Symbols and signs

Jeremy Menchik, PhD Candidate, Political Science, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison
On 30 March 2009 the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) held an election rally in Gelora Bung Karno, Central Jakarta. The stadium was packed with enthusiastic supporters waving flags, dancing to dangdut music, and cheering on Indonesia’s largest Islamist political party. Both the foreign and domestic press have depicted the election day showing of the PKS, as well as the even less impressive results of the other parties, as demonstrating the failure of radical Islamic parties in the world’s largest Muslim democracy (for example see Onishi 2009). Yet, the message from the political rally suggests that this characterization is worth reconsidering.
Pluralism, as defined by the Oxford American Dictionary, is “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.” The political symbols found at the rally suggest that PKS cadres are not radicals bent on imposing a narrow interpretation of syariah on all Indonesians, but are rather pious Muslims striving to reconcile diverse ideologies including nationalism, pan-Islam, and deep respect for personal piety.
PKS1.jpg
PKS is more than a political party; it is part of a movement to implement the teachings of Islam by encouraging righteousness in all spheres of life. Above, a man’s shirt designed to encourage modesty by covering the torso and thighs. The shirt is decorated with the crescent moon and rice-grain logo of the PKS, along with the party’s ballot number.
PKS2.jpg
PKS blends nationalist imagery with symbols of the global umma (Islamic community). Above, jackets with the PKS logo and ballot number, alongside the Indonesian national flag, the Palestinian national flag, and the logo for the Palestinian group Hamas.
PKS3.jpg
In addition to supporting the Palestinian national struggle, some PKS supporters support militarized movements elsewhere. Above, a PKS supporter with a Palestinian flag and military jacket. On the coat, there is a patch for the Taliban above the right chest pocket, and an army logo above the left chest pocket.
Such syncretism has a long history in Indonesian politics dating from the first national election in 1955. At that time the modernist Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, was the leading member of the Islamic party Masyumi. Both were firmly nationalist. Yet like the PKS, their nationalism was Islamic, and they supported the incorporation of Islamic law into state institutions. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the other major Islamic political party, was likewise more than simply a party supportive of syariah. NU was more concerned with defending its traditional institutions than promoting an Islamist ideology, which its leaders quickly demonstrated through their alliances with secular nationalist parties, especially the Sukarnoists (Fealy 2005). Such behavior has been ignored by contemporary scholars of nationalism, who situate the collective imaginings of the nation as wholly distinct from that of the umma (Anderson 1983). Yet characterizing nationalism as necessarily secular ignores Islamic parties’ beliefs, as well as the crucial role of Muslim groups in the Indonesian nationalist movement (Laffan 2003).
PKS4.jpg
In a novel example of reappropriating an appropriated image, a PKS football fan poses in front of the Indonesian comedian Benyamin Sueb (aka Bang Ben), posing as Che Guevara, the famous Latin American revolutionary.
PKS5.jpg
The Jakarta wing of PKS has tried to appeal to youth activists broadly. Above, PKS logos affixed to hats popular with young Indonesians and fashionmongers elsewhere.
PKS6.jpg
PKS supports the state enforcement of public morality, including a ban on pornography, limitation of the distribution of alcohol, and support for the war on drugs in Indonesia. Above, a campaign button for Twiwasaksana, a successful PKS candidate for the Regional Peoples’ Representative Council, atop a Rastafarian peace flag.
Is PKS today any less of an amalgamation of views than NU and Masyumi were in the 1950s? Evidence from the rally suggests not, although certainly the substance varies. PKS cadres blend ideologies and styles: Islamist, nationalist, individualist pop-culture hipster, pan-Islamist, democrat, soccer-fan, and even communist revolutionary. Such visual data should remind us that pious solidarities and nationalist ones may be productively coterminous, rather then being competitors (Wedeen 2008). Indeed, PKS women’s organizations are now playing a pivotal role in re-imagining the public life of the Indonesian nation (Rinaldo 2008). These photographs illustrate the diversity of imaginings found under the PKS banner.
PKS7.jpg
The rally felt more like a party, or a lively football game, than the gathering of a radical religious group. Above, the field at Gelora Bung Karno, where young male supporters danced, oblivious to the speeches from the stage. PKS ran one of the most innovative campaigns of the election season, distributing informational DVDs, running whimsical television advertisements, publishing collective campaigns to bolster all candidates rather then just individuals, and speaking directly to voters by knocking on one million doors.
PKS8.jpg
PKS9.jpg
The rally felt more like a party, or a lively football game, than the gathering of a radical religious group. Above, the field at Gelora Bung Karno, where young male supporters danced, oblivious to the speeches from the stage. PKS ran one of the most innovative campaigns of the election season, distributing informational DVDs, running whimsical television advertisements, publishing collective campaigns to bolster all candidates rather then just individuals, and speaking directly to voters by knocking on one million doors.
References
Anderson B. 1983. Imagined communities. London: Verso.
Fealy G. 2005. The Masyumi Legacy: Between Islamic Idealism and Political Exigency. Studia Islamika 12: 73-100.
Laffan M. 2003. Islamic nationhood and colonial Indonesia: The umma below the winds. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
Onishi N. 2009. Indonesia’s Voters Retreat From Radical Islam. In The New York Times, pp. A1. NYC.
Rinaldo R. 2008. Envisioning the Nation: Women Activists, Religion and the Public Sphere in Indonesia. Social Forces 86: 1781-04.
Wedeen L. 2008. Peripheral visions: Publics, power and performance in Yemen. Chicago: Univ. Press.
Jeremy Menchik (menchik@wisc.edu) is a PhD candidate in the political science program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation focuses on the history of Indonesian Islamic institutions. An extended version of this photo essay was first published in the magazine “Inside Indonesia”.

Download PDF
Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

%d bloggers like this: