The Institutional Foundations of Religious Politics: Evidence from Indonesia

Aceh, Indonesia by Sandy Zebua. Photo via Unsplash.

Since the end of the Cold War, the rise of religion in politics led some to predict the 21st century would be “God’s Century.” While this phenomenon has affected every major religious tradition, support for religious politics varies widely between and within societies. Little is known about why some societies—often within the same religious tradition—embrace religious politics while others do not. 

In a new working paper, Samuel Bazzi and colleagues hypothesize that specific religious institutions can nurture support for political activism by religious actors and in doing so shape the nature and the success of religious politics. Without such institutions, even deeply religious cultures may not endorse the mixing of religion and politics.

The authors’ analysis centers around the failed Indonesian land reform of 1960 known as the Basic Agrarian Law (BAL). As part of this reform attempt, the government challenged conservative and largely hostile rural landowners by attempting to redistribute land to landless households, who represented 60 percent of the rural population at the time. The government’s efforts to redistribute land were largely unsuccessful, but the attempted reform fostered an alliance between landed elites and religious interests that continues to shape politics in Indonesia today. In particular, the BAL exempted religious lands held in Islamic charitable trust—known as waqf —from redistribution. Knowing this, many large landowners transferred land to waqf endowments under the authority of local religious leaders.

Main findings:

  • Areas targeted by land reform exhibit more pervasive waqf and institutions endowed as such, including Islamic boarding schools and mosques. 
  • Moreover, regions targeted for reform exhibit greater support for Islamist political parties and more extensive local Islamic law (i.e., sharia regulations) in the contemporary era of democracy and decentralized governance.
  • Overall, the land reform contributed to the resilience and eventual rise of political Islam by helping to spread religious institutions, thereby solidifying the alliance between local elites and Islamist groups.

These findings shed new light on how religious institutions may shape politics in modern democracies and may also have generalizable implications for understanding the relationship between religious institutions and the rise of religious politics in other societies. In the same way waqf estates created as a result of the 1960 Indonesian land reform continue to influence Indonesian politics today, institutions specific to other religious traditions may also condition the ways in which religious actors engage in politics in the West or in other parts of the Global South.

Read the Working Paper