In Indonesia, the genie of hardline Islamism has been let out of the bottle. Can Joko Widodo put it back in?
- The case of Ahok, the ethnic Chinese governor who enraged hardline Muslims, still haunts Indonesia’s latest election. The question is whether President Widodo, the likely winner of the election, will use his term to restore ‘smiling Islam’
The scale of the election and the fact that it was successfully completed in a single day rank as extraordinary achievements. More than 150 million Indonesian citizens – 80 per cent of the voter base – spread across three time zones in this vast nation of more than 17,000 islands turned out to vote for presidential, parliamentary and regional candidates.
To prevent a mass protest by the hardline Islamic support base of Subianto, security minister Wiranto and national police chief Tito Karnavian have cautioned that security forces will act decisively against any attempt to disrupt public order. However, a mass protest is unlikely for now.
Under Suharto (1967–98), this policy continued and a more tolerant form of Islam was nurtured, with a new syncretism permeating Indonesian society.
However, in the last two decades, with the slow but steady consolidation of the democratic ethos in Indonesia, a more assertive Islamic identity of the country has been visible and this has played out in the domestic political context. Tectonic global events such as the end of the cold war, the September 11 attacks and the spread of jihadi ideology and related terrorism have had their impact on Indonesian society.
In the post-Suharto era in Indonesian politics known as Reformasi, there has been a revival of Islam as a significant determinant. However, this has been limited to nationalist political parties acknowledging Islam but locating it within the inclusive framework of Pancasila. A manifestation of this was the election of Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the traditional Sunni organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, as the fourth president of Indonesia (1999–2001).
The Ahok factor has also influenced the presidential campaign of Subianto, who solicited the support of the more hardline Islamic faction. In the run-up to the election, the voter was often bemused to see the two presidential candidates each trying to project an image as the better Muslim and presenting the other as the less pious one. Earlier in the year, award-winning Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan rued that regardless of which candidate would win the election, “the Islamists have already won”.
Having spent the last week in Jakarta and talked to a cross-section of the citizenry, the sense I got was that most Indonesians see the 2019 election as a closed chapter and are hopeful a re-elected Widodo will deal with the religious hardliners. But some political divisiveness from the election lingers, as well as a palpable unease about the street power of the Islamists. However, their victory may be five years away – in the 2024 election. Indonesia, I was assured, is not turning into the next Pakistan just yet.
Whether Widodo will use his second and final presidential term to restore the “smiling Islam” that Indonesia is better known for remains moot. But this will be the critical challenge for the world’s largest Muslim country – the consensual and equitable harmonisation of religion in a democratic framework – so that, in the final analysis, Indonesia wins.
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi