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Should we worry about Islamism in Indonesia?

There is no dominant Islamist group in Indonesia that represents a coherent Islamic community. Reuters/Beawiharta

Anxiety about radicalism and religious tolerance in Indonesia have triggered reactionary responses that could be dangerous for the country’s democracy. Joko Widodo’s administration recently announced plans to disband Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate. The government is looking to implement legal measures to dissolve the Indonesian branch of the global Islamist group.

The move came amid increasing concern among some analysts and members of the public about rising Islamic radicalism and religious intolerance.

Several analysts saw the victory of Anies Baswedan in the Jakarta gubernatorial election as an indicator of rising Islamism. This movement seeks to institutionalise certain literal understandings of the Quran in the political system.

Baswedan was supported by conservative Muslims. They had staged enormous protests demanding the jailing of his rival, then-incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as Ahok), who was embroiled in a blasphemy case for allegedly insulting Islam.

Even after the election, mass rallies continued to pressure the court to punish the Chinese-Indonesian, Christian non-active governor. The court recently sentenced Ahok to two years in prison.

The court’s decision left many people feeling devastated. They rallied in a show of support for Ahok in front of the prison where he’s detained. Communities concerned by the rising influence of Islamist groups have launched social media campaigns defending the country’s founding principles of Pancasila. This promotes pluralism, among other values.

Ahok’s supporters rally behind him. Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Opportunist politicians

There are elements of intolerance and racism in Indonesia. But that does not necessarily mean that an organised Islamic political movement is on the rise.

The problem is not an upsurge of Islamism. Instead, the problem is that political elites are increasingly exploiting religious sentiments and racism, especially as Indonesia approaches the 2019 presidential election.

Analysts have noted that in many Muslim-majority countries, Islamic political movements have shifted toward conservatism rather than maintaining their Islamist tendency. Such movements have become more concerned with Islamisation of society through dakwah (religious outreach) instead of Islamising the state. This is because Islamism has failed to pass the test of power.

Islamist parties such as the PKS (Justice and Prosperous Party) in Indonesia and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey have abandoned their Islamist agenda to broaden their political support in the contest for power in democratic political systems.

Signs of mainstreaming Islamic conservatism in Indonesia emerged 12 years ago, according to Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen. Then, the MUI (Indonesian Ulama Council, a group of clerics) declared that secularism, pluralism and liberalism (sipilis) were incompatible with Islam.

This “Arabisation” of Islam in Indonesia was partly influenced by the transnational Islamic movement and the strengthening of conservative factions within mainstream Islamic organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Muhammadiyah and NU’s role in defining the friendly moderate Indonesian Islam was weakened.

Why did the conservative faction of “Indonesian Islam” became dominant in Indonesia’s democratic era and the moderate faction less so? To answer this question, we should put contestation between conservatives and moderates within the context of competition over power and resources.

The MUI has successfully disseminated anti-pluralist ideas since 2005 simply because the state provided the group with the opportunity to gain support from conservative Muslims.

On July 26, 2005, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the sixth Indonesian president, opened the MUI national congress, he said:

We want to place [the council] in a central role in matters regarding the Islamic faith, so that it becomes clear what the difference is between areas that are the preserve of the state and areas where the government or state should heed the fatwas from the council and ulamas.

This statement shows the state had a vital role in strengthening the MUI’s position, through which the organisation became more authoritative and influential in society.

The MUI’s 2005 fatwa on sipilis, for example, had legitimised vigilante groups to enforce Islamic morality. That same year, MUI also declared Ahmadiyya a deviant sect, prompting persecution of its followers.

In 2006, MUI successfully demanded the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs issue a joint decision on regulating the building of places of worship. Following this, violence against the Christian minority increased.

Remnants of Soeharto’s politics

Such a state approach toward conservative Muslims is not new.

In the early 1990s, after decades of repressing religious organisations’ political power, Soeharto built an alliance with conservative Muslims to bolster his regime as a response to his rivals in the military.

Yudhoyono reproduced and continued Soeharto’s strategy in accommodating conservative Muslims as part of his alliance. This has allowed Islamic conservatism to gain strength in political and social life.

Such is also the case in 2017 Jakarta’s gubernatorial election. When many of the conservative Muslims organised mass protests against Ahok, Anies and his political supporters saw an opportunity to align themselves with this social force.

Fragmented Ummah

Although conservatives consider Anies’ victory as theirs, it doesn’t mean that Islamic radicalism will flourish in Indonesian politics or that the state will be Islamised.

Social agents of conservative Muslims are very diverse. There’s a power struggle among them to represent the imagined Ummah, the unified Islamic community.

These agents range from Darul Islam and HTI, which attempt to Islamise the Indonesian state, to Islamic parties such as PKS that accept electoral democracy, and other groups such as FPI (Islamic Defender Front) that use vigilantism to enforce Islamic morality and embrace illiberal ideas.

The incoherent characteristics of the Islamic populist alliance have provided a route for political elites to be able to claim to be advocating Islamism to gain their supports.

Since there is no dominant Islamist agency that could represent a coherent Ummah, any political actors can claim to represent this community. Meanwhile, Islamic groups enjoy political access by building an alliance with powerful elites.

Thus, the proliferation of religious intolerance and racism in contemporary Indonesian politics should be understood as a means to maintain such an alliance for the next presidential election in 2019.

The fragmented nature of this Islamic populist alliance also indicates that conservative Muslims’ capacity to foster their Islamic agenda is weak.

Anies himself has maintained that his policy will not be directed toward the Islamisation of Jakarta. His campaign team did not make any political contract with the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) for their support of his candidacy, he said. This means conservative groups like FPI will remain marginal, operating at the street level of politics.

Against this backdrop, what is worrying is not the rise of Islamism, but the increasing tendency of political elites to mobilise religious sentiment and racism in the contest over power and resources.

Disbanding Islamist groups to supposedly counter rising radicalism is not only misleading but goes against Indonesian democracy’s guarantee of the freedom to organise.

Our concern and energy instead should be directed at the opportunistic political elites in the context of predatory democracy.

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