Words like kafir, or infidel (non-believer), have always flowed easily off the lips of Indonesia’s Islamic militants and other hardliners whose hateful racist attitudes towards foreigners are matched by their undisguised loathing of their own religious minorities and fellow Indonesians.

Now, in the lead up to national elections set for April 17, influential kyais (Islamic teachers) in Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest mass Muslim organization, have deemed use of the word offensive and have formally called on members to refer to non-Muslim Indonesians as muwathin, or citizen, instead.

Religious hate speech has become a worrying aspect of Indonesia’s political discourse in recent years, reaching a peak in 2017 with the mass demonstrations that brought down ethnic Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, an ally of President Joko Widodo.

Widodo has since often been branded as un-Islamic by conservative Muslim elements, who have thrown their support behind presidential rival Prabowo Subianto, even though he is not considered to be religiously devout either.

What’s in a word? In the Koranic context, kafir is historically considered what one devotee calls a “polite, proper and soft” expression for those who don’t belong to the Islamic faith. Its core definition is “those who have closed themselves.”

Hardline Muslims react to the verdict in Basuki "Ahok" Purnama's blasphemy trial outside the court in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Hardline Muslims take to the streets outside the court hearing of a high-profile blasphemy case in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Even kafirs have been historically divided into categories, such as dhimmi, or a non-Muslim permanently residing in a Muslim land, and mu’ahad, musta’man and harbi, all of which refer to non-Muslims living temporarily in Muslim countries.

In Indonesia, kafir was not in common usage 20 years ago. That has changed since the end of president Suharto’s authoritarian rule and the birth of democracy opened the way for a Muslim revival. But with that opening the word has taken on a derogatory connotation, in line with a rise in Islamic extremism.

The NU’s recent annual conference sought to address that, with a statement on the 45 million-strong organization’s website saying it is consistent with the long-held view that Indonesia as a nation state is a shared home for all religions.

Established in the mid-1920s to institutionalize religious traditions, NU supported a small change in the wording of the 1945 Jakarta Charter, which effectively recognized the pluralist state ideology Pancasila as the basis of the Indonesian nation state.

The February 28 statement discussed the differences in the rights and obligations of each community, depending on a nation’s status as secular or non-secular. “With the nation state model, all community groups have the same rights,” it says. “So it concerns someone’s position as a citizen, not as something theological.”

Conference chairman Abdul Moqsith Ghazali called the use of kafir “theological violence,” explaining that while NU was not seeking to erase the term from the Koran, it was attempting to stop it being employed by certain groups as a weapon of discrimination.

Indonesian Islamic extremists on the warpath against a Muslim minority group the protesters deem heretical. Photo: Facebook

The statement acknowledged, for example, that the distinction between Muslims and infidels was necessary for those fighting for a religious state. “They use religious arguments with their own interpretations in accordance with their ideology,” it noted.

Sheikh Bilai Mahmud Afifi Ghanim, a visiting lecturer from Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, supported the recommendation, saying it was “in the context of interaction among fellow humans to respect and preserve their feelings towards each other.”

Banjar, a city of mixed political loyalties in the battleground province of West Java, the country’s most populous province, was an interesting choice of venue for the NU conference, coming only five weeks before the April 17 legislative and presidential elections.

Lying on the West-Central Java border, Banjar gave Widodo 46.6% of the vote in the 2014 presidential election, one of his best results in a province where he suffered his most painful defeat and which he desperately wants to reverse this time around.

Banjar has a pro-government Golkar Party mayor and a municipal council in which the National Awakening Party (PKB), NU’s political vehicle and a partner in Widodo’s ruling coalition, has the largest representation, followed by the opposition Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS).

The most recent polls show PKB winning up to 9.3% of the vote, but PKS and the United Development Party (PPP), the other Sharia-based entity, are both struggling to reach the 4% threshold that will allow them parliamentary representation.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays during Nuzulul Quran event at Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum
President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP 

Widodo and Prabowo are in a statistical dead-heat in West Java, which surrounds Jakarta on three sides and is home to a large percentage of anti-government Muslim voters, many of them in the province’s southern districts to the west of Banjar.

Although both candidates have so far steered clear of primordial tactics, religious issues have divided the two camps since the anti-Widodo 212 Movement, a hardline Muslim lobby that engineered Purnama’s electoral defeat and his subsequent imprisonment for blasphemy.

The president’s alarm over that episode and the movement’s ability to mobilize tens of thousands of adherents led to him to selecting 75-year-old Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate on the eve of last year’s nomination deadline.

Although he appears to have modified his message, Amin was notorious for his intemperate and controversial views on religious and gender issues when he served as an adviser to president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Widodo’s predecessor.

Widodo may still be leading comfortably in the polls, in some cases by up to a 20% margin, but conservatives continue to regard him as a weak leader who ignores Muslim aspirations and ever-widening economic inequality, a favored Prabowo theme on the campaign trail.

An Indonesian voter casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan
An Indonesian casts her vote at a gubernatorial polling station in Jakarta on February 15, 2017. Photo: AFP/Anadolu Agency/Jefri Tarigan

Critics claim NU’s pronouncement on the kafir issue actually runs counter to what is written in the Koran and even with good intent NU leaders may have provided their detractors with the ammunition to question their understanding of Islam.

“The thing about any word, regardless of the definition, is how it is used,” says one young Jakarta Muslim, who frowns on the whole polemic. “Depending on the context, it can either demean or flatter. Ultimately I find it all ridiculous.”

But that ignores widespread concern about the broader issue of religious tolerance and the way even one word, when used hatefully, can contribute to the uneasy feeling many ethnic Chinese and other non-Muslims have about being accepted in their homeland.

“It’s become of one of those offensive terms that needs to be defanged, if only to introduce a degree of civility into the discourse,” says one analyst who requested anonymity. “You have to remember that it is often also deployed against fellow Muslims from different sects.”

Although the 212 Movement has splintered since its street convulsions two years ago, and a conservative influence was not readily apparent in 2018 regional elections, religious piety is likely to continue to shape political behavior and even to some degree public policy no matter who wins in April.