Nationalism and Islamic Populism in Indonesia


On 2 December 2016, about 800,000 Muslim protestors hit the streets of Jakarta to demand the arrest of the Christian-Chinese governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka “Ahok”. The largest in a series of such protests since October 2016, it was labelled “Defending Islam Acts”. The crowd accused Ahok of blasphemy, alleging that a speech he made in September 2016 had insulted Islam. As the result of this protest Ahok, who at the time was running for re-election, saw his polling numbers drop significantly. Conversely, the hard-line Muslim groups and politicians driving the protest enjoyed new heights of public attention. Today, we know the end of the story: despite a 74 percent approval rating as the Jakarta Governor as per December of the previous year, Ahok lost the election in April 2017. What’s more tragic: he was put in jail for blasphemy, the crime most observers believe he never committed.

The events described above have triggered heated debates not only among Indonesians but also among scholars working on Islam and politics in Indonesia. Was the protest a strong indicator of the increasing conservatism among Indonesian Muslims? Did groups such as the Islamic Defender Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) that led the protest but is also known for its association with violence, represent genuine sentiments among the Muslims, or were they only pawns used by national political actors to damage Ahok, a Christian and of Chinese origin? Did the events indicate a considerable shift in the religious, social and political attitudes of the Indonesian Muslims or were they the result of a rare coincidence of political dynamics and thus unlikely to remain influential patterns in the years to come?

This essay is structured around these questions. Following Anderson’s famous definition of the nation as “an imagined political community” (1991:5), I will see Indonesian nationalism here positively as an everlasting project by which the Indonesian citizens, as a plural community in various forms, attempt to expand their sense of “deep [and] horizontal comradeship,” to borrow again from Anderson (1991:7). From this perspective, anti-Ahok’s recent victory constitutes only another, albeit huge break in the long history of the mostly healthy relationship between Indonesia as a nation and Islam as a religion embraced by the majority of Indonesians. This history started during the struggle of the majority of Muslims in the archipelago against the Dutch and Japanese colonialisms. It was strengthened by their support for the newly-proclaimed Indonesia in 1945 and manifested itself in the dominant role played by the “smiling” and tolerant kind of Islam during most of Indonesia’s independent history. Against this main current, anti-Ahok’s case signifies what appeared to be a paradox, i.e. that the intolerant expression by some Muslim actors grew stronger at the time when the country’s political system became more democratic with the collapse of Suharto in 1998.

I will argue that Indonesia’s democratization process provides avenues for both freedom and extremism, when politicians – in tandem with some Islamists – exploit some grey areas in Indonesia’s democracy to achieve their goals. This was facilitated by two new factors: firstly, the rising tide of Islamic populism in the country, following the same pattern worldwide; and secondly by the flourishing of hate spin as a political strategy to discredit opponents.

Protest leaders demanding Ahok's imprisonment in Jakarta, 4 November 2016

The Legacy of Indonesia’s “Smiling” Islam

When Indonesia achieved her independence in 1945, the country was not only one of the largest archipelagos, but also one of the most populous and multi-ethnic/multi-religion countries in the world. In view of these facts and of our perseverance to this day, it does not come as a surprise that we are proud of our country’s motto: “Unity in Diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika). And today, having regained our democracy in 1998 after having lost it for more than three decades, we Indonesians are also proud to become the fourth largest democracy in the world. This happened despite some scholarly suggestions in 1998 and 1999 that Indonesia might “break up” (Booth, 1999; Emmerson, 2000) following the same pattern of transition from authoritarianism in countries such as (former) Yugoslavia.

There is more to this pride: Today, Indonesia is the largest Muslim democracy in the world. Importantly, although around 87 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people are Muslims, the country is not ideologically an “Islamic State” such as Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan. Rather, Indonesia is a state based on a national ideology called “Pancasila” (Five Principles): belief in the One Supreme God, just and civilized humanism, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice.

The Indonesian Muslims should be given credit for this achievement. Both Sukarno and Hatta, our first President and Vice-President and who jointly proclaimed our independence, were themselves Muslims. Despite strong pressure from several Muslim leaders and politicians before independence to strive for Islam as the foundation of the state, they held on to their initial commitment that the country should not be based on any particular religious ideology, including Islam, in order to mitigate the divisive potential of such a mono-religious approach. And perhaps more importantly, the two founding fathers were able to convince other Muslim leaders to accept and support this commitment (Ramage, 1995). Recalling this crucial moment, in his Memoir Hatta said: “If a serious problem, and a problem that could endanger the national unity, can be resolved in a small discussion that took place only about 15 minutes, it meant that those leaders really prioritized the national unity and its future fate” (see Ali-Fauzi, 2002). It is for this reason that Alamsjah Ratuprawiranegara, one of our former Ministers for Religious Affairs, once claimed that Pancasila is a Muslim’s “gift” for the nation.

