Fifteen months ago, unrest led by radical majoritarian religious groups led to the overthrow of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Indonesia’s Jakarta province, on charges of blasphemy. Then in May this year, a family associated with Islamic State (ISIS) killed more than a dozen people in churches in Surabaya, sending shockwaves through the Muslim world’s most secular and populous country.
However, at this moment, a secular vengeance is stirring, and it has equipped itself against the perils of religious fundamentalism in the upcoming national elections.
President Joko Widodo has been praised for passing a strong anti-terrorism law in May. By the end of July, Indonesian police had killed 21 militants throughout the country, and detained more than 200. In June, a Jakarta court handed down a death sentence to radical Islamic cleric Aman Abdurrahman, whom prosecutors held was the architect of five fatal terror assaults from his jail cell.
But Widodo’s secular and nationalist credentials are under threat. His decision to pick hardline Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate in next April’s election, whose organization Majelis Ulama Indonesia has issued numerous provocative fatwas – Islamic diktats – has come as a shock to the secular sections of Indonesia society. Amin is rumored to be one of the most influential Muslim clerics in the country.
As stated by the president’s alliance, his choice of Amin for the high-status post of vice-president will black out the accusations that Widodo is not an ardent Muslim. It will also let them to vigorously counter Prabowo Subianto, who is Widodo’s strongest rival in the presidential race and is believed to have robust connections with several renowned Muslim clerics. His success can be perceived from his party Gerindra’s victory over Ahok in the 2017 Jakarta elections in a contentious fight that appealed to orthodox Muslim voters, and he is anticipated to use identity politics again in the upcoming election campaigns.
For now, Widodo’s choice indicates his compulsion to accommodate Islamic sentimentalities together with combating religious extremism. But this has not gone well with many Indonesians who have taken to Twitter to show their discontent with the hashtag #Golput – an acronym of Golongan Putih, which means “White Group,” or to be in a cluster of persons who will not vote.
Widodo’s decision has also dismayed many of his core voters in ethnic and religious minority groups and secular reformists. It is also anticipated that Ahok’s supporters may stay away from next year’s elections in protest.
But then, despite the fact that more than 87% of Indonesians assert themselves as Muslims, there is a lack of clarity on whether they are really cohesive enough as a political force to impact the outcomes of local and national elections in Indonesia. They don’t have a convinced outlook on how Islam should be assimilated into politics.
This contrasts sharply with other countries like Pakistan, where allegations of blasphemy can ignite mob violence. Indonesian Muslims are much more progressive, but lately politicians have been successful in appealing to them via identity politics.
On the other hand, regardless of Muslim identity being anticipated to remain as a dominant issue in the upcoming political debates and campaigns, it is secular politics that seems to be gaining ground in reality. Public support for secular political candidates is becoming clear.
During the local elections in June, Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta with a population of 2 million, reinstated the sitting mayor Rahmat Effendi – a Muslim – who was earlier accused by Muslim right-wingers of being disloyal to his religion because of his consent for construction of a new church. Then, in the country’s most populous province, West Java, the progressive mayor of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, won the June contest for the governor post in a thumping victory over a fundamentalist contender.
It may be too early to predict a confident victory for secular powers in Indonesia’s 2019 elections. Local politics have an intricate association with national politics in Indonesia, as do the contributions of religion, coalitions and identity in the multicultural country of 266 million people, where 10 significantly different political parties are contesting for supremacy in Parliament.
In addition, a November 2017 poll, while showing that a massive majority of Indonesians back a secular state, also had disturbing results – almost one-fifth of Indonesian youth held the view that they are very enthusiastic to the idea of forming an Islamic caliphate in the country.
Indonesia and next-door neighbor Malaysia, both Muslim-majority states, have become significant if now and again random strongholds of democracy in Southeast Asia, a region of more than 600 million people where dictatorial regimes have been the custom. Elections in Malaysia in May concluded the 60-year dominance of a Malay alliance, and Indonesia has instituted a two-decade reputation of unrestricted and largely non-violent elections ever since the downfall of the dictator Suharto in 1998.
Without a doubt, the fundamentalists will try their level best to crack this equation before the 2019 elections. Indonesia’s long-flaunted pluralism and tolerance, as cherished in its founding ideology, Pancasila, has gradually been facing obstruction. And that in itself could indicate more political vehemence in the approaching nine months of the presidential campaign.
But Widodo is a notoriously shrewd politician, and many of his traditional supporters expect him to juxtapose his blunt backing of religious tolerance with recurrent mentions of his own Muslim personality as the country heads into national elections.
In the duel for Indonesia’s enhanced future, it is now crucial for secularism to take the lead over fundamentalism once again.