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The Quest for Islamic Leadership:
Indonesian Muslims' Reaction to Magnificent Century

Ganjar Widhiyoga
Durham University

Many Indonesian Muslims have longed for the establishment of Muslim leadership in their country. While Islam is the largest religion in Indonesia—and Indonesia is the country with the greatest Muslim population in the world—Islamic political expressions had been repressed in the country to various extents until the Reformasi, the major political reform movement of 1998. The period of repression began in 1960 when President Sukarno banned Masyumi, the most influential Islamic party in Indonesia at the time, for voicing their dissent to his close relations with the Indonesia Communist Party, and for joining the PRRI rebellion (or Pemerintah Revolusioner Republik Indonesia, Revolutionary Government of the Indonesian Republic, a rebel government established in Sumatra). The PRRI government was led by many prominent Masyumi members and backed by a faction of the Indonesian army (Ricklefs, 2001, pp. 318–325).

Though Sukarno's regime ended in 1967, this change did not improve conditions for Indonesian Muslim activists. The next president, General Suharto, continued the repression , declaring Islamic political expressions "divisive" to the establishment of "a unified Indonesia" (Aspinall, 2005, p. 7). The presence of two kinds of Muslims—the santri and abangan—helped to facilitate Suharto's policies. The santri were orthodox Muslims who identified themselves politically as Masyumi, and thus were elbowed out of the political discourse. The abangan, on the other hand, were either liberals or syncretists and politically affiliated with secular parties, which remained loyal to Suharto (Liddle, 1996, p. 616; Suryadinata, 1995, p. 291; For further discussion on santri and abangan, see Clifford Geertz's The religion of Java (1986).).

The fall of Suharto's regime in 1998 opened the possibility for Muslims to express their political affiliations freely. Amidst an atmosphere of religious euphoria, there was a sense that the moment had come for an Islamic leader to emerge and lead Indonesia into its golden age. The election results since 1998, however, have been disappointing for Muslim activists. Islamic parties have only managed to gain approximately 14–18% of the total vote, with 14.78% in the 2014 election. Combined with the non-Islamic parties that drew support from Muslim constituents, the so-called Muslim-based parties, they managed to get an average vote of only 30–35% of the vote, including 31.41% in the 2014 election (BBC, 2014). Compounding this failure to attract support, some of the Islamic activists were also involved in graft and bribery cases. The illusion of a morally exemplary Islamic leadership was shattered, adding to popular disappointment.

Against this background, many Indonesian Muslims have turned to stories of heroism and legends in their search for an incorruptible leader. The time of the Prophet and the Rightfully Guided Caliphs is often invoked as the example of best practice in governance. To a lesser extent, other successful caliphs such as 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-Aziz, Harun al-Rashid and Mehmet the Conqueror are also celebrated figures whom a Muslim leader should strive to emulate. The Ottomans are especially dear to Indonesian Muslims since they actively helped various Indonesian sultanates against the imperialist forces of Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands (Reid, 1969; Sofyan et al., 1994; Salam, 1995).

Some Indonesian sultanates have even claimed to have been part of the Ottoman Empire. Hamengku Buwono X, both the Sultan and the governor of the Special District of Yogyakarta, has recently stated that Yogyakarta was the vassal, and now is the successor, of the Ottoman Empire. According to the Sultan, who explained this when opening the 6th Indonesian Muslim Congress in Yogyakarta on 9 February 2015, a delegation from Istanbul arrived at Yogyakarta in 1479 CE, and presented Ottoman flags to the ruling Sultan. These flags were made from the kiswah covering of the Ka'ba and symbolized the Ottomans' acknowledgement of Yogyakarta as its vassal in Java. Duplicates of these flags are still kept in the Palace of Yogyakarta, serving as the Sultanate's relics (Novia, 2015). This familiarity and attachment to the Ottomans resulted in great enthusiasm among the Indonesian Muslims when a television station announced their plan to air the Turkish series Muhteşem Yüzyil, which narrates the life of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Suleiman was well known in Islamic tradition as a successful leader. He bore the title of al-Qanuni, or the Lawgiver, and it was under his rule that the Ottomans began a process of judicial transformation and administrative reform. For a country frustrated with its corrupt elite, the image of a leader like Suleiman has been captivating to many, even if he appears only in a television series. Understanding the Indonesian Muslims' interests, the television station ANTV rebranded the series as King Suleiman. For a promotional trailer, viewed over ten thousand times in one week, they chose a snippet of the series showing how Suleiman assisted one of his Christian concubines, whom he later married, to recite the shahada. Muslim audiences were looking forward to this series, hoping to learn about the glorious reign of Suleiman and the success of his Islamic political activism.

The idealistic hope was dashed only one day before its premiere on 22 December 2014. An anonymous viewer could not restrain his curiosity and went to YouTube for a sneak peek. Instead of finding the television series glorifying Islamic values that he had expected, he saw a show that put an emphasis on Machiavellian politics and backstabbing intrigue in Suleiman's court. Unlike the idealized version of Suleiman in Indonesian Muslims' imagination, the show characterizes Suleiman as arrogant, worldly, and, even more disturbingly, promiscuous. In no time, the viewer's findings were distributed widely in Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media before being picked up by the mainstream media.

