Map of Indonesia: iStock
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, seen here at a search and rescue event last month, is expected to nominate Army chief Tjahjanto, on his right, as defense minister if he wins the election in April. Photo: Donal Husni / NurPhoto/ AFP
Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Photo: AFP/Donal Husni/Nur Photo

This month marks the 21st anniversary of the infamous anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia that killed thousands and caused many Chinese to flee abroad to places like Taiwan, China, Singapore and Australia.

The fact that the anniversary of this infamous incident was marked peacefully is a key indicator of the extraordinary progress made by Indonesia since the fall of President Suharto in 1998.

When Suharto fell from power shortly after the deadly anti-Chinese riots, the world was anxious about Indonesia. Many feared that the country, which is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse nations in the world, would be torn apart, leading to chaos. Many wondered how a country that had been held together by brute force could remain intact under a democratic system.

Fortunately for Indonesia, it has proved the cynical pundits wrong.

Post-Suharto Indonesia succeeded in remaining united as one nation because of Jakarta’s wise decision to devolve power to the regions. This enabled each region within the country to exercise the power to decide how to deal with their local issues while leaving national issues to the central government in Jakarta. This helped to calm tensions between the regions and the central government that had been rising since Suharto came to power.

Had Jakarta insisted on continuing with the Suharto-era model of centralized governance, there is a chance the country would indeed have balkanized. Regional autonomy saved Indonesia.

Another factor behind Indonesia’s tremendous progress is the Pancasila ideology, which stipulates that there is no state religion. All citizens are allowed to practice their own religion and all religions are respected by the state. This helped to keep the Muslim-majority but religiously diverse country stay together.

However, in spite of all this, there are clear warning signs for Indonesia moving forward. And if they are not addressed, Indonesia risks going down the path of Turkey.

It has been clear to the outside world for some time that there has been an alarming rise in the politicization of Islam by many politicians in Indonesia. One of the best examples is the downfall of former Jakarta governor Ahok after a doctored video circulated online of him remarking on a verse in the Koran. It led to a public outcry despite there being proof that the video was faked. Ahok’s opponents launched a campaign to tell voters that Ahok disrespected Islam. In the end, Ahok was defeated and the Indonesian court jailed the ex-governor on charges of blasphemy in May 2017. It was a verdict that was harsher than what the prosecutors had requested – a suspended jail sentence on account of Ahok’s “huge contribution” to the capital city.

The person who doctored the video was jailed for six months and later for 18 months. This proved that Ahok’s conviction was unjust,  but the Indonesian judicial system did not overturn his verdict. This illustrates the tremendous pressure being exerted by the Islamist groups that have emerged since 1998.

President Jokowi’s choice of Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate is another sign that political Islam is on the rise.

Ma’ruf Amin is the spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which is the largest Muslim organization both in Indonesia and the world. He is one of the key figures behind Ahok’s downfall in 2017 and wields great influence over many devout Muslim voters.

President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, was shaken by the downfall of Ahok in 2017 and quickly moved to build closer ties with figures like Ma’ruf Amin to secure conservative votes.

President Joko Widodo was shaken by the downfall of Ahok in 2017 and quickly moved to build closer ties with figures like Ma’ruf Amin to secure conservative votes

The president made a strategic move to select Ma’ruf Amin to blunt the accusation that he has been anti-Islam, and he even flew to Mecca days before the vote to show Indonesian voters that he is a devout Muslim. This was necessary in the face of fierce campaigning by his opponent, former general Prabowo, who had played up his Islamic credentials.

In the end, Jokowi prevailed but at a great cost. He abandoned his previous moderate position, disappointing many of his liberal supporters. Minorities in Indonesia are uncertain about their future but decided to stick to Jokowi as the alternative is unacceptable to many of them. Many still remember the role played by Prabowo in the 1998 crisis, though he has denied any role in it. This came against the backdrop of decades of mainstream religious exclusivism in Indonesian politics. President Jokowi’s re-election is more of a respite than a triumphant scenario for Indonesia  

Now moving forward, it is the norm for candidates to prove how “Islamic” they are to voters, as it is the basis for determining their suitability for high office. It is difficult for moderate Muslim candidates to win if they do not play the religiosity game.

Indonesia should consider Turkey, which used to be a secular nation but is currently under the rule of an Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was jailed by the previous government before he came to power in 2004. Since Erdogan came to power, he has steadily reversed the secular position of the state and repealed policies such as a ban on wearing headscarves in public universities. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, believed very strongly in the separation of state and religion, which he enshrined in  Turkey’s governing ideology  – Kemalism.

Today in Erdogan’s Turkey, Kemalism exists only in name. It has lost potency as Islamization has taken root. This has led to a bitter divide between those who believe in Kemalism and those who want Turkey to embrace Islam, who make up the bulk of Erdogan’s support base.

But Turkey still stays together as one nation because the people share a common identity – their nation-state is the successor to the Ottoman empire. Indonesia, on the other hand, is ethnically and religiously diverse, so there is a risk of balkanization.

It is high time for Indonesia’s leaders to take a stand and address creeping Islamization before it is too late.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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