24 December 2018
Fake News Roils Indonesian Politics – Voice of America

Political Islam in Indonesia

Political Islam is on the rise in Indonesia, writes John West.

Conservative turn in Indonesia’s Islam

Indonesia has long been reputed for its moderate brand of Islam, and its tolerance of religious and cultural diversity. Moreover, in contrast to many Muslim countries, Islam coexists with civil law in Indonesia.

But since the fall of the authoritarian regime of President Suharto in 1998, things have been changing. This country which is home to the world's largest Muslim population (around 225 million or 87% of its population of 262 million) has seen a rise of a more conservative brand of Islam, and the politicization of Islam by some more extremist Muslim groups. There have also been a number of tragic terrorist incidents linked to certain Islamic groups.

The prosecution and imprisonment for two years of the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname of "Ahok"), in 2017 on charges of blasphemy has been the most noteworthy event. In a public event, Ahok, previously a very popular governor, said that the Koran did not prevent Muslims for voting him in the Jakarta mayoral elections because he is a Christian of Chinese origin ("double minority").

Muslim groups, notably the Islamic Defenders Front and the Indonesian Ulama Council, latched onto this seemingly innocuous comment. They mounted an aggressive campaign against Ahok, notably through social media and massive rallies in Jakarta, which enabled Ahok's Muslim opponent, Anies Baswedan, to be elected as the new, and present, governor of the Indonesian capital.

Ahok was no ordinary governor. He is a close friend of current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo ("Jokowi"), and was the vice-governor when Jokowi was governor of Jakarta from 2012-14. When Jokowi was elected President in 2014, Ahok stepped into his shoes as governor. Jokowi was even rumored to be considering Ahok as a vice-presidential running mate for the 2019 presidential elections. But the strength of Muslim sentiment against Ahok was such that Jokowi effectively had to dump poor Ahok, who is now living behind bars, rather than in the governor's mansion.

The Ahok affair didn't come from nowhere. In the lead up to the 2014 presidential elections, Jokowi himself was alleged by some Islamic groups to be a "closet Christian". So prior to the election he felt obliged to make rush pilgrimage to Mecca to shore up his Islamic credentials. And Islam is set to feature strongly in the upcoming presidential election taking place in May 2019 (see below).

Since the fall of Suharto’s regime, there have also been numerous terrorist attacks in Indonesia, which are linked to Islamic terrorist groups. Some of the most notable are: the Bali bombings of 2002; a car bomb outside the Jakarta JW Marriott Hotel in 2003; another car bomb outside the Australian embassy in 2004; a series of suicide bomb and car bombs explosions in Bali; suicide bombings at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in 2009; deadly attacks by Islamic State inspired militants in Jakarta in January 2016 and May 2017; and bombing of Christian churches in Surabaya in 2018.

The Islamic State has also recruited around 700 Indonesians for the war in Syria, with more than 200 having travelled back to Indonesia. Indonesian militants participated in the siege of Marawi in the Philippines in 2017.

More generally, there has been a rise of religious intolerance notably through discrimination, assault, hate speech, sealing of houses of worship for other religious groups, and a rise in blasphemy cases.

Factors driving political Islam in Indonesia

How could this wonderful country, which seemed to be Asia's democracy success story, with such a warm and friendly people, allow religion to be exploited for political ends?

The apparent historical moderation of Islam was in many ways a product of former president Suharto's repressive controls of potential opposition groups during his long reign from 1966 to 1998. Suharto brutally imposed a secular-nationalist policy platform, suppressing religious and other opponents of the regime. Hard-line Islamic groups were banned by Suharto.

In the early 1990s, however, after decades of repressing religious organizations, Suharto did however soften his approach to Islamic groups. He built an alliance with conservative Muslims to bolster his regime by co-opting them as a counter to his rivals in the military.

When the Suharto regime crumbled in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, and Indonesia's political system transformed into a democracy, this opened the political space for many social and political groups, notably Islamic groups. It is, however, ironical that democratization has enabled the emergence of a raft of hard-line undemocratic groups notably the Islamic Defenders Front. This has been called “Indonesia's un-civil society” by political scientist Dr Verena Beittinger-Lee.

“Indonesia’s Islamisation has been the single outstanding feature that altered the nation since 1998,” said Ariel Heryanto, Deputy Director of the Monash Asia Institute. According to Jeremy Menchik, even moderate Muslims in Indonesia would never accept a Christian holding the presidency or building a church in a Muslim neighborhood.

Political Islam is driven by hard-line and violent groups like the Islamic Defenders Front. They may not be supported by all or even the majority of the population. Islam is quite diverse in Indonesia. But hard-line Islamic groups were able to mobilize support away from Ahok. And the Ahok affair did expose increasing radicalization, especially among the young.

One disturbing trend is that political figures are using Islam for political purposes, and have been wooing, rather than confronting, hard-line groups. Both Jokowi and his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, passively accepted the growing power of Islamist groups, which have increasingly raised funds from Saudi Arabia. "Within Indonesia, hard-line groups have pushed national government ministers to take repressive stances toward homosexuality, religious minorities, and people who supposedly blaspheme Islam, " wrote Joshua Kurlantzick.

