Partyforumseasia: “State religions” have played important and decisive roles in European politics for centuries. Rulers have used religion as a powerful political tool. And churches have shown a great propensity to be close to the power holders, often in a cozy and successful symbiosis.
Only a few decades ago, Christian parties in Italy and Germany could rely on campaign support from their alliance with the church, especially on Sunday services before elections. Without necessarily naming the party, the priests would just say that a true believer should know where to mark the ballot paper. With urbanization and secularization the influence of churches and Christian parties has decreased. But the parties were also punished for relying too much on conservative and more religious rural constituencies and giving them more political weight than the cities.
In several Southeast Asian countries we witness developments in the opposite direction. In Malaysia and Indonesia where Islam is dominant anyway, religion is often used as a campaign tool. In a negative way by casting doubts on the religious credentials of candidates, in the worst case by alleging that they are covert Christians like in the case of presidential front runner Joko Widodo. But last week Muhammdiyah leader Din Syamsuddin revealed that he had “tested” Jokowi by asking him to lead a Friday prayer. Result: “It was all correct”. So the members of this Muslim mass organization can trust that Jokowi is a sufficiently pious Muslim. Muhammadiyah (30 million members) and Nahdlatul Ulama (40 million members) have declared that they won’t officially support any of the candidates, but in a country which is seeing a split between pious (santri) and possibly more lukewarm (abangan) Muslims, 70 million potential voters cannot be neglected.
In Malaysia, probably more than in Indonesia, the Islamic agenda in politics is frightening non-Muslim minorities. The introduction of Hudud laws is one of the most controversial issues in the ongoing political debates, fueled recently by their introduction in Brunei. Hindu, Christian and other minorities are concerned that amputations and stoning might be applied to them as well, though they are certainly hard to apply within a predominantly secular legal system. See details in an essay by Mohammad Alami Musa, “Hudud and Inter-Religious Relations” from the Rajaratnam School of International Sudies.( Link )
Playing the religious card in politics can be dangerous. If overdone it opens the Pandora’s box of fanaticism and intolerance. Both, unfortunately, are not unknown in Southeast Asia.