Though the Islamic media distributed the negative review of the show, they were restrained in their coverage overall. However, soon after the premiere, which confirmed the viewer's shocked assessment, Islamic media outlets such as Hidayatullah and Panjimas mercilessly attacked the series as "sinful" (Ibnu K, 2014) and the television station that aired it as "insensitive to Muslims" (Fatah, 2014). Republika, one of the prominent newspapers catering to Muslim audiences, called for the Indonesian Council of Ulama to admonish the television station (Republika, 2014). The liberal media such as Tempo, on the other hand, defended the station (Muhyiddin, 2014).

The debate became even fiercer when three different online petitions circulated, all appealing to the Indonesian Broadcast Commission (KPI) to pull the series and levy a fine on the station. While the Indonesian Council of Ulama did not issue a fatwa, several prominent clerics such as Yusuf Mansyur and Felix Siauw personally condemned the series, calling for its cancellation (Panjimas, 2014). After two days of fierce debate, the Broadcast Commission acknowledged the public complaints and summoned ANTV to provide clarification on the issue (KPI, 2014). KPI also asked the Indonesian Council of Ulama to provide an assessment of the series. In the follow-up meeting in January 2015, KPI also invited Alwi Alatas of the International Islamic University Malaysia as an expert historian to provide his evaluation of the case (KPI, 2015a).

In KPI's final decision on the series, it issued an official reprimand to ANTV and required it to do the following:

a) put an "Adult" rating on the series instead of "Teenager" rating as ANTV had done previously;
b) edit the episodes to omit any scenes that could be interpreted as exploitation against women;
c) introduce an historical explanation from Muslim scholars in each episode; and
d) put a disclaimer at the start of each episode, emphasizing that the series is a work of fiction, adapted and inspired by historical accounts (KPI, 2015b).

ANTV complied with the ruling. It changed the title from King Suleiman, which many considered offensive, to Abad Kejayaan or Magnificent Century (Wulandari, 2014). It has also sought to enlist the assistance of Muslim scholars from Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, to provide an explanation for each episode, in accordance with KPI's ruling and to appease the public (Fadjar, 2015).

In the scholarly debate that followed, Fadh Ahmad Arifan, a lecturer from the Islamic University al-Yasini, East Java, argued that the Suleiman series was the product of an Orientalist interpretation of the life of the sultan. This biased perspective describes Suleiman's life as centered on his harem and downplays his important judicial and administrative reforms (Arifan, 2014). The sexualization of the Ottoman culture and the over-emphasis on the harem has been criticized by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. Moreover, this scholars have been addressing this misrepresentation for decades. Peirce (1993) and Lewis (2004), for example, have criticized this Orientalist perspective of the harem, providing instead a non-sexualized description of the institution and, more generally, the role of women in the Ottoman empire.

While the sexualization of the harem depicted in the series might be the result of Orientalist bias, the life and personality of Suleiman were not the perfect image embedded in the imagination of Indonesian Muslims. Even the notion that Suleiman led such a perfect life is in contrast with Islamic teaching, which attributes such perfection only to the Prophet. However, during recent years Indonesian Muslims have started to adopt an historical narrative that is both very Islam-centric and defensive of Islam and, to some extent, have regarded historical Muslim leaders as an inspirational representation of the religion (Suwignyo, 2014). Fostered by some Muslim historians, such as Ahmad Mansyur Suryanegara, this narrative, according to Hasbullah (2011), seeks to "straighten the history," promoting the inclusion of Islam, Muslim activists, and Islamic connections to Indonesian historiography to "counter-balance" the actions of the Suharto regime. According to them, the regime deliberately marginalized the role of Islam and Muslim activists in the history of Indonesia in order to promote their political objectives.

This narrative finds expression through various channels, including the political rhetoric used by Islamic political parties during elections, religious sermons by clerics, "alternative" history books such as Suryanegara's Api Sejarah (Flame of History, 2009, 2010), and campaigns launched by more assertive groups such as the Indonesian branch of Hizb al-Tahrir. Despite their varied backgrounds and purposes, these activities have one characteristic in common: to evoke the glory of the past and the achievements of Muslim great leaders, and to contrast these with current, corrupt officials. At the same time, however, avid supporters of this approach perceive any challenges to this narrative as smearing a Muslim historical figure, an attack that demands a firm response.

Muhteşem Yüzyil was seen as such a smearing attempt, not only against an important Islamic historical figure but also toward the new Islamic Indonesian historiography. The resulting reaction was not about Suleiman, or the series per se, but more about the perceived attack against Indonesian Muslims' developing sense of Islamic consciousness combined with their unfinished quest for an authentic Islamic leadership. Their anger results from a sense of betrayal, from the disjunction between their idealization of Muslim history and the political reality of post-authoritarian Indonesia.

Selected Bibliography

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  • Aspinall, E. (2005). Opposing Suharto: Compromise, resistance, and regime change in Indonesia, East-West Center series on contemporary issues in Asia and the Pacific. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.
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  • Fatah, N. (2014). "ANTV, Jodha Akbar dan Sultan Sulaiman" (ANTV, Jodha Akbar and Suleiman). Hidayatullah, 26 December. Available at: http://www.hidayatullah.com/artikel/ghazwul-fikr/read/2014/12/26/35769/antv-jodha-akbar-dan-sultan-sulaiman.html (accessed 26 December 2014).
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