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Niqab ban debate shows Jokowi's tough stance on Islamic hard-liners

Indonesian president risks alienating nonviolent groups, experts warn

The niqab is not common in Indonesia, but is worn by women who belong to the country's more conservative Muslim groups.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Just a week after he was named Indonesia's new religious affairs minister, retired army general Fachrul Razi sparked a controversy by suggesting a ban on the niqab -- a face veil for women -- and men's cropped pants in government offices.

The garments are typically worn by members of deeply conservative Muslim groups. They are common in the Middle East but not in Indonesia -- which, despite being the world's largest Muslim-majority country, is a secular democracy.

In recent years, however, conservative garb has become a more frequent sight in public places. This coincides with growing concerns over Islamist groups holding more sway in the Southeast Asian country's political sphere, as well as rising cases of intolerance, such as the forced disbandment of minority religious congregations by local residents in some regions.

There has also been talk of hard-line conservative groups infiltrating government offices and state-owned enterprises. A 2017 survey found that nearly half of 100 mosques within the compounds of government offices and SOEs in Jakarta spread intolerant views, while at least 17 showed signs of "high radicalism."

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has tasked Razi with navigating this political minefield. And the new minister has charged right in.

In one public speech, Razi linked conservative attire with a campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate -- a taboo idea in the past, but one that now has more outspoken proponents.

"There are rules for civil servants," Razi said in Jakarta on Oct. 31, in the tone of a military commander. "If you're in the army and wear cropped pants, [that means] you don't follow the rules. You should quit!"

He continued: "Those who support the caliphate means supporting a nation within the nation of Indonesia. But [civil servants] are paid by the state of Indonesia. Can you respect Indonesia? If you can't, quit the military. Quit being civil servants. Quit the SOEs!"

Critics were quick to slam him for inaccurately linking conservatism with radicalism.

President Joko Widodo, right, won re-election in April after recruiting Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin, left, as his running mate -- partly to counter allegations that he is anti-Islam.   © Reuters

The debate has parallels with controversies in Europe, where several countries with large Muslim populations have also banned face veils and other types of Islamic or religious clothing.

Razi has since backpedaled from his call for a ban, but has made a string of other remarks and policies that have angered conservatives. He expects neighborhood Islamic gatherings, ubiquitous across Indonesia for decades, to register with his ministry. He has revived a plan to certify preachers who deliver sermons at mosques nationwide. And, most recently, he removed the subject of caliphates from the Islamic jurisprudence curriculum at Islamic schools.

Razi's appointment itself is out of the ordinary.

The post of religious minister has traditionally gone to representatives of Indonesia's largest Muslim group, the Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU. The appointment of an army veteran with a barely relevant background, and his tough approach, suggest a sense of urgency on Widodo's part over rising Islamism.

The president said as much when he introduced his new cabinet on Oct. 23 and stated that tackling radicalism will be one of Razi's main duties. This had been the job of the National Counterterrorism Agency, or BNPT, with the religious ministry mainly overseeing Islamic education and hajj pilgrimages.

"What I see is that with a growing inclination toward radicalism ... the government is now adopting a security approach in dealing with religious affairs," said Yon Machmudi, a lecturer on Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at the University of Indonesia. "There is now some kind of an overlap between the ministry's functions and those of the BNPT."

Islamic movements were largely suppressed during the three decades of Suharto's authoritarian secular New Order regime. Only groups endorsed by the state, such as the NU and Muhammadiyah, were able to freely spread their teachings. Their inclusive, pluralistic local brand of Islam has helped the country maintain its moderate Muslim identity.

The collapse of the New Order in 1998 gave birth to democracy and created space for conservative Muslim movements. Gradually, more Indonesians have embraced Middle Eastern strands of the religion. This trend has accelerated in the past several years, fueled in part by heated election campaigns in which some candidates have painted their rivals as anti-Islam.

Widodo himself has been a main target of this strategy.

Indonesian Muslims protest in Jakarta in October, after members of the NU, the country's biggest Islamic organization, burned a rival group's flag bearing an Islamic tenet.   © Reuters

In a survey released last year by the Jakarta State Islamic University, 62% of Muslim teachers who responded said they support an Islamic state, while 40% said there was no need to learn sciences from the West as the Quran provides knowledge already.

Another survey by think tank Alvara Research Center found that 23% of students voiced support for an Islamic state, with 41% backing Shariah-inspired ordinances.

Widodo won reelection in April after recruiting NU leader Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate to counter the anti-Islam allegations. Both men have since recruited more NU figures within their circles, giving the organization a larger political presence. The NU -- increasingly in conflict with hard-liners like the Salafi movement, the disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI -- has backed Razi's policies.

But observers warn that alienating other Muslim organizations in favor of the NU, and taking a confrontational stance against nonviolent groups, could backfire and sow conflict.

Machmudi said Razi needs to understand the difference between Islamist groups that shun terrorism and violent radicals. He suggested the government should pursue a softer, dialogue-based approach with the former.

Nava Nuraniyah, analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, said the government needs to be careful not to spawn new forms of discrimination and oppression.

"The Jokowi government's decision to take a tougher line against extremism is welcome, but he needs to ensure that tactics used do not feed a new narrative of repression," Nuraniyah said in a note. "The Jokowi government must be careful to avoid programs in his second term that could inadvertently reunite [Islamists]."

Illiberal and anti-democratic populist Islamist movements are an undeniable reality in Indonesia and can be considered a threat to its democracy, Kate Grealy, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political and social change at Australian National University, argued recently in the ANU publication New Mandala.

However, she added, "The flexibility and subjectivity of the terms 'Islamist' and 'extremist' -- as they are used in the Indonesian context -- provide Jokowi with a dangerous amount of scope to purge the security forces and civil service at will."

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