The Issue of Islamic Party is too Normative

For less than a year now, political parties which will compete in gaining constituents in the 2004 election have consolidated themselves. However more recently, several Islamic parties or parties based on Islamic constituents, have experienced a worrying fragmentation. Why are Islamic parties so susceptible to fragmentation when unity of ummat (community) has been such a vocal issue? What factors determine the marriages and divorces amongst politicians within Islamic parties?
Syafi’i Anwar MA, Executive Director of International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) analyzed this phenomenon through a political and cultural approach in an interview with Ulil Abshar-Abdalla (25/9/03). To this PhD candidate at Melbourne University, in many developing countries the primordial political culture is often unable to rationally resolve institutional matters.
ULIL ABSHAR-ABDALLA: Brother Syafi’i, How do you respond to the phenomenon of the susceptibility for dissent within these Islamic parties?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: I notice that the fundamental problem is one of leadership. If we observe the background to the problem further, we’ll find that the starting point is an issue of leadership culture. I don’t know exactly what is the internal situation within those parties since I am not a member of an Islamic party, but I have many friends in them. As far s I can tell from my observations the conflicts often begin from insubstantial problems such as personality conflicts.
ULIL: You have said that the problem is with the leadership in the parties. Now there is Hamzah Haz in PPP, PBB has Yusril Ihza Mahendra, and there is Gus Dur in PKB. What is the crucial distinction between each leader such that they cannot function as a united entity as the community wishes?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: In my observation, the problem is not about the mission or vision of any one of these leaders but one of competing styles of leadership. Amin Rais speak out frankly, uninhibitedly and sometimes he is not wise. Yusril on the other hand is sometimes too rigid. Hamzah Haz is different, he is a politician who blows with the wind, easily-changing views, and that maybe natural for a politician. The problem is why fragmentation happens. I simply think it is not about the vision and mission but about conflicting styles of leadership.
I said it is because the leadership style is central to the leadership, and because every party has a leader figure. I agree that the constituents are important, but as long as the performance of the leader is not good, he will not be easily accepted by all parties.
ULIL: Why do their leadership styles bring them into dispute?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: Because our culture is primordial. We are often incapable of solving personal differences in rational ways. This actually is the common problem facing politicians in developing countries. The matter is that they are not talking about substantial issues.
ULIL: Actually establishing unity is easier at the level of the community than at the level of leadership.
SYAFI’I ANWAR: That’s right. As I’ve said, from observing the political culture, the Indonesian community is actually moderate, tolerant, and appreciative as long as the leader is a good leader.
ULIL: What is the type of political culture among our leaders that they can’t meet up?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: It is competition which is empty in terms of any clear ideology, vision and mission of the party. The matter of vision and mission of these Islamic parties is a problem and is not clear.
ULIL: A disease in our political culture is the clash among the leaders which then influences the base. Why is this so?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: I agree. But I want to emphasize that it’s not only a disease in the Islamic parties but of leaders of parties who prefer to be politicians than statesmen. It’s the biggest problem facing the nation. So, the Islamic party is rich in politicians but poor in terms of statesman.
ULIL: Do politicians always have bad images?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: No. but a politician should think to be statesman. It means, he does not only think in terms of his party, but in the future he should appear as credible, honest, as a man of integrity acting for the state’s best interests.
ULIL: It is all right if a politician is not a statesman.  But if he is a position and salary hunter, he confuses the community.
SYAFI’I ANWAR: Yes. Sometimes they used to read the verse of kursi… hahaha (Quranic verse named kursi which means position). So their orientation is not based upon the people’s interest. This is a big problem for Islamic parties. Besides, the problems concerning the Islamic party are normative and unrelated to really important matters, for instance human rights, employment, removing corruption and so on. Those issues are and should be more fundamental than issues about the enforcement of Islamic sharia which is a normative issue they concentrate upon.
ULIL: We even have seen the emergence of an Islamic Sharia Party.
SYAFI’I ANWAR: I think it will be contra productive. People currently wish for real solutions to real problems. At least the Islamic parties should have clear agendas for facing real problems. As Olivier Roy writes in his book The Failure of Political Islam, the main failure of Islamic parties which we can learn from other state’s experiences, especially Pakistan, is that they have no real agendas for solving the fundamental problems in society, like human rights, corruption and so on. They always focus on normative issues like the obligation of enforcing God’s law and so on.
ULIL: There are many stories about unpromising Islamic parties. My question is this, could we have any expectations for a better performance from Partai Keadilan Sejahtera/PKS (Justice and Welfare Party)?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: I want to see the matter critically. I agree if it is said that PKS is good enough from the aspect of organization, mission, vision, and in having an exemplary board. Here I’m in agreement with Martin Van Bruinessen, an Indonesianist from Netherlands. But the problem is related to the social base of PKS which is limited if it wants to compete in the 2004 election. I have observed that its mass base is on campuses which means PKB is not convincingly populist. Furthermore, PKS concentrates on normative matters as well.
Secondly, even though I am a member of Muhammadiyah, I am interested in Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa/PKB (a party delivered by Nahdlatul Ulama’) as it has a real social base. PKB’s constituency is clear, but the problem there is due to internal friction. As an observer, I must say that it is pitiable. I hope this problem can be resolved, otherwise, it will not only harm the Nahdliyyin, but also the nation in general. The internal clash can be utilized to the advantage of many parties.
ULIL: The problem of PKB is related to the strongman figure of Gus Dur. How do you read the situation?
SYAFI’I ANWAR: Gus Dur’s domination is really a big problem. When we talk about political matters, PKB has a real social base. My concern in PKB is great since it has a more real community. The friction and the splitting potential could have major implications.
What worries me is that this problem is not specific to PKB, but also is occurring in PPP involving Hamzah Haz and Zainuddin MZ. It is the same case there with the reconciliation between them who daily talk about the unity of community.
ULIL: PKB’s mass in the villages is wide and influenced by primordial views about leadership. If their leaders split, they would split as well. How are they to overcome this?
You are right. That’s why the leaders of party should be istiqamah (act in a straight forward way) and maintain a low profile. They should emphasize how to think about and give priority to future prospects. But in politics, keeping a low profile seems to be very politically expensive by nature.