Would sectarian issues come back and stimulate political mobilization as in the past? To answer these questions, a quick reading of the history of Indonesia’s sharia politics is necessary.

Ebb and Flow

After decades under a repressive regime, proponents of various forms of political Islam, including those of sharia politics, obtained an access to Indonesia’s political system when Soeharto searched for support before his fall in 1998.

For example, modernist Muslim intellectuals who established Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia (Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals – ICMI) dominated posts in Islamic-oriented bureaucracies while militant Islamist groups such as the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood gained momentum to strengthen footholds in universities and mosques. These proponents became patrons and political elites, enjoying access to resources dan gaining a platform in the national political scene.

The alliance of Islamist forces during this era also led to a number of outcomes, among which is the establishment of the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front – FPI).

The honeymoon period of these forces extended during President Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) administration from 2004 to 2014, boosting their confidence that there is indeed a way to promote sharia through existing political process, despite the rhetoric employed often attacked democracy as a kafir (infidel) system.

Two years after Soeharto’s fall, this confidence was also displayed when some members of Jama’ah Islamiyah abandoned their armed struggle and established Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Indonesian Mujahidin Council – MMI) under the leadership of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. Though not severing ties with the jihadist groups completely, MMI pursued a political path to fight for what they call the formalization of Islamic sharia through the legislative processes. This path fostered a coalition among proponents of sharia politics called Komite Persiapan Penerapan Syariat Islam (Preparatory Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Sharia – KPPSI). Optimism further mounted when many regions implement regional regulations (Peraturan Daerah – Perda) tinged with sharia influences, which KPPSI helped to facilitate.

At the same time, the patronage controlled by proponents of sharia politics – those who occupy offices or are in power – breathed a fresh air for the development of sharia politics. At national level, this is exemplified by the Ministry of Agriculture which, after being held by a minister from Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party – PKS), was dominated by Islamist-minded officials. At regional level, places such as West Java, Sumatera and Sulawesi were governed by leaders who sought popularity by issuing sharia bylaws.

Despite these, the optimism was not sustainable as the degree of sharia implementation remained limited, with the scope of sharia-tinged Perda never graduated from moral to criminal domains. In some areas, the authority of Perda even declined as regional heads came and went. This limited achievement, perhaps, drove certain figures such as Abu Bakar Ba’asyir towards violent solutions again, with the cleric being arrested once more for terrorism-related charges. Ba’asyir was later released from prison in January 2021 after serving 15 years in prison. He returned to his pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and show signs of a more conformist position towards the government’s promotion of nationalism.

When President Jokowi ascended to power in 2014 with the support of nationalist and inclusive Islamic parties, many forces of sharia politics, including PKS became the opposition and accused Jokowi’s administration of being anti-Islam. This is inseparable from the loss of access to power they formerly enjoyed and their resentment towards Jokowi’s repressive policies, including the disbandment of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and FPI in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

This resentment gained momentum in the 2016-2017 period when Jokowi was linked to Ahok, Jakarta’s controversial governor who happens to be both a Christian and an ethnic Chinese. The controversy surrounding Ahok at that time was transmuted into a momentum to mobilize the forces of sharia politics and reached its zenith on Aksi 212 (212 Action), which successfully ushered Ahok out of office in Jakarta’s Pilgub 2017.

These forces were made up of prominent figures such as Habib Rizieq Shihab of FPI, Zaitun Rasmin of Wahdah Islamiyah, Bachtiar Nasir of AQL Islamic Center, Amien Rais of Muhammadiyah, Haekal Hasan, Felix Siaw and other figures from PKS, HTI, Dewan Dakwah Islam Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic Da’wah Council), and so forth.

The alliance of these forces hoped to repeat the same success against Jokowi in Pemilu 2019. Despite identity politics becoming a central issue that polarized the nation, Jokowi came out on top and “forced” Shihab, a central figure in the 212 Action, into a self-imposed exile to Saudi Arabia to elude some legal troubles.

