Apr 16, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Sectarianism, culture and politics

Published: Jan 24, 2018
An emerging conservative Muslim coalition is a force to be reckoned with in Indonesian politics

Mark Woodward

The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election revealed the persistence of ethnicity, culture and religion as factors in Indonesian politics. Despite polls indicating a nearly even contest, challenger Anies Baswedan defeated incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) by a margin of 58 to 42 per cent. I followed the campaign on social media and in the press and I spent election day interviewing voters and several days speaking with Indonesian analysts. I was struck by both the virulence and effectiveness of the anti-Ahok campaign.

Most reports stress religion and ethnicity as the primary issues in the campaign and social media mobilisation strategies. Other issues have received less attention: Ahok’s disregard for norms of Indonesian/Javanese political culture; the intensity and semantics of anti-Ahok hate speech; and the emergence of a conservative coalition defining Islam in exclusivist political terms. This coalition transcends the modernist-Salafi/traditional-Sufi division that has, until now, been fundamental to Indonesian Muslim politics.

The candidates

Both candidates had impressive credentials. Ahok is a Chinese-Indonesian Christian. He has an undergraduate degree in Geological Engineering from Jakarta’s elite Trisakti University and a MBA from Prasetiya Mulya Business School. He was deputy governor from 2012 to 2014 and became governor in 2014 when the incumbent, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), was elected president. He led a popular reform administration, addressing problems including flooding, traffic congestion, crime, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. 

Anies is a Hadhrami Arab-Indonesian Muslim. He has an undergraduate degree in Business Management from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and a PhD in Political Science from Northern Illinois University in the United States. He was president of Paramadina University in Jakarta, founded by the renowned progressive Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, and minister of education and culture between 2014 and 2016. 

The campaign

The campaign was about ethnicity, religion and culture, not policy. Nearly seventy per cent of voters approved of Ahok’s policies. The challengers mounted an anti-Ahok rather than pro-Anies effort. It relied on ethnic and religious hate speech online and at rallies, pengajian (religious talks), mosques and other venues. The mosque and majelis taklim (gatherings for religious learning) based campaigns were well organized and effective. Posters denouncing Ahok were prevalent in many mosques. Few mentioned Anies. Instead they featured portraits of Habib Rizieq of Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, FPI) who led the anti-Ahok campaign. Ahok was branded as an enemy of Islam at gatherings in venues ranging from five star hotels to mosques in Jakarta slums.

Ahok committed a serious political/religious blunder on 27 September 2016 that probably cost him the election. He warned voters not to be fooled by politicians who ‘lie using Surah al-Maidah 51’ of the Qur’an.

O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is of them.

On 6 October, Buni Yani posted a video of Ahok’s speech together with his own summary and comments on Facebook. He misquoted Ahok as saying: ‘the lies of Surah al Maidah 51’. The difference between the two statements is enormous. Indonesian Muslims have no problems accepting the fact that politicians lie. To say that a verse from the Qur’an is a lie is something entirely different as the Qur’an is held to be literally ‘God’s speech’.

Yani’s post went viral almost instantly. Ahok was accused of ‘insulting Islam and/or the Qur’an’ and indicted for (and convicted of) blasphemy. This fuelled the fires of sectarian efforts to depose him from political office. Attempts by progressive Muslim scholars including former Muhammadiyah chairman Syafii Maarif to counter these attacks were ineffective. Religious scholars such as Maarif mentioned classical and modern tafsir (Quranic exegesis) unknown to most Indonesian Muslims. They quoted alternative Quranic texts including Surah al-Mum’tahanah:

Allah does not forbid you, from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them.

However, this did not dissuade Ahok’s opponents. Opponents of Ahok introduced a second Quranic proof, Ali Imran: 28, which was prominently displayed in Jakarta mosques.

Let not believers take disbelievers as leaders rather than believers. 

When I spoke with him in December 2016, Maarif stated that Ahok had not insulted Islam but that his efforts to convince people failed and that he had been subjected to social media attacks, including death threats. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairman Aqil Siraj did not endorse Ahok but offered prayers for his success in this world and the next.

Ahok was perceived by the Javanese elite as being crude in addition to kafir. Photo by Top Kontroversi.

Ahok’s campaign never recovered. Hate speech intensified. He was called: kafir (people who reject Islam), kafir harbi (kafir who can be killed), babi (pig), anjing (dog), Dajjal (anti-Christ), musuh Allah (enemy of God) and musuh Islam (enemy of Islam). There were repeated calls that he be jailed or killed. His Muslim supporters were called munafiqun (hypocrites), fasiq (wicked), and murtad (apostate). There were even demands that supporters be denied Muslim burials. 

Cina (Chinese) was often added to these pejorative terms, combining religious and ethnic hatred. Opponents of Ahok spread rumors that his development plans benefited only nine Indonesian-Chinese conglomerates (‘sembilan naga’, nine dragons). There were social media posts stating that it was halal (permissible) to rape women who supported him. These were widely believed to target Indonesian-Chinese women, hundreds of whom were raped during anti-Chinese riots in 1998. There were also social media posts claiming that Ahok intended to revive the Indonesian Communist Party that is often said to have been controlled by Chinese Indonesians.