Given this background, Indonesia had been widely known as a multi-religious country with a strong tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism. Two Islamic mass organizations, Nahdhatul Ulama (founded 1926) and Muhammadiyah (founded 1914), the largest also in the world, have been the backbone not only of tolerant Islamic expression but also of peaceful coexistence between plural communities. Hence our Indonesian Islam was also conveniently called “Islam ramah” (smiling Islam), in contrast to “Islam marah” (angry Islam).

This reputation has changed, however, in the last twenty years or so, following the country’s democratization. This is when some forms of religious extremism emerged across multiple parts of the archipelago. It started with the incidents of local violence between Muslims and Christians, such as those that took place in Ambon, North Maluku, and Poso in Central Sulawesi, which took the lives of more than three thousand people.

Although these violent conflicts declined remarkably around ten years ago, their legacy is still strongly evidenced: segregation of population along religious lines, the continuing suspicion among different religious communities and much more. Not to forget that Poso in the last fifteen years has been a safe haven for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), our best-organized terrorist group, to collect new recruits. It was from this remote location that Santoso, a JI’s former recruit who later led the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) that famously went viral via YouTube, before he was shot in a gunfight and died in July 2016.

Moreover reports by human rights groups show the rise of another form of inter-religious conflict, especially over the places of worship in many parts of the country. There was not only opposition against the construction of churches in areas with a Muslim majority, but also the other way around. And sadly, a “snow-balling effect” played a role as well: people learned bad things from other people, with the intention of revenge! When we did our fieldwork on “Policing Religious Conflicts in Indonesia” (Panggabean & Ali-Fauzi, 2015), one of our respondents, a Christian in Ende (Timor Island) was reported as saying: “We learned from the television that you (Muslim) did that against our churches in Jakarta and Bogor. And if you could do that against ours, why you think we couldn’t do the same thing against your mosques here?”

Another form of “angry Islam” are intolerant, even violent acts of discrimination directed towards religious minority groups such as the Ahmadis and the Shias, or sectarian “cults” or indigenous beliefs such as Sunda Wiwitan. These forms of violent acts have their precedents in the country’s history, but this time they are more deadly (killing three Ahmadis in West Java and one Shia in Sampang, East Java). Most of these violent acts started with hate speech and the mobilization of Muslim hatred. The most notorious example is the then Secretary General of the above-mentioned FPI, Sobri Lubis, who during a religious meeting in West Java in 2008 called for the killing of the Ahmadis.

Because of these recurring incidents of violence in the name of Islam some observers start to ask if Indonesian Muslims began “joining the caravan” of violent, international Muslim groups who employ violent repertoire to achieve their goals (Bubalo & Fealy, 2005). Meanwhile, one old-time observer of Islam and politics in Indonesia started to ask if we are witnessing a “conservative turn” in Indonesian Islam (van Bruinessen, 2013).

Muslim women during a 'pengajian' (prayer group) in Purwokerto, Banyumas, Indonesia

The Paradox of Indonesia’s Democracy: Peaceful and Violent Islamists

I see these “angry Islam” expressions as the challenges that the group I call “Islamists” pose to our young but consolidating democracy. By Islamist I mean Muslim individuals or groups who see that there is a guiding political doctrine in Islam that justifies and motivates collective action on behalf of that doctrine. These Islamists believe that Islam is a complete system of belief that regulates not only matters of worship (ibadat) but also social relations (muamalat). In contrast to these Muslims, there are “nominal Muslims” (also called liberal, progressive, or reformist Muslims) who see that being a Muslim is a personal matter with no necessary implication on societal level. In the Indonesian context, inter alia Geertz (1960) and Hefner (1985) identified nominal Muslims among our political leaders such as Sukarno and Suharto, who they called “abangan Muslims.”

When I use the generic term Muslims, I mean to refer to both groups of these Muslim believers. The distinction between Islamist and nominal Muslims is not based on the level of their religiosity or piety, but on their stands on the issue of the relationship between Islam (as a religion) and Indonesia (as a state). I hesitate to use terms such as “moderate” and “radical” because they do not tell us much about individual person’s actions, while democracy (including its imperative to uphold the principle of the rule of law) should concern action rather than behaviour or thinking.

In any discussion about Islam and democracy in Indonesia, it is imperative to disaggregate further those Islamists into non-violent and violent (again: action) Islamists. Although they share the belief that Islam demands Muslims to be socially and politically active, the Islamist parts company on the issue of how to perform this religious obligation. Here “non-violent Islamists” refers to those individuals and groups who condemn the use of violence to Islamize society and politics; rather, they seek to achieve the goals by working through formal institutions or civic associations. In contrast, violent Islamists are those who reject accommodation with the state regime, refuse to participate in its institutions, and insist on the necessity of the use of violent means to Islamize society and politics.

The self-proclaimed “jihadists” such as Santoso, who we prefer to call “terrorists”, are violent Islamists par excellence. As I said before, although smaller in number than they were fifteen or ten years ago, they still pose a serious challenge to our democracy. In December 2016, these pro-ISIS groups successfully recruited and approached Dian Yulia Novi to become the first-ever female suicide bomber in Indonesia. The Indonesian police force knew her whereabouts before the attack and arrested her.

