Opinion: Indonesian President’s VP Choice a Setback for Minority Rights, Security

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Opinion: Indonesian President’s VP Choice a Setback for Minority Rights, Security Government security officers stand guard outside an Ahmadiyya mosque compound in Depok, Indonesia, shut by authorities after Muslim groups called for protests against the minority group, Feb. 24, 2017.
Photo: Benar

In a cynically calculated move, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has selected a conservative 75-year-old cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate for the April 2019 polls.

The political logic of Widodo's choice makes a lot of sense. It takes away the Nationalist-Islamist opposition's attack that he is too secular. Amin's selection burnishes Widodo's religious credentials to broaden his voter base and poach supporters of Prabowo Subianto, his opponent in both 2014 and 2019.

But it is an enormous setback for civil liberties and minority rights, and calls into question Widodo's reformist credentials.

As head of the influential Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), Amin signed a fatwah calling a statement of the Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, "blasphemous." This fueled a massive public campaign against the governor, who was one of Jokowi's most important political allies. Basuki lost the election to an Islamist figure, and is now serving a two-year prison sentence.

Amin has condemned and issued fatwahs against Shias and the Ahmadiyya sect, and been a driving force behind increased use of the Blasphemy Law (Article 156a of the criminal code), as well as the Draft Law on Inter-Religious Harmony. More recently, Amin has condemned the LGBTQ community's rights and protections.

Under Amin's leadership, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), once seen as the antidote to the spread of Salafism, has become more conservative. A growing number of NU members believe that the country should make fewer accommodations or have fewer protections for religious minorities. Even the moderate NU is less tolerant than it was.

Impact on security?

The question here is: what does Amin's selection portend for security in Indonesia?

On the one hand, the president has given the police broad latitude to continue their counterterrorist operations. Since the May suicide bombings in the port city of Surabaya, police have arrested nearly 300 people.

Parliament passed a new Counterterrorism Law that gives the police expansive powers to preemptively detain people. The law criminalizes traveling overseas to join or support terrorist organizations. The law also gives the military a formal role in counterterrorist operations.

A Jakarta court has just criminalized the pro-Islamic State grouping, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). Now, mere membership in the organization is grounds for arrest.

So security forces have new and substantial powers to combat terrorist groups. It seems unlikely that Amin would thwart those efforts.

But what about incidents that don't cross the terrorism threshold?

Amin's actions and fatwahs in the past two years have led to spikes in attacks against religious minorities, growing intolerance, and a surge in the number of anti-vice organizations. Many of these anti-vice organizations engage in extra-legal activities, including the threat and use of force.

And more importantly, these anti-vice groups are conveyors for terrorist organizations. While authorities will not designate them as being terrorist organizations, their members are highly indoctrinated and ripe for recruitment into terrorist organizations.

Likewise, security forces have tended to give Jemaah Islamiyah significant space to operate madrassas and mosques, and engage in da'wah activities as long as they are not engaged in violence. Indeed, some in the security forces see JI as an important antidote or off-ramp for pro-Islamic State militants. And yet, there is significant evidence that JI has not renounced violence, but is simply biding its time, letting its Islamic State rivals take the brunt of the state's counter-terrorism focus while it regroups.

But Amin's presence on the ticket, and potential role as vice president, could have some positive outcomes for security, as it could influence Islamist parties in the opposition. For example, parties such as PKS have thwarted prison reform, which has been one of the weak links in Indonesia's otherwise successful counter-terrorist operations.

Likewise, Amin could be helpful in getting more funding for countering violent extremism in prisons or in developing some sort of post-release engagements through NU organizations. This is critical, as Indonesia has fairly lenient sentencing for its terrorist convicts. As the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict's latest report notes, “The group of 144 released and soon-to-be-released prisoners include the first significant cluster of individuals with Syria links to have completed prison sentences.”

Although Indonesian authorities claim that they are currently building a new maximum security facility for terror suspects, following two takeovers of a prison by terror suspects in the past year, it will be beyond capacity upon completion.

But overall, Amin's selection is a setback for Indonesian security. One does not have to look back very far to remember Vice President Hamzah Haz (2001-04) meeting Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, who was then imprisoned in conjunction with the October 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people. It sends a deleterious message to the security forces trying to do their job when the vice president embraces a jailed terrorist suspect.

Indonesia's long vaunted tolerance and pluralism, as enshrined in its founding ideology, Pancasila, is looking more and more under siege. And that in itself could portend more political violence in the coming nine months of the presidential campaign.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.


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