The departure of Shihab debilitated the capability of proponents of sharia politics to mobilize. He was away for quite an extended period of time (from 2017 to 2020) but continued to churn out narratives of Jokowi’s anti-Islam regime from Saudi, while waiting for an opportunity to return home and enjoy a hero’s embrace. However, upon his return, the prediction that he would emerge as a revolutionary figure did not materialize. Still, this does not necessarily mean that he cannot play a critical role to promote sharia politics in the run up to Pemilu 2024.

Currently, mass mobilization by proponents of sharia politics is not as massive as before, with the 212 Action’s alumni network losing their capability to achieve this. This is due to the combination of multiple factors. Firstly, as indicated above, the loss of a common enemy. Two, civil societies promoting tolerance and inclusivity provide a check to the proliferation of sharia politics. Three, the diverse backgrounds of the proponents of sharia politics undeniably affect their integrity as a group. Four, pandemic-related restriction also played a role in preventing mass mobilization. Mobilization of violence against the minorities, while not completely absent, may also face greater legal consequences.

Bachtiar Nasir: Where is He Now?

Although Shihab is arguably the most prominent figure of the 212 Action, he was not the only one responsible for its success. Another one whose contribution cannot be dismissed is Bachtiar Nasir.

The 212 Action started out in 2016 as a protest movement against Ahok, who was deemed to have committed blasphemy against Islam. At the time, Ahok was Jokowi’s successor as Jakarta’s governor following the latter’s clinching of the presidential seat in 2014. Ahok, who was close to Jokowi and hails from double minority background, was an easy target for Jokowi’s detractors. The political momentum for this mounted when Ahok’s speech in one occasion was distorted to portray it as blasphemous.

The pressure to bring Ahok to justice was legitimized when Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Ulema Council – MUI) issued a fatwa affirming the blasphemy in Ahok’s speech. Energized by this, Nasir led the 212 Action by establishing Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa MUI (National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa – GNPF-MUI). Through this outfit, Nasir achieved the peak of his career as a Muslim activist for playing a central role in a national-scale movement and receiving massive support from the Muslim population.

Because of this, Nasir, instead of Shihab, is a better example today that exemplifies the potential of sharia politics in the upcoming general election. It should be noted, however, that this has nothing to do with their respective degree of influence – rather, it is an indication of their commitment towards the ideology of sharia. Here, Nasir is more committed to it than Shihab, who tends to be more pragmatic in his approach.

The loss of the Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno pair in Pemilu 2019, which was supported by Nasir and other 212 Action leaders, did not necessarily diminish the potential of sharia politics. Had the Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno pair won, its proponents such as Nasir would have enjoyed direct access to power that could facilitate their agenda to promote more sharia-tinged Perda.

Political transaction is unavoidable. We could only imagine what would happen if parties such as PKS gained seats in ministries and other paramilitary organization enjoyed special access to central government and the law enforcement. In such a scenario, the influence of sharia politics would have permeated multiple dimensions such as public education, state enterprise, social service and others.

But what happened was the complete opposite. Jokowi’s administration inserted religious moderation and counter-radicalization programs in its national development priorities. The aggressive counter-terrorism measures have pushed for similarly strict counter-radicalization and anti-intolerance measures in academic and government institutions. Moreover, the government also suspended HTI’s and FPI’s licenses to operate, thus undercutting important aspects that had served as enabling factors for the expansion of sharia politics in Indonesia.

Faced with this, Nasir and other figures shifted their operation from street politics to da’wah politics. However, without breakthrough issues such as Ahok’s case, mass groups such as the 212 Action are no longer as powerful as before. A year after Jakarta’s Pilgub 2017, prominent figures attempted to maintain the public’s investment in the movement by staging some movements such as Reuni Alumni 212 (212 Alumni Reunion). However, such movements grew smaller each time and lost its power to make headlines.

