Thousands rally in Jakarta to condemn US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, at Monas, the national monument, on December 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Darren Whiteside

The 100,000-strong crowd that turned out in downtown Jakarta for Sunday’s protest over US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli’s capital again demonstrates the newfound power of what academia calls religio-political entrepreneurs.

It was the largest pro-Palestine protest in the Indonesian capital in memory, though outnumbered by the massive crowds who demonstrated against Jakarta’s ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki Purnama in November and December 2016, which brought about his downfall.

In the context of today’s political environment, however, the influence of Indonesia’s religio-political organizers, who first surfaced during last April’s gubernatorial race, could have serious implications for President Joko Widodo in the run-up to the 2019 national elections.

Built around surveys conducted before and after the Islamic mobilization that ended in Purnama’s defeat, a new paper argues that its success can be ascribed to the ability of those same figures to organize around an effective narrative.

Written by Australian National University Associate Professor Marcus Mietzner, Indikator Politik Indonesian executive director Burhanuddin Muhtadi and Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) researcher Rizka Halida, it calls the 2016 protests “an important shift in Indonesian politics” and notes that opposition to non-Muslims holding political positions has only hardened since then.

The paper identifies prospective presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, self-exiled Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab and fellow hardliners Bachtiar Nasir and Al-Khaththath as the key players in stirring Muslim perceptions of political and economic deprivation.

Analysts are already speculating about a coalition between Prabowo and Yudhoyono in 2019, with the former president’s 39-year-old son, Agus Harimurti, on a list of  Prabowo’s possible running mates.

Although Agus was a failed candidate in the Jakarta gubernatorial election, the retired army major performed well on the stump and could help Prabowo attract the 80 million millennials who make up a big chunk of the 185-million-strong Indonesian electorate.

Analysts believe growing inequality in Indonesian society and the Widodo government’s failure to create jobs for school graduates is leading the underprivileged to consider alternatives to what they see as a failed capitalist system

Analysts believe growing inequality in Indonesian society and the Widodo government’s failure to create jobs for school graduates is leading the underprivileged to consider alternatives to what they see as a failed capitalist system.

In its seventh Global Wealth Report, released this year, the Credit Suisse Research Institute described Indonesia as the world’s fourth most unequal country, noting that the top 1% of an adult population of 164 million control half of the vast nation’s US$1.8 trillion wealth.

“The problem with the trickle-down theory is that there has been no trickle,” Ma’ruf Amin, leader of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), told the recent annual conference of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Islamic organization, which has called on the Indonesian government to come up with a new economic model.

Amin, who also led Sunday’s protest, was Yudhoyono’s most influential religious adviser during his decade-long presidency, issuing controversial fatwas against secularism, pluralism and liberalism that played no small role in spoiling  Indonesia’s tolerant reputation.

Nasir, a Saudi Arabia-educated cleric, has made it clear the next target of the anti-Purnama coalition is ethnic-Chinese-owned conglomerates whose disproportionate hold on the economy is fast becoming the central message of an electoral game-plan to deprive Widodo of a second term in 2019.

The most important finding from the recent opinion surveys is that since last year’s mass mobilization, there has, in fact, been a sharp increase in the number of Indonesian Muslims who believe non-Muslims should not hold any high political office.

Purnama’s defeat and his subsequent two-year prison term for blasphemy stemmed from him questioning a verse in the Koran that Islamic conservatives interpret as meaning that political positions should only be reserved for Muslims.

Indonesia is clearly still a long way from electing a non-Muslim to be president. Even a non-Javanese is a stretch, with Sulawesi-born B J Habibie the only exception – and then only because the fall of president Suharto left him, as vice-president, to assume office.

But in the latest LSI poll, an average of 49.6% of the respondents believe non-Muslims should not aspire to be president, vice-president, governor, regent or mayor – a 7.3-percentage-point increase over a similar Wahid Institute-commissioned survey taken in March last year.

Indeed, because that poll showed attitudes were moderating prior to the 2016 Islamist mobilization, it can only be concluded that the themes propagated by the protest organizers and their political backers were responsible for moving the conversation beyond religion.

Many of those drawn to the mobilization message or who were radicalized in the period during and after the protests were Muslims from lower socio-economic strata, though the paper found that since 2010-2011 the rich and highly educated have formed a proportionately larger share of the Islamist community than in previous years.

The same trend applies to Indonesia’s youth, with 52.4% of junior-high-school and 47.5% of senior-high-school students opposed to non-Muslim governors, significantly more than the 40% polled in 2016; university students stayed much the same at 43-44%.

“The rejection of non-Muslims in political positions, support for the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and the perception of an economic gap between Muslims and non-Muslims all grew in intensity after the mobilization,” the paper notes.

Worryingly, support for the agenda of the FPI increased from 15.6% to 23.6% between June last year and August this year, despite Shihab having to seek sanctuary in Saudi Arabia to escape pornography charges.

Strangely, attitudes among Muslims on a cultural and social level continued to moderate, as they have done over the past seven years, with those objecting to non-Muslim places of worship in their neighborhoods declining from 52% to 48.2%.

But the paper’s authors say this can be explained by the fact that participants were told that joining in the protests did not make them racist and that Islam remained tolerant to other religions – even though some of the rhetoric since then has told a very different story.

“Clearly, core Islamist ideas have consolidated among the Muslim population as a result of the mobilization,” they say, noting that while protest leaders may have achieved their objective, a Muslim society long viewed as inherently moderate is inherently susceptible to exclusivist ideas.

The paper questions the government’s repressive actions in dealing with the protests, which included bringing unrelated legal cases against some of the organizers and skirting the judicial process in banning the Islamic organization Hizbut Tahrir for openly promoting a caliphate. “In defending themselves, democracies must be fierce,” it says, “but also fiercely law-abiding.”

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