May 13, 2017 10:00 am JST
Ken Ward

Indonesia lacks answers to rise of political Islam

Widodo poorly placed to defend traditions of pluralism and tolerance

Supporters of Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama light candles and shout slogans during a rally outside Cipinang Prison where he is being held after a court sentenced him to two years in prison, in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 9. (AP)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has suffered two successive setbacks since his ally and former deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok as he is widely known, was accused of insulting Islam earlier this year. In the most recent blows, Purnama failed to win re-election in April as governor of Jakarta. Then, at the end of his trial for blasphemy, he was unexpectedly sentenced to two years' jail, a harsher penalty than even the prosecutor had asked for. These events were a victory for the radical Muslim organizations that had spearheaded a campaign against Purnama, including the staging of mass rallies.

Apparently in response to the Jakarta election result, the Widodo government recently announced it was seeking to ban one of those Islamic organizations, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). This is a risky option. It is far from certain that Widodo will be able to persuade the judicial system to impose a ban.

Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian handicapped by a brash and tactless personality, was defeated despite his considerable achievements as governor. This was largely because he made it easy for his opponents to paint him as anti-Muslim and even to have him put on trial for blasphemy. Most blasphemy trials in Indonesia deliver jail sentences, but the jailing of a governor for blasphemy is unprecedented. Islam aside, as Indonesia scholars Liam Gammon and Eve Warburton of the Australian National University have argued, Purnama's confrontational style dovetails with and resurrects old Indonesian stereotypes of the Chinese, not only as possessing a disproportionate share of Indonesia's wealth, but also as grasping and unrefined.

Purnama was defeated by the former Minister for Education and Culture Anies Baswedan. He exemplifies the unlimited flexibility of present-day Indonesian politicians. Having been a spokesperson for Widodo's 2014 presidential campaign, Baswedan accepted the support of Prabowo Subianto, Widodo's rival for the presidency, in contesting the Jakarta post.

Despite having an American doctorate in political science and a scholarly approach to Islam that had won him admiration in Western circles, Baswedan had no hesitation in associating with unscrupulous radical Muslim agitators in his bid for the governorship. He adopted a more distinct Muslim profile, while some of his supporters engaged in racial vilification of the incumbent governor and Muslim spokespersons urged their constituents not to vote for a non-Muslim.

The third gubernatorial candidate, Agus Harimurti, the elder son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was defeated in the first round of the election, had similarly drawn on Muslim support despite being a former army officer without any experience in Muslim politics.

Indonesia's radical Muslim organizations are too small to offer their own candidates in the next presidential election in 2019, but they currently wield influence far beyond their size. The main question that Purnama's defeat poses for Widodo is whether other presidential candidates will be able to corral Muslims into joining the kind of campaign that defeated Purnama. No other approach seems likely.

Secular nationalism

Purnama's defeat and imprisonment also pose questions for Indonesia's future as a country reputed for pluralism and tolerance, as well as for the "moderate" orientation of most of its Muslims. As happened in many Middle Eastern countries in recent decades, secular nationalism appears to be weakening in Indonesia and a less tolerant form of Islam seems to be consolidating itself. Secular nationalism in Indonesia has never found an eloquent and effective champion since President Sukarno, who died 47 years ago.

The tens of thousands of Indonesians who participated in the rallies held over the last six months were by no means all followers of HTI, the Islamic Defenders' Front (IDF) or other radical Muslim groups. According to Greg Fealy, also of the Australian National University, and an astute observer of Indonesia's Muslim politics, many of the participants saw the demonstrations as a legitimate form of religious activity and did not support radical political objectives such as the nationwide adoption of Islamic law.

Those rallies were usually termed actions "to defend Islam," echoing the IDF's name. This highlights an advantage that Muslim activists have over secularist or other opponents. It is much easier to "prove" that Islam is under attack than to show that, for example, secular nationalism is under threat. This is partly because the endless wars taking place throughout the Muslim world, largely waged by the U.S. with its local allies against various Muslim opponents, give an international dimension to claims that Islam is under threat.

Moreover, as Islam is by far Indonesia's majority religion, it is easy to mount the case that Muslims are somehow under-represented. For example, if the governor of the capital city of a Muslim-majority nation like Indonesia is a non-Muslim, it is easy to argue that Muslims are obviously being denied their appropriate place. This is leading to a de facto redefinition, if not abandonment, of Indonesia's longstanding national motto, Unity in Diversity: Non-Muslims may be elected to govern in non-Muslim-majority regions or cities, but not in Muslim-majority ones, according to such a redefinition.

The ideological counterpoint to Islam in Indonesia is Pancasila, the national doctrine or ideology. But its lofty if essentially generic principles lack an emotional pull. They do not lend themselves to being turned into catchy slogans for mass rallies. Nor does Pancasila have any international connection. A massacre of Christians in Egypt, for example, will not be seen to threaten Pancasila or bring pro-Pancasila demonstrators into the streets.

Poor spokesperson

Largely devoid of oratorical skills, Widodo is a poor spokesperson for Pancasila or, more broadly, for secular nationalism. His occasional Pancasila-linked exhortations lack persuasive power. Indeed, most invocations of Pancasila take on a very bureaucratic and formalistic tone. This could be a legacy of the deadening use that the late President Suharto made of Pancasila by instituting mind-numbing courses in the doctrine that were compulsory for government officials, armed forces personnel and others within the state's grasp.

Other pillars of Indonesian national ideology are the unitary state and the 1945 constitution. HTI, the Indonesian branch of an international movement dedicated to creating a global caliphate, could be open to the charge of rejecting the unitary state, or indeed any autonomous Indonesian state. And Pancasila and the 1945 constitution would play no role in a global caliphate.

HTI is a non-violent organization, however, and a court may refuse to ban it merely on the grounds of its long-term objectives. As pointed out by a former justice and human rights minister, the government has so far ignored the complex procedures it should follow before asking a court to ban HTI. The full legal process can take up to a year.

Such a long period will give Muslim organizations ample opportunity to combat what they will condemn as a new threat to Islam. The attempt to put HTI on trial cannot be blamed on Purnama. Instead Widodo will, correctly, be held responsible. He risks being targeted as anti-Muslim if HTI is banned, and as incompetent if it is not. In any case, Widodo has unintentionally offered his Muslim opponents a platform that will allow them to maintain their recent high level of activism.

Indonesia needs to develop an effective strategy for containing hardline currents of Islam, but the Widodo government has none. Focused primarily on securing investment for infrastructure and increasing gross domestic product, Widodo lacks the vision needed to reverse the trend toward intolerance.

Muslim influence from abroad, particularly the increasing spread of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam, threatens Indonesia's traditions, which urgently require revitalization. Lately, however, the main vehicles for moderate Islam, Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have allowed themselves to be upstaged by their radical counterparts. As for Widodo, whether or not he is re-elected in 2019, he does not seem to be a leader capable of restoring balance between political Islam and nationalism, or of inspiring a restoration of traditional Indonesian Muslim values of tolerance and respect for other religions.

Ken Ward is a former diplomat and intelligence analyst, and is the author of "Condemned to Crisis?" an assessment of Australia-Indonesia relations.

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