Nasir seems to have pulled himself away from the political scene and chose to return to the AQL Islamic Centre, a da’wah body he founded in the past. Recently he founded a national network of Quranic leaning called Peradaban Al-Qur’an (Qur’anic Civilization – Adabqu). He laid out his vision as follows:

Perkumpulan Adabqu ini akan menjadi semacam ormas yang akan punya cabang di seluruh Indonesia. Draft sudah ada, setelah ini kita akan rakernas karena kita sudah punya cabang daerah dan setelah itu akan kita lantik pengurus-pengurus daerah.” (Adabqu will become a kind of mass organization with branches all over Indonesia. We have prepared a draft, after this we will hold a national meeting as we have already established regional branches and afterward, we will inaugurate regional administrators.)

Today, he prefers to travel to various places to spread da’wah with figures from Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia (Indonesian Young Scholars and Intellectuals Council – MIUMI) and other Islamist organizations. His name remained as a powerful magnet that can mobilize Muslims at least in the two years after Pemilu 2019. This is demonstrated in various programs such as Muslim United and Hijrah Fest, religious festivals that combined da’wah, entertainment and business activities. Nevertheless, festivals such as these were forced to stop during the Covid-19 pandemic and have not been revived until today.  

2024: Will Sharia Politics Make a Comeback?

At the time when confidence in sharia politics was high, especially following the massive turnout of the 212 Action and the victory of the Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno pair in Jakarta’s Pilgub 2017, some Islamist figures placed a tall order as well. These figures propagated for the establishment of Dewan Revolusi Islam (Islamic Revolutionary Council), purported to be a shadow cabinet occupied by proponents of sharia implementation. Some figures from MIUMI including Nasir suggested Patungan Umat (Muslim community’s joint venture), a fundraising scheme aimed at financing pro-sharia presidential candidates.

This does not mean that these figures have become true democrats who genuinely hold democracy as the best political system. In many of their rhetoric, they tend to paint democracy as an un-Islamic system. However, their apprehension in democracy does not necessarily translate into a rejection of elections. In Jakarta’s Pilgub 2017, Pemilu 2019 and in other instances, they demonstrated their willingness to participate in the process if they see a benefit to their interest.

The idea of Patungan Umat displays the thin line between the commodification of sharia issues and genuine interest to utilize elections as a means to promote sharia. The proponents have tried to convince Muslims that the large Muslim population in the country constitutes an invincible economic force that could replace the oligarchic system in the country. Its logic is as follows: if each Muslim in Indonesia donates Rp100,000, the campaign would have raised trillions of rupiahs to create or buy a political party that could field pro-sharia presidential candidate in the next election.

Both Dewan Revolusi Islam and Patungan Umat are fundamentally unrealistic ideas, but they show the extent that the proponents are willing to act to overcome limitations and dilemmas in promoting sharia implementation in Indonesia.

In reality, the strength or the solidity of these proponents have displayed a declining trend in the last few years, not only because the pandemic has disrupted their activities, but also due to other factors.

Firstly, there is a declining trust in the consistency and credibility of the 212 Action leaders. At its peak, the 212 Action leaders capitalized on the potential of its massive following by establishing Koperasi 212 (212 Cooperation) through a similar Patungan Umat scheme. However, while it has opened many branches in various areas, Koperasi 212 ultimately failed due to transparency problems.

Narratives on sharia and ummatic economy are also hurt by multiple sharia-labelled investment scams and fund embezzlement by philanthropic bodies such as Aksi Cepat Tanggap (Fast Action Response – ACT). Besides, it has also been revealed that some fundraising schemes have channelled cash to transnational terrorist groups based abroad. Nasir himself was dragged into one such case, though legal process on this has stagnated.

Disappointment further escalated when Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, the symbolic faces of their opposition against Jokowi, instead joined the cabinet. Developments such as these have instigated supporters of sharia politics to be more critical and forced religious groups such as the Salafis to switch from politics to da’wah and education lanes.

Secondly, there is no longer a common enemy the way that Ahok was. His double minority status and the controversy he triggered before Jakarta’s Pilgub 2017 played a big role in uniting various Muslims groups. The blasphemy issue successfully pumped-up substantial energy to mobilize the population across different groups. Similar passion could have been directed against Jokowi who was portrayed as anti-Islam, but the facts that Jokowi himself is a Muslim and close with the religious clerics make it difficult to paint him as everyone’s enemy. The campaign to reject “pemimpin kafir” (an infidel leader), which was applied to Ahok, cannot be hurled at Jokowi.

