President Joko Widodo’s government and Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations finally appear to be mounting a united front against the danger of creeping Islamization and its threat to the nation’s future as a secular state.

Faced with a deepening divide between moderate and conservative regions, and the growing penetration of the bureaucracy and institutions of higher learning by radical Islamists, Widodo is coming to the defense of the nation’s inclusive Pancasila state ideology.

Regarded as a guarantee of pluralism and moderation in a multi-cultural society, Pancasila is composed of five inseparable and interrelated principles which include belief in the one and only God, a just and civilized humanity, a unified Indonesia, democracy and social justice for all.

Reuters revealed last week new government plans to tighten the vetting of senior civil servants in a bid to weed out dangerous hard-line elements from key positions and to ensure Widodo leaves behind a heathy democracy at the end of his second, five-year term in 2024.

That will entail initially stricter background checks to gauge a candidate’s political leanings at some of the biggest ministries, including finance, religious affairs, education, health, defense and public works, as well as at state-owned mining, petroleum, banking, media and aviation companies.

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

Under the plan, a team of 12 officials, religious scholars and other experts will work with the newly formed National Agency to Promote Pancasila (BPIP) and civil society organizations to craft a new and still undefined psychological test for upper-echelon bureaucrats before year’s end.

It won’t end there. A senior government official told Asia Times that the Religious Affairs Ministry has been tasked with taking firmer control of the management and curriculum of the country’s 37,300 Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren, many of which adopt their own rules and insist that students wear Arabic dress.

Only 10% of those religious schools are currently under state supervision, while the rest are private institutions often run by conservative Islamic clerics whose apparent sole aim is radical religious indoctrination.

“It is getting out of control,” says the official, who requested anonymity. “A lot of five-year-old’s are being taught things which will be very difficult to correct later on.” Concerns center on the discriminatory way children in Islamic schools are imbued with an “us” versus “them” mentality which encourages them to look down on other religions.

Coming after a fraught presidential election, in which many conservative Muslims voted against him and lethal riots erupted in Jakarta on unproven charges the polls was rigged, Widodo is aware there will be a strong reaction to the move against radical elements.

“He is prepared,” says the official. “He says he has nothing to lose in his second and final term and that he has to think about what is best for the country.”

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
Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and Indonesia’s ambassador to Norway, prominent human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, warned last week that if extremist ideas take deeper root among Indonesia’s 260 million people, religious conflicts would erupt and lead to the sprawling archipelagic nation’s ultimate destruction.

“Indonesia will be destroyed, just like Syria,” Lubis warned at a seminar in Oslo to launch the nomination of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of their efforts to promote religious tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim democracy.

“Never in our history have we witnessed extremist Islam with all its brutality and uncivility entering our political contest,” the ambassador said, apparently referring to the unrest and violence that attended the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election and, more recently, riots after the April 17 presidential election.

“This time Islamic radicals and fundamentalists seem to be insisting that (it) must be translated into an Islamic state and sharia law,” he said.

During the early stages of the country’s now 20-year flirtation with democracy, religious and ethnic conflicts erupted in West and Central Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi and Muluku, where the blood-letting claimed an estimated 7,000 lives and displaced as many as 900,000 people.

Outside observers have long been puzzled by the way Indonesia’s 88% Muslim majority has acted as a minority, though that can largely be explained by the disproportionate hold the ethnic Chinese-Christian minority in particular has over the economy.

Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers on December 12, 2016, one day before Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's first trial as some Islamic groups have vowed to maintain pressure until he is prosecuted for blasphemy. The high-profile case has emboldened hardline groups and stoked fears of growing intolerance in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. Photo: AFP / Kahfi Syaban Nasuti
Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers on December 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

That simmering resentment is never far below the surface, exacerbated by a widening disparity between rich and poor which opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and religious opponents unfairly blame solely on Widodo.

Established before Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonial rule, NU and Muhammadiyah are both credited with presenting a moderate face of Islam during the last 70 years of nation-building and are seen as crucial to stemming the growing tide of extremism.

Although experts like religious scholar Azyumardi Azra say the pillars of Pancasila are in basic conformity with fundamental Muslim teachings, he worries about the threat radical elements pose to the moderate leaderships of two organizations with a collective membership of 100 million adherents.

Hard-line Islamists argue that Prabowo’s claims of widespread electoral fraud in the presidential election, which the Constitutional Court will rule rejected in a ruling announced on June 27, has undermined public faith in democracy and that an Islamic caliphate would better address the nation’s long-term needs.

Widodo’s attention was apparently grabbed by a recent survey conducted by the Jakarta-based Alvara Research Center which found that one in five of Indonesia’s civil servants and 10% of state-owned enterprise (SOE) employees favor the creation of an Islamic state.

The survey’s findings conform with a recent Defense Ministry study which found 19% of civil servants, 18% of private company employees, 9% of SOE workers and 3% of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) disagree that Pancasila should serve as the country’s guiding philosophy.

Indonesians share a computer. Counterfeit software is widely available in the country. Photo: Reuters
Many Indonesian students favor the creation of an Islamic state, recent surveys show. Photo: Facebook

The same study also found that 23.3% of high school and university students share that sentiment in a country destined to undergo a significant generational change in 2024, when many old guard politicians are expected to leave the stage.

A just-released University of Nahdlatul Ulama study found that universities in Jogjakarta and Central Java have been exposed to transnational Islamist movements, including Tarbiyah, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks to establish an Islamic state through the insidious penetration of strategic social institutions.

Earlier this month, researcher Ade Armando revealed in a separate study that Tarbiyah has also established a solid base in the directorates of student affairs, education and human resources at the University of Indonesia, the country’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, where the civil service does much of its recruiting.

Religion and irrational claims that Widodo is un-islamic and harbors communist sympathies explain why significant elements of the military, including members of the presidential guard, voted for Prabowo, who hardly qualifies as a devout Muslim.

“Pancasila is fading away,” warned Ryacudu, a former army chief of staff and close ally of ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri. “This might not be a big problem now, but it will be in 20-30 years if we do nothing. It will spell the end of this nation.”

Widodo signed a decree in May 2018 giving former president Megawati 112.5 million rupiah (US$8,000) a month to fund the BPIP, whose steering committee also includes newly elected Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, former Suharto-era vice president Tri Sutrisno and ex-Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud MD.

A man walks at the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Monday, July 30, 2018. (Photo by Garry Lotulung/NurPhoto)
A man walks past the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on July 30, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Garry Lotulung

But the president’s plan could face a backlash not only from Islamists, but also from the seniority-obsessed bureaucracy and human rights activists worried that force-feeding the populace with a diet of Pancasila harks back to Suharto’s rule, when it was used as a test of loyalty to his military-backed New Order regime.

The suppression of Islam during Suharto’s over three decades in power, during which several persecuted hard-core Islamists sought sanctuary abroad, has contributed to the religious revival that coincided with the birth of democracy in the late 1990s and has since gained a momentum of its own.

Critics blame ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for bowing to pressure from conservatives and hardliners during his 2004-2014 two-tern presidency, which saw the passage of draconian laws and fatwas, and an explosion of discriminatory religious bylaws across Muslim-majority regions.

Ambassador Lubis says Islamic extremists remain a serious challenge, particularly with global networking and social media adding strength to their attempt to take over politics and eventually the state.

“If (they) succeed,” he said, “Indonesia will be finished and, worse, will disappear from the world map.”