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How Muslim teachings support political dynasties in Indonesia


President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is the latest high-profile political figure in Indonesia to attempt to build a political dynasty, loosely defined as a concentration of political power involving family members.

Jokowi’s efforts have become more evident with his first-born son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, now running as a vice presidential candidate in the upcoming election this week, despite public outcry over his candidacy.

Gibran, who is 36 years old, entered the race after the Constitutional Court, led by Jokowi’s in-law, allowed a candidate under the age of 40 to run for president or vice president, as long as they had previously held public office. The previous age requirement for presidential and vice presidential candidates was at least 40.

This example is just the tip of the iceberg in the post-Suharto era of Indonesian politics. The practice is entrenched within all political levels in Indonesia, especially in political parties.

As observers with a deep interest in politics and religion, we have also seen how political dynasties have become associated with public misperceptions about the values of leadership based on religious teachings.

Tendency towards empire style

Starting in the seventh century, monarchies like the Sriwijaya Kingdom on Sumatra island ruled in Indonesia. Islamic kingdoms then emerged in the 13th and ruled until the early 20th century.

Muara Takus Temple is a cultural heritage, a legacy from the era of the Sriwijaya kingdom, located in Riau Province.

Transitioning from a monarchical to democratic society was challenging for Indonesia because it required a mindset shift from traditional Indonesian culture to modernity.

Indonesians’ reluctance to accept a secular state shows the critical role of religion in politics. Muslims, which comprise approximately 87% of the country’s population, are the greatest advocates for religion’s continued role in politics.

With religious piety in Indonesia increasing in the last decade, the role of religion in politics and governance has only grown stronger.

Some Muslims still view their leaders as those who gain authority from God to rule them. Muslims are obliged to pledge loyalty in accordance with the concept of bay’ah posed by Muslim scholars.

Indeed, the bay’ah concept is inconsistent with a modern, secular state model because the pledge can only be invalidated if a ruler resigns or dies – not with the transfer of power through elections.

For instance, a pledge to Sultan Daud Shah, the last sultan of Aceh, became invalid for just two causes: his death or his resignation from the Dutch colonial government. If anyone attempted to elect another ruler while the sultan was still living, it would conceptually be considered an unlawful rebellion.

Some Indonesian Muslims also believe that in politics, blood relations are an important determining factor for leadership.

A preacher delivers a sermon after the Eid prayer in Palembang, South Sumatra.

Muslim preachers often describe ideal leaders through parables, such as Ratu Adil (a messianic, just ruler in to Javanese folklore) or Khulafa’ Rashidun (the first four rulers in Islamic civilisation).

Among the leadership qualities typically highlighted by these narratives: absolute justice, enduring reigns, flawless personalities, religiosity, and facing little resistance or enjoying easy domination over adversaries. Someone who has these qualities is then seen as a good leader.

Since Indonesians still view leaders within this historical kingship framework, the descendants of a leader are assumed to inherit these qualities.

One example comes from Ustadz Adi Hidayat, a famous preacher affiliated with Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Muslim organisation. He lists five key traits for a ruler. Three of them would not work in a republican setting, yet are entirely fitting for a pious king: religious faith, perfect morality and being divinely guided.

Another example is Gus Baha from Nahdhiyyin (affiliated with Nahdhatul Ulama, Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organisation), who frequently tells stories of ideal rulers from the past, namely the prophet Sulaiman. He replaced his father as king and was not democratically elected.

Religious influence

This sort of teaching provides greater understanding of Indonesians’ beliefs around democratic government. Some cannot move on from the monarchical dynasties because they will always see the need for a leader who resembles King Sulaiman, rather than a democratically elected leader, for instance.

These preachers inadvertently reinforce the tendency to dynastic politics in the country.

In recent elections, followers of the preacher’s groups justified their votes with narratives of divine guidance, emphasising a leader’s sacred rule.

Leaders at all levels – but especially the president – are expected to embody moral perfection and excellent charisma. Even those with strong political visions can see their support wane if they lack the right persona. People also expect these qualities to persist in a leader’s family, forming a perceived dynasty.

Religion will always hold a crucial role in Muslim life and politics in Indonesia. Without proper education on how democratic leadership can work through a religious lens, dynasty politics will remain morally and culturally accepted in Indonesian political circles in the future.

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