Thirdly, Jokowi employs effective incentive- and disincentive-based politics for segments of the Muslim population. Such a tactic imposes a big risk to anyone who dares to participate in opposition and radical movements. Most of the Islamists have chosen a conformist way to secure themselves from probable consequences, such as distancing themselves from banned groups like the FPI and HTI. Certainly, this hurts the cohesion of Islamists movements post-212 Action and debilitates their strength.  

Despite this, Pemilu 2024 would not be spared from sharia-related issues because sharia politics would not vanish from Indonesia’s political landscape. Besides, residues of identity politics from Pemilu 2019 and Jokowi’s harsh responses to the Islamists seem to render the distance between the two elections very short.

Leaders of the 212 Action have tried to maintain their energy and support to the group by sustaining narratives of Jokowi’s anti-Islam regime. If their continued opposition against Jokowi’s supposedly anti-Islam regime shared interests with the oligarchs and contesting parties in the next election, the nation would see a repeat of the sectarian polarization.

For some Islamists, Jokowi’s regime is not merely about challenges to their ideology, but also survival. This is evident, for example, to HTI which must face state repression in the last few years. Although the cancellation of its license does not necessarily prohibit its members to hold activities, HTI has essentially lost the space to mobilize and promote their agenda. HTI activists may still promote their caliphate propaganda and oppose the government in the digital space, but they can no longer operate under state protection and support. Even any form of connection with HTI is considered a liability to many Islamists groups now.

Apart from HTI, another Islamist group which is on survival mode is MMI, the organization founded by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir as a wing of his Darul Islam (Islamic State, not to be confused with Daesh) vision. The group is now facing a leadership crisis and a steep decline of influence. Disillusioned by MMI’s decline, many of its members have returned to extremist groups such as Jama’ah Islamiyah or Daesh, though they must risk government crackdown.

The prospect for sharia implementation is a driver for groups such as HTI and MMI, but this might not be the case for others. Vigilante groups such as FPI, in general, tend to be more pragmatic by treating sharia-based narratives and sectarianism as commodity to secure access to resources.

It can be argued that figures such as Nasir may see the benefits of sharia politics from two angles. On the one hand, it cannot be denied that he gains influence by propagating narratives on da’wah, sharia implementation and the promotion of Muslims’ interest.

After Pemilu 2019, Nasir embarked on a da’wah tour in various Indonesian cities, attended by MIUMI as well as 212 Action leaders and where fundraising activities were held in each venue. The author was present in one such event in Jogokaryan mosque, Yogyakarta, two years ago. During the half a day event, the organizer managed to collect infaq (donation) in the forms of cash, jewellery and commitments of property waqf that could amount to more than a billion rupiahs.

It is unclear if there is an audit to how the raised fund was spent, but Nasir convinced his congregants that the fund would only be used for da’wah activities, two of which central issues are the promotion of sharia politics and the opposition against Jokowi’s supposedly anti-Islam regime.

On the other hand, it is naïveté to consider figures like Nasir as political entrepreneurs lacking ideological foundation. MIUMI, where he received ideological trainings, is a platform supported by ideological figures and groups such as M. Natsir and Syarikat Islam, which ceaselessly campaigned for sharia implementation and Islamic state since Indonesia’s independence. Promotion of sharia politics would ultimately benefit the agenda of advancing this ideology as well.

Despite this, without incentives and shared interests from forces competing in Pemilu 2024, there is only a small probability that Nasir and remnants of the 212 Action would be seriously considered in the upcoming political contestation.

Part 1: Political Islam in Indonesia: Looking at Pemilu 2024 and Beyond

Part 3: The Recent Decline of Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia: Causes and Challenges

Part 4: Identity Politics and Pilpres 2024: Learning from Aksi 212

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Dr. Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf is faculty member of the Centre for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Gadjah Mada University. He teaches a graduate course on religion, violence and peacebuilding. He is currently the Indonesian country coordinator of V-Dem and a producer at the Indonesian Pluralities Project.