On the other end of the spectrum, those peaceful Islamists, i.e. those who are working through democratic institutions such as general election – they are mostly losers. In the last four free and fair general elections in Indonesia’s era of Reformasi, the biggest four of Indonesia’s Islamist parties jointly collected only between 24 percent and 33 percent of total votes: 31.8% (1999), 33.3% (2004), 24.1% (2009), and 30.3% (2014). This strongly suggests that the major division within Indonesian politics is not religion (between Muslims and non-Muslims) but the multivocality of Islam (between Muslim groups). Thus, Liddle and Mujani (2009) argued that Indonesia’s democracy has become more secular now.

The evidence discussed above suggests that our ideal, the smiling Islam, has clearly been losing but also been winning over the last few years. But the more challenging battle, the one which involves higher risks for the future, is taking place in what I call “democracy’s grey areas.” These are the areas where legal democratic institutions or regulations are manipulated by politicians who are not necessarily sincere Muslims but play the “Islamic card” to strengthen their Islamic credentials.

One such democratic institution is regional regulation that followed the national agreement on decentralization in 2002. To catch votes in their respected areas, many secular politicians issued Sharia-based regional regulation (perda Syariah) that potentially jeopardizes our culture of tolerance and pluralism (Bush, 2007; Buehler, 2016).

Jakarta rally: Protesters demand governor's arrest - Al Jazeera English

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Jakarta Election, Islamic Populism and Hate Spin

Another repertoire of democracy that is severely manipulated by politicians is freedom of speech and to protest, which brings me to the Ahok case mentioned in the beginning. Here is not the place to rehash the case in detail, as there are already excellent analyses (see Fealy, 2016; Wilson, 2017; Mietzner & Muhtadi, 2017). Besides, I discussed it elsewhere, labelling it “mobocracy,” a situation where the law is determined by the size of the crowd involved in the protest (Ali-Fauzi, 2016).

I would like to take the remaining time to discuss two factors that allowed Islamic paramilitary groups in the Jakarta election to reach new heights of popularity in Indonesia, i.e. Islamic populism and hate spin. Before, however, we must remember that this is Jakarta, the most strategic political and economic site in the country – and many observers have seen that this election was a prelude to the presidential election of 2019, which is likely to once again bring the present President Jokowi (and former Jakarta Governor whom Ahok replaced) against his old rival Prabowo Subianto. To underestimate this aspect of Jakarta, perhaps because of the assumption that paramilitary organizations such as FPI are always important, is a huge mistake. As Sana Jaffrey and I reported (2016) from our studies on local elections in four provinces in 2015, despite their ubiquitous presence, paramilitary’s involvement in elections is contingent on two factors: First, they are more likely to display explicit support for particular candidates where they face competition from rival organisations; and second, they are likely to engage in concrete action to support their political allies when the level of electoral competition is also high.

Jakarta’s election was an arena where the two conditions were met. Although FPI has long been famous for their hostility toward Ahok and regularly staged protests against him, the December protest they led was the only event where they were able to gather broad-based support, including from the children of former President Suharto. Thus, as Hadiz correctly suggested, “Ahok’s defeat in the face of FPI-led mobilisations was considerably less of an indication of the inexorable rise of Islamic radicalism in Indonesian politics than the ability of oligarchic elites to deploy the social agents of Islamic politics in their own interests” (2017:267). At the same time, however, this signals the rise of Islamic populism in the country, which he defines broadly as “a variant of populism where the concept of the ummah (community of believers) substitutes for the concept of the ‘people.’ But like the ‘people’ in more conventional populisms, the ummah is made up of internally diverse social interests that are notionally homogenized through juxtaposition against a set of purported oppressors, made up of economically exploitative or culturally remote elites or even foreign interests” (2018: 296).

Another important but under-reported aspect of the Jakarta election is the use of what Cherian George called “hate spin” (2016) as a political strategy in marginalizing Ahok. This is a double-sided technique that combines hate speech (incitement through vilification) with manufactured offense taking (the performing of righteous indignation). The Jakarta election is a textbook example of how the effective use of this strategy can benefit its users: Ahok’s speech was fabricated to the effect that a large part of the Muslim community believed he was insulting Islam; a religious edict (fatwa) was released to sanction the speech as an insult; a movement was set up to defend the edict, including by a series of protests and demonstrations; and finally, although a court was set up to judge if the defendant was guilty, the protest outside the courtroom strongly insisted that he was indeed insulting Islam.

Sadly, there is a blasphemy law in Indonesia that was used by the judges to imprison Ahok for two years. So he not only lost the election but was also jailed for a crime he has never committed. We the Indonesian activists and human rights defenders usually call this blasphemy law a “rubber clause” (pasal karet): it was so flexible so that you can turn it into almost anything.***

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