Conservative Islam emerged as a potent player in Indonesian politics in 2017, and could endure through presidential elections in 2019 in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, analysts say.
Hardline groups, such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), chalked up a huge win when their demonstrations against Jakarta’s then-governor resulted in his arrest, trial and conviction for blasphemy against Islam. Along the way, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”) lost his re-election bid.
Ahok was the highest-ranking public servant from the tiny ethnic-Chinese minority in Indonesian history, and a key ally of President Joko Widodo, who faces a re-election test in 2019 and won the presidency while serving as Jakarta’s governor.
“There are groups that work with the radical community to overthrow President Joko Widodo,” Boni Hargens, director of the Indonesian Electoral Institute, told a seminar in Jakarta earlier this month on the role of hardline groups in politics.
“These groups use tribal, religious, and race-based issues in politics. If this continues, it’s guaranteed the 2019 election will be far from civilized,” he said.
“Identity politics” is being used to advance political agendas, said Christine Susanna Tjhin, a researcher on pluralism and the politics of ethnic Chinese Indonesians at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.
“Whether to gather support or to topple opponents, in general, identity politics became more visible this year,” she told BenarNews.
Ahok’s blasphemy conviction came just weeks after he lost the gubernatorial election in a runoff vote to Anies Baswedan, a U.S.-educated academic and former minister of education who shocked some Jakartans by meeting with leaders of hardline groups during the electoral campaign.
On Dec. 2, the new governor spoke at a “reunion” commemorating one of the mass demonstrations against Ahok a year earlier. Anies praised the peaceful nature of the protest that day and asked the crowds to support his work as governor.
The rally then heard a recording of FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, who has reportedly been in Saudi Arabia since May, when he was named a suspect under Indonesia’s anti-pornography law in a case of alleged sexting.
“Finally, thanks to God, the blasphemer stepped down and slid down. Stepped down from his post and slid into jail,” Rizieq said, according to a BBC Indonesia report.
He added that “indigenous people” would be “masters in their own country” in a “Sharia Republic of Indonesia.”
Such a country would eschew the “usury economy,” corruption, gambling, drugs, pornography, prostitution, LGBT people, and false accusations, he said.
As Jokowi’s running mate, Ahok was elected deputy governor of Jakarta in October 2012, but ascended to the top spot when his boss became president two years later.
While many viewed him as tough on corruption and a driver of badly needed infrastructure improvements, he was deeply unpopular among riverbank dwellers displaced by anti-flooding programs – and among hardline Muslim groups.
Calls erupted for him to be arrested for blasphemy after he referred in public comments to a verse in the Quran that bars Muslims from having non-Muslim leaders, according to some interpretations.
Ahok, a Christian raised by an adoptive Muslim family, later apologized for the remark.
His two-year sentence was handed down after the lead prosecutor dropped the blasphemy charge during closing arguments, saying he could not prove that Ahok had intentionally insulted Islam.
In November, the man who uploaded an edited clip of Ahok’s remarks was sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating a section of the country’s cyber law in connection with the infamous Ahok video.
Nevertheless, the videographer, Buni Yani, appeared onstage at the Dec. 2 “reunion.”
The concept of a Sharia Republic concerns Bona Sigalingging, spokesman for GKI Yasmin, a Christian congregation that has been unable to worship in its West Java community due to opposition from Muslim neighbors.
“We are certainly worried about the jargon ‘Unitary Republic of Indonesia with Sharia’ because that’s very different from the ideology of the Republic of Indonesia,” he said, referring to Pancasila, which emphasizes unity and pluralism.
Indonesia’s population is spread across more than 17,000 islands and includes more than 700 languages. The state officially recognizes six religions with Islam dominating as the faith of more than 87 percent of 260 million people.
Indonesia’s founders “decided to create a republic and not a country based on religion; everyone should respect that. There shouldn’t be someone who goes off by themselves to campaign for something outside of that,” Bona said in a recent interview with BenarNews.
Jakarta became a “laboratory for the practice of the politics of hate” in 2017, according to Arif Susanto, an analyst at Exposit Strategic, a political and economic research firm.
He called 2017 “the Year of Hate Politics” and said Indonesia was entering a crucial moment in its political evolution.
“Not only because regional elections in 2018 are a warm-up for general elections in 2019, but also because the Reform Era that is now two decades old has not yet resulted in democratic consolidation,” he said, referring to the period following the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998.
With society gripped by sectarian tensions, “Radical religious groups and political demagogues can ‘fish in the turbulent water,’” he warned.
Nasir Djamil, a lawmaker from the Prosperous Justice Party, one of a handful of Islam-based parties in Indonesia, played down such concerns.
Most Indonesian Muslims are pragmatic, and embrace a form of Islam steeped in Javanese tradition, he said.
“Indonesian Muslims are not ideological people … and they tend to be secular in their political choices, " he told BenarNews.
He said provincial elections in 2018 in densely populated West Java, Central Java and East Java provinces would serve as a bellwether for 2019 presidential and legislative elections. More than half of Indonesia’s population lives on Java.
“If in these three places, the candidates with the Islamic political parties win, that will be a very strong signal for legislative and the 2019 presidential elections, that the Islam-based political parties will get significant votes and win,” Nasir said.