Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

16 May 2017

Now that ex-Jakarta Governor Ahok has been ousted from power and faces prison, the unifying mission that brought Indonesia’s hard-line Islamic groups together may unravel, Chris Chaplin writes.

Over the course of the past nine months, an alliance between political interests and Islamic activists against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (commonly known as Ahok) has been as visible as it has been effective. Demonstrations – which at their peak brought 500,000 people to the streets in Jakarta – have raised fears that Indonesia’s democratic values are under threat from Islamic conservativism.

There is truth in this claim. The two-year sentence handed down to Ahok, a Christian ethnic Chinese, raises serious questions concerning freedom of expression. But, the rise of conservative religious identity politics is more entangled with Indonesia’s democracy than we may like to admit. Islamic intellectuals behind the anti-Ahok campaign are not reliant on political patrons, but seek to regulate all aspects of public life through conservative Islamic tenets. They have adapted to Indonesia’s democratic environment and become adept at utilising it for their own ends. Support for politicians, such as the Jakarta Governor-elect Anies Baswedan or his patron Prabowo Subianto, may prove useful for both sides. But, they are a result of circumstance rather than ideological alignment.

More on this: Ahok swam against the judicial and religious tide, and is now paying the price

Ahok’s sentence is part of a more worrying trend of diminishing religious freedom in Indonesia, adding to the rising number of blasphemy convictions that fall disproportionately on the country’s religious minorities. The Setara Institute reported that the conviction of Ahok is the 97th time someone in Indonesia has been convicted of blasphemy, stating that 89 of these cases have occurred after 1998 – the year long-ruling strongman Suharto resigned and opened the door to democracy. Yet, the campaign against Ahok, and subsequent conviction, is not the first-time Islamic symbols have been used for political ends. In fact, alliances between Islamic organisations and political candidates are a common characteristic of Indonesia’s democratic political landscape – the conviction of Ahok will only embolden Islamic organisations further.

Michael Buehler, in his recent work on Sharia by-laws in Indonesia has eloquently elaborated how political decentralisation and democratisation have provided the impetus through which politicians have increasingly engaged with Islamic organisations to shore up support during elections. The support of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is frequently coveted in local and national elections. This was the case when they supported Prabowo Subianto during the 2014 presidential election.

What sets the recent demonstrations apart from previous campaigns is the involvement of conservative Islamic intellectuals whose approach to politics looks beyond mobilising the masses and political alliances. These include Bachtiar Nasir and Muhmmad Zaitun Rasmin, Saudi-educated Islamic intellectuals with a popular following among Indonesia’s universities and middle classes. If Islamist scholar and activist Habib Rizeq and his FPI played a crucial role in mobilising and rousing crowds during the anti-Ahok demonstrations, it was Nasir and Rasmin who provided a broader idea of public activism to the National Movement to Guard the Fatwa of the Indonesian Ulama Council – the loose network that organised the demonstrations. Muhammad Zaitun Rasmin, for instance, coordinated volunteers from all over Java to take part in the Movement for Victory in Jakarta (Gerakan Kemenangan Jakarta), a movement that sent Muslim volunteers to polling stations to monitor the election. During the second round of the election on 19 April, these volunteers were clearly visible, and were wearing badges stating it was forbidden for a Muslim to elect a non-Muslim.

More on this: Justice by numbers: The rising spectre of vigilantism in Indonesia

Both Nasir and Rasmin are also leading members of the Council for Young and Intellectual Ulama of Indonesia (Majelis Intelektual dan Ulama Muda Indonesia, MIUMI), a conservative Islamic organisation formed in 2012. MUIMI has, arguably, provided an intellectual platform through which broader significance to these demonstrations is provided. MIUMI believes that there is currently a war of ideas (ghazwul fikri) occurring in Indonesia, and they thus needed to create a movement to rid public spaces and behaviour of ‘deviant’ and ‘Western’ thought.

The group aspires to do this not by forming a political party, but by focusing on advocacy and regulating public spaces against un-Islamic behaviour and influence (including that of non-Muslim politicians), thus reaffirming Indonesia’s Islamic character. For instance, they used the demonstrations against Ahok to garner support to start alternative Sharia businesses. Their followers’ mini marts (KitaMarts) aim to offer a Muslim answer to ‘secular’ convenient stores.

It is too early to measure the significance of MIUMI’s impact on Indonesian politics, but what is clear is that despite several of the group’s members denouncing democracy as an un-Islamic innovation, they thrive in the environment democracy nonetheless provides. There is, furthermore, little evidence that their mission aligns with the electoral ambitions of either Anies Baswedan or Prabowo Subianto.

In fact, those close to Zaitun and Bashir see Ahok’s defeat as part of a more sustained campaign, and have already begun talking about ensuring the Governor-elect Anies protects the ‘position’ of Muslims in Jakarta in order to further implement their vision of society.

Accordingly, without adequate concessions, the alliance that proved so successful in defeating Ahok may yet become fraught and lose momentum.

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