Ahok’s supporters tried to discount social media and other attacks, calling them ‘dunia maya saja’, that can mean either ‘just the internet world’ or ‘just the world of illusion’ – to no avail. Ahok took steps to show his support for Islam and Javanese culture. He attended a wayang kulit (shadow play) performance in February 2017. In March, he designated the tomb of Mbah Priok as a cultural heritage site. Mbah Priok was a nineteenth century Sufi many regard as Jakarta’s patron saint. Ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of his death attract at least 100,000 pilgrims. Ahok’s action quashed plans to demolish the shrine to expand port facilities. Many of Mbah Priok’s devotees are from the same social classes as Aksi Bela Islam (Action to support Islam) demonstrators and are FPI sympathizers. Some analysts speculate that had Ahok pursued these strategies more vigorously, the election results might have been different. They were too little and too late. 

Ahok also alienated segments of the Jakarta bureaucratic elite, many of whom are from aristocratic Javanese families, in two ways: First, by insisting that employees be in their offices during working hours and making snap inspections to ensure compliance. Second, his demeanor and communication style were at odds with the norms of Indonesia and especially Javanese political culture. He was perceived to be kasar (crude), keras (harsh), impolite and foul-mouthed. This is the opposite of what Indonesians expect leaders to be: halus (refined) and sopan (polite). Even his supporters agree that Ahok is neither.

The conservative coalition

An ad hoc coalition, Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa MUI (National Movement to Guard the Fatwa of the Indonesian Ulema Council, or GNPF-MUI), organized the Aksi Bela Islam demonstrations on 14 October, 4 November and 2 December, in 2016, demanding that Ahok be defeated, tried, and convicted of blasphemy. At the December event, unofficial estimates put the crowd size at between 500,000 and 750,000 but numbers cited ranged from 200,000 to as many as 2 million.

Many of the demonstrators were not Jakarta residents. Some were bused in from West Java, a stronghold for Islamist politics. I was at the PERSIS pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding school) in Bandung on December first. It was nearly empty. One of the few teachers there explained that most of the students and staff had ‘gone to Jakarta’. Others came from as far away as Makassar in South Sulawesi. 

It is not clear who financed these demonstrations. Many well informed Indonesian analysts mention the Saudi educated Salafi activist and GNPF-MUI chairman Bachtiar Nasir, who is reported to have contributed Rp3 billion (A$300,200). Others mentioned Tommy Suharto, the son of former president Soeharto, and former Soeharto son-in-law, retired general and Gerindra Party chair Prabowo Subianto as major contributors. Tommy and Prabowo are both said to have presidential ambitions.

The FPI and its ‘imam besar’ Habib Rizieq played the lead role in organising Aksi Bela Islam and the anti-Ahok campaign. The FPI is known for virulent hate speech and violent attacks on Christians and Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslims, as well as Muslims who do not fast during Ramadan. FPI followers are often called ‘preman berjubah’ (gangsters in robes). The Aksi Bela Islam presented a new face for the FPI. The 2 December action was billed as, and for the most part was, ‘super damai’ (peaceful). Although Habib Rizieq and the FPI were the face of Aksi Bela Islam, the conservative coalition ‘guarding’ the MUI fatwas against Ahok was the driving force behind the larger movement against Ahok.

The extent to which the conservative coalition will be a force to be reckoned with in future elections, and Habib Rizieq’s place within the coalition, is a topic of much speculation. Photo by Global Media Sharing on Flickr.

This coalition transcends the modernist-Salafi/traditionalist-Sufi dichotomy that has shaped Indonesian Islam since the late nineteenth century. It includes modernist-Salafi/Wahhabi groups including Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII), Persatuan Islam (PERSIS), Hizbul Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), Wadah Islamiyah (WI) and traditionalist-Sufi oriented groups including NU Garis Lurus (a conservative NU faction) and the FPI. It also includes celebrity preachers Arifin Ilham and Yusuf Mansur and others who have tens of thousands of devotees. The conservative coalition is based on ethno-religious identity politics and a shared desire for the implementation of Sharia law. It is potentially unstable because of deep, irreconcilable theological and ritual differences. Indonesian Salafis routinely denounce Sufism as unbelief and aspects of traditional piety, especially saint veneration, as polytheism. Sufi oriented components of the coalition denounce Salafis as deviant religious extremists. FPI leader Habib Rizieq hates Wahhabis as much as he hates Ahok, describing them as ‘evil kafir’. He has explicitly endorsed traditional ritual practices that Salafis condemn, such as saint veneration.

Indonesia’s political future

The extent to which the conservative coalition will be a force to be reckoned with in future elections is a topic of much speculation. The conservative coalition has refocused its attention on President Joko Widodo who will almost certain stand for re-election in 2019. Jokowi has been lambasted because of his association with Ahok and alleged ties to ‘Chinese kafir conglomerates.’ He has been accused of ‘selling Indonesia to China,’ ‘turning Indonesia into a kafir country’ and of being Chinese.

There is speculation that if either Prabowo or Tommy Suharto were to be elected president, Habib Rizieq would be appointed minister of religion. This would not bode well for the future of democracy and religious pluralism. It is important to keep in mind that the religious and political demographics of Jakarta differ substantially from other regions. There is more support for extremist Muslim movements in Jakarta than in most other parts of the country. Mainstream organizations including NU and Muhammadiyah that oppose sectarian and ethnic politics are less influential than they are elsewhere. The 2019 presidential election will provide a clearer indication of the strength of Muslim conservatism.

Mark Woodward (mark.woodward@asu.edu) is an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.


Inside Indonesia 130: Oct-Dec 2017{jcomments on}

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