Indonesian Islamic cleric Bachtiar Nasir is on the leading edge of a rising trend towards political Islam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Indonesian Islamic cleric Bachtiar Nasir is on the leading edge of a rising trend towards political Islam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On December 2, alumni of the so-called “Aksi 212” protest that contributed to the downfall of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama held a rally to commemorate the event at the city’s National Monument.

Among those in attendance was Bachtiar Nasir, a key organizer of the Islamic protests that mobilized against Purnama’s alleged “blasphemy” for questioning a section of the Koran which suggests Muslims should not pick non-Muslims as leaders. Purnama, an ethnic Chinese known by his nickname “Ahok”, is now serving a two-year prison sentence on the charge.

At this month’s reunion, Nasir expressed his hope that the alumni would reconvene every year and work peacefully towards building a stronger nation alongside the government and civil society. In doing so, Nasir made his latest public appeal in a long campaign to promote his emerging brand of Islamic populism as a driving force in the political mainstream.

Islamic populism in Indonesia is difficult to grasp due to the variety of forms the phenomenon takes and the organizational incoherence of Islamist political parties, which are among the most visible but necessarily most effective articulators of political Islam.

Vedi Hadiz, a professor at Australia’s University of Melbourne, argues that Islamic parties do not mobilize their constituencies through patronage politics, but rather sustain themselves via ideational appeals and the churn of political controversy.

Indonesian Islamist groups rally outside the parliament calling for the government to suspend the Christian governor of the captial and for the courts to convict him of blasphemy, in Jakarta, Indonesia February 21, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Wahyu Putro A/via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTSZL0M
Indonesian Islamist groups protest against Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama in Jakarta on February 21, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Wahyu Putro A

Given the dramatic mass demonstrations that toppled Purnama, the argument that manufacturing controversy effectively marshals popular mobilization for political ends is compelling. But to better understand how the process works, it is worth examining Nasir as one of Indonesia’s chief practitioners of the art.

Unlike other controversial religious personalities, including Habib Rizieq of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Nasir has largely evaded critical commentary on his actions in the Western media.

Although he is far better known to Indonesians, he lacks a strong national constituency beyond his fellow activists and relatively narrow religious base. Nevertheless, Nasir’s star is clearly on the ascent.

He recently rose from serving as a respected ustadz leading the Ar-Rahman Koranic Learning Islamic Center, replete with a popular television show and publications, to vice secretary of Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI).

The MUI, created under former President Suharto’s New Order regime to advise the Muslim community on contemporary issues, has maintained its clout in the democratic era as an interface between the secular government and Islamic community.

Nasir also founded the Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia (GNPF MUI), a relative newcomer to Indonesia’s civil society that won national recognition after co-organizing the Aksi 411 and Aksi 212 protests against Purnama.

After the “success” of the anti-Ahok protests, Nasir leveraged into the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar to foment further controversy by staging more demonstrations across Java in support of the persecuted Muslim minority group, symbolically at the world-renowned Borobudur Buddhist temple complex as well as in Jakarta.

Protesters hold a rally near the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta to protest against government treatment of Rohingya Muslims, on September 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Darren Whiteside
Protesters rally near the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta to protest against the Myanmar government’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, September 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

In the lead-up to those protests, the GNPF MUI posted a list of 230 organizations to Facebook that were purportedly participating in the event, underscoring Nasir’s ability to bring disparate Muslim groups together under one umbrella.

Many of the organizations were self-reputed sharia advocacy groups from districts in Central and West Java.

Groups such as Laskar Umat Islam Surakarta, meanwhile, are well-established anti-vice organizations from the town of Solo with histories of low-level violence, including vandalizing local restaurants and beating their patrons for serving and consuming alcohol or violating state restrictions on operating hours.

While local FPI chapters were also on the list, groups engaged in thuggery represented a small percentage of the list. Most of the organizations are public morality associations that pressure and appeal to local authorities to regulate social norms rather than resort to violence.

Forum Silaturahmi dan Komunikasi Antar Masjid (Fokisam), another protest participant, is no stranger to political activism, having demonstrated on issues ranging from American foreign policy to alleged abuses committed by Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism police, known as Detachment 88.

Other groups represent more diverse interests, including professional associations of Muslim merchants and even journalists.

The protesters at Borobudur were not simply “drunk on religion”, as some observers claimed, but rather represented a sober coalition of groups organized under Nasir’s GNPF MUI umbrella.

While Nasir cannot claim sole credit for organizing the protestors at Borobudur or Jakarta, it is difficult to imagine how these demonstrations could have coalesced in the absence of his leadership and coalition-building.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian running for re-election. The sign reads: "Reject Ahok." Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Muslim groups protest against Jakarta’s then incumbent governor Basuki Purnama, aka Ahok. The sign reads: “Reject Ahok.” Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

After renaming GNPF MUI to “GNPF Ulama” in order to differentiate the group from the MUI, Nasir has made clear that his organization is not a political party.

Yet he decisively entered the political fray when he urged voters to reject political parties that supported President Joko Widodo’s controversial Mass Organization Law, which bans civil organizations deemed as going against the country’s secular state ideology. The law received tepid approval from MUI’s chairman.

Nasir pilloried Widodo for slowly transforming Indonesia into an un-Islamic nation, but his open disagreement with the chairman of the MUI may indicate that Nasir is positioning himself to become an important figure who deftly straddles the mainstream and extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Nasir is a regular lecturer and participant at events and forums hosted by a variety of mass Islamic organizations, including the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, while also maintaining working relations with more extreme organizations such as the FPI.

Unlike FPI leader Habib Rizieq, who explicitly rejects democratic politics, Nasir advocates for greater unity among Islamic civil society groups. He also previously demonstrated a willingness to work selectively with Widodo’s and former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) on certain issues.

Indonesia president Joko Widodo (C) speaks in front of parliament members ahead of Thursday's independence day in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 16, 2017.   REUTERS/Beawiharta
Indonesia president Joko Widodo (C) speaks in front of parliament on independence day in Jakarta, August 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Although outspoken in illiberal views, including a promise to hit ethnic Chinese wealth as a next target, Nasir is still a comparatively flexible ideologue interested in forging ties among Islamists while also brokering practical accommodations with those outside of his camp.

By building broad coalitions among like-minded activists and leading them in protest while also positioning himself as an interlocutor with government officials, Nasir is proving to be an effective though controversial leader in both civil society and politics.

Nasir has stepped away from Widodo’s administration and intimated indirect support for the political opposition lead by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), National Mandate Party (PAN), and presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra party.

Nasir, to be sure, has not yet definitively hitched his wagon to any specific party or political camp. But that could change during what is expected to be a heated campaign for legislative and presidential elections in 2019.

For a man capable of – if not largely responsible for – orchestrating public opinion to oust a popular incumbent governor in the name of Islamic principle would be a potential valuable ally on the hustings.

Luke Lischin is an academic assistant at the US-based National War College. The views expressed here are solely of the author.

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