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Indonesia's 75th anniversary highlights rise of political Islam

Conservative Muslims challenge country's pluralistic society

People fly kites ahead of the country's Independence Day celebrations.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesia on Monday celebrated the 75th Independence Day since its founding at a sensitive juncture which sees the Muslim majority testing the country's commitment to pluralism.

In a largely virtual ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and First Lady Iriana sang the national anthem with a smattering of invitees just past 10 a.m., the exact moment the founding President Sukarno declared the nation's independence.

Although one verse in the anthem declares "We all declare an Indonesia united as one," the developing culture war is threatening to overturn that message.

Nadiem Makarim, the minister of education and culture, issued a public apology in late July to Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country's leading and second-biggest Islamic organizations, respectively, for not giving the two groups enough input into a teacher training program.

"If we don't receive the support and participation from everyone, we will not be able to realize high-quality education," Nadiem said in a video posted on the ministry's website.

Nadiem, founder of the ride-hailing giant Gojek, has spearheaded an educational reform initiative calling for teachers to receive outside training from private-sector organizations. But the two Islamic groups have denounced the idea of private corporations receiving taxpayer money.

Now the program is undergoing an overhaul, illustrating how Muslim interest groups have become heavily involved in national policy.

Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago whose breadth is on par with the continental United States, is home to around 300 ethnic groups, each with its own history and culture.

The country has been barely able to function harmoniously, thanks to a national language with simplified grammar and tones. Nevertheless, Indonesia's rapid economic growth earned it "upper-middle income" status by the World Bank in July.

Muslims account for 90% of the population, making Indonesia the world's largest Muslim country. Religious minorities such as Protestants, Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists have enjoyed a high level of deference as well. But lately, Muslims have been flexing their clout.

Under the autocratic regime of Suharto -- Indonesia's second president, who came to power in 1968 -- the government minimized the political influence of Muslims out of fear they would echo much of the Middle East and pull the country toward fundamentalism.

After Suharto fell from grace in 1998, democratic norms began to displace military rule. It was only a matter of time before Islamic organizations began to aspire to the kind of authority that corresponds to their numbers.

In February, Indonesia's broadcast authority issued a warning to a station that aired a program featuring wine made in Bali, saying alcohol is considered "haram" (forbidden) for Muslims. In rural areas, a plethora of small Islamic groups are actively exerting pressure.

There have been around 200 instances between 2007 and 2018 where Christians faced interference with worship, or demonstrations against new church construction, according to Indonesian think tank Setara Institute.

"The Islamification of society resembles less of a spiritual movement and more of a politicization of religion," said Wasisto Raharjo Jati, researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

Jakarta's governor race in 2017 exemplifies that phenomenon. Conservative Islamic groups characterized incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian with Chinese ancestry, as "anti-Muslim" during the campaign. He was eventually defeated by the Muslim candidate Anies Baswedan.

"Social media has amplified divisions among the people," said Jati.

Fake news in particular has complicated the discourse. Some postings, for example, allege that Widodo's ruling party has committed blasphemy against Islam by drawing close to an illegal Communist party. There are signs of deepening splits between religions and sects heading into the 2024 presidential election.

Indonesia's electorate is very likely to be exposed to fake news since it has a high online presence. The average Indonesian spends 3 and a half hours per day on social media, according to surveys by Canada's Hootsuite Media and others -- more than an hour longer than the global average.

Widodo, a secular figure, has been working to maintain societal harmony and even appointed Prabowo Subianto, a 2019 presidential rival, as defense minister. The fact that Subianto was instrumental in blocking the 2017 reelection of Purnama, a Widodo ally, shows that the president is aware he cannot afford to ignore the growing Muslim interests.

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