Hard-line groups, with Islamic Defenders Front leading the charge, are pushing for the implementation of Sharia Law. They are now penetrating moderate Islamic organizations, political parties, universities, schools and the media.

This has forced poor Jokowi to dance on a pinhead. On the question of LGBT rights he has said that Indonesia is a "tolerant nation". But he has also qualified that saying "We are the largest majority Muslim country so Indonesia has its own religious norms, unique values and also cultures that must be respected".

Political Islam is also working through mainstream politics, as Islamic parties hold about one-third of the seats in parliament, and three out of four of them are in a coalition with Jokowi's ruling party. This has forced concessions on Jokowi's behalf.

In addition to democratisation, the big-bang decentralization over the past two decades has opened a space for local Islamic groups to play strong role in local government. Many former Muslim civil society activists became local officials. Some local governments have enacted by-laws against non-Muslim minorities. And violence against religious minorities notably Christians and Ahmadiyah Muslims has risen since 1998.

The Islamic separatist movement in the northern Sumatra province of Aceh has been tamed through a peace-pact with the province which enables it to introduce Sharia Law. As a result, it has been implementing many conservative laws. For example, it is now religiously forbidden for a woman to sit at the same cafe table as a man she is not married or related to.

Funding from Saudi Arabia is playing an important role as it seeks to propagate its ultra-conservative Wahhabism through funding Islamic religious institutions and schools. Saudi Arabia has established more than 150 mosques, provided books to schools, brought in its own preachers and teachers, and disbursed thousands of scholarships for graduate study back in Saudi Arabia. "As the world's biggest Muslim nation, Indonesia will always have a special bond with Saudi Arabia ", Jokowi reportedly said. Closer ties between both countries will naturally continue to shift Indonesia's Islam in a more conservative direction. Indeed, many of the leaders of Indonesia’s hardline Islamic groups are of Arab origin.

Another factor is the chronic weakness of Indonesia's education system which has opened a space for Islamic schools which promote conservative Islamic values. Popular disgust at rampant corruption and inequality have also underpinned a shift towards conservative Muslim values. This has been exacerbated by the fact that most of the top 50 richest Indonesians are of Chinese origin, while most Muslims are poorer than Chinese. And in a world of growing nationalism and populism, Islam has become a vehicle for nationalistic expression; economic nationalism is rising, and anti-Chinese sentiment is strengthening.

Islam and the 2019 Presidential elections

Islamic groups will likely play an important role in the 2019 presidential elections, following their successful efforts in the 2018 Jakarta governor elections. Religious hardliners are reportedly building alliances with Prabowe Subanto, who was Jokowi's opponent in the 2014 presidential elections, and will be his opponent once again in 2019.

Prabowe, a former general and son-in-law of Suharto, is positioning himself as a populist, Islamist strongman who, if he wins the elections, could well roll back Indonesia's democratic freedoms. The tactics used against Ahok in 2017, are already being employed against Jokowi who is accused of being a secret Christian, linked to the disbanded Indonesian Communist Party, and of selling Indonesia to Chinese tycoons and foreigners.

And with Islam now featuring strongly in Indonesian politics, Jokowi’s backers pushed him to choose hard-line Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his vice-presidential running mate. This highlights Jokowi’s lack of political authority, and his weakness vis-a-vis his coalition of supporters, as well as the growing intolerance among Indonesian Muslims.

Amin is the head of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), Indonesia’s peak body for conservative Muslim organisations, which led the charge against Ahok during the 2017 gubernatorial election campaign. Amin has been leading attacks on LGBTI Indonesians, Shia Muslims and Ahmadiyah. He was also involved in a 2005 fatwa which declared secularism, pluralism and liberalism as incompatible with Islam.

Concluding comments

With the upcoming 2019 presidential elections, Indonesia stands at a turning point in its modern history. The politicisation of Islam and growing power of conservative and radical Islam present grave risks for its future.

Some conservative and radical Islamic groups would like to curtail democratic freedoms, adopt more authoritarian politics, and even install Shariah law. Non-Muslim communities have been subject to discrimination, violence and human rights abuses.

There have also been reports that religious tensions have deterred foreign investment. Some Muslim groups have called for a boycott of Starbucks in light of its support for LGBT rights.

Indonesia is on a knife-edge!


TIM LINDSEY. Jokowi’s deputy pick confirms rise of conservative Islam in Indonesia. John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations. August 17, 2018.

Joshua Kurlantzick, The Rise of Islamist Groups in Malaysia and Indonesia. Council on Foreign Relations. February 27, 2018.

Jeremy Menchik. Interviewed on Islam and Democracy in Indonesia. September 12, 2017.

Umar Juoro. Why Populist Islam Is Gaining Ground In Indonesia. HuffPost. September 22, 2017.

Max Walden. Tolerance and terror: Islam in Indonesia’s Reformasi era. Asian Correspondent. May 29, 2018.

Paul Marshall. Political Islam in Indonesia. Hudson Institute. June 6, 2017.
Tags: asean, indonesia, political islam, jokowi

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