Why anti-Chinese rhetoric is likely to be a potent political force in the run-up to Indonesia’s 2019 election
Rob Attwell says while the Surabaya church bombings highlight the threat of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia, widespread intolerance of religious and ethnic minorities – normalised through popular culture and inflammatory clerics – will be seized on by opposition candidates
In May, multiple suicide bomb attacks targeting three churches and the police headquarters in Surabaya highlighted long-standing concerns about the threat of Islamist militancy in Indonesia.
While these attacks demonstrated worrying trends in domestic Islamist militancy, they are also illustrative of broader problems regarding ethno-religious intolerance in Indonesian society and politics, particularly ahead of the April 2019 general election.
The attacks resulted in the deaths of some 30 people, including the 13 perpetrators, and at least 57 injuries. Indonesian authorities identified Jemaah Anshurat Daulah (JAD), a local Islamic State affiliate – reportedly led by imprisoned cleric Aman Abdurrahman – as being being responsible for the attacks.
Following the attacks, Indonesian authorities passed new anti-terrorism legislation, allowing security forces to detain suspects for up to 21 days without charge and expanding the role of the military in counterterrorism operations.
Most international commentary on the attacks focused on the disturbing fact that the perpetrators were members of individual families, arguing that this represents a shift in domestic militant tactics, and provided an overall analysis of the threat of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia.
Watch: Suicide bombers target Surabaya police headquarters in Indonesia
Within Indonesia, however, much of the discussion has focused on issues of ethno-religious intolerance, putting the church attacks, in particular, in a broader sociological context.
Observers noted that religious violence is underpinned by widespread intolerance against religious and ethnic minorities, which is normalised in popular culture and by vitriolic clerics.
This intolerance feeds the propaganda of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and other terrorist groups, as well as Islamist vigilante groups, such as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders Front) led by Rizieq Shihab. These groups violently enforce their interpretations of Islam by, for example, threatening to raid businesses celebrating Christmas and attacking religious minorities, such as Christians and Ahmadis.
While the Surabaya church bombings highlight the continued threat of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia, particularly to religious and ethnic minorities, reports show that mob violence by the FPI and similar groups are a more prevalent phenomenon.
As in most Muslim-majority countries, multiple versions of Islam have been promulgated and practised in Indonesia, some of which were progressive and others less so. After Indonesian independence from the Netherlands in 1949, the Darul Islam movement mounted a rebellion against the new Indonesian authorities and attempted to establish a countrywide Islamic state under sharia law.
While the movement was defeated in 1962, contemporary militant and vigilante groups, including the JAD and FPI, have inherited a long-standing Islamist tradition. This goes against Indonesia’s post-independence Pancasila ideology which stresses national unity through religious and ethnic diversity.
Following the Surabaya attacks, President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, called for Pancasila ideology to be made part of the Indonesian way of life. However, for this to happen, widespread intolerance needs to be confronted, something Indonesia’s politicians seem reluctant to do, for fear of offending the Muslim majority. These concerns are further complicated by the April 2019 general election.
The main opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Gerindra – Great Indonesia Movement Party), is a former military general accused of human rights abuses in what is now East Timor. Some claim he has a history of aligning himself with Islamist groups, as well as peddling anti-Chinese conspiracy theories before the 1998 race riots, in which some 1,000 ethnic Chinese Indonesians were killed.
Ethnic Chinese Indonesians comprise between one and four per cent of the Indonesian population. Suspicions about their national loyalty, as well resentment stemming from their supposedly high levels of wealth, make anti-Chinese sentiment a potent political force in Indonesia.
This was on full display during the country’s last significant election in April 2017 when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, was ousted. He was Jakarta’s first ethnically Chinese Christian governor, and was accused of blasphemy and insulting Islam in the months leading up to the election, prompting large protests by the FPI and other Islamist groups.
These sentiments significantly contributed to Gerindra candidate Anies Baswedan’s subsequent victory. Baswedan became governor, Ahok was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy, and Gerindra and the FPI learnt that divisive identity politics can be a winning electoral strategy.
Gerindra will continue to capitalise on intolerance ahead of the general election next year. The party entered into a formal coalition with a conservative Islamic party, and received endorsements from the FPI and similar groups. Notably, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab is reportedly trying to help create a four-party coalition to bolster Gerindra in the election.
Watch: In Indonesia, pious ‘punks’ promote Islam
President Jokowi remains popular, with some surveys saying he enjoys a 76 per cent approval rating. This is in part due to the popularity of planned infrastructure development initiatives, such as the US$6 billion Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project. Many of these projects, however, depend on Chinese money and labour, raising concerns about potential threats to foreign workers and commercial interests.
This makes it likely that the opposition will politicise Beijing’s involvement in these projects. Resentment towards the local Chinese-Indonesian population could influence attitudes towards foreign nationals as well, particularly towards the 24,000 or so Chinese workers in the country. With about 10 per cent of the population – around 26 million people – living below the poverty line, it is likely that foreign workers will be accused of stealing local jobs.
Given the emergent coalition of Gerindra, the FPI and other conservative groups, next year’s election is likely to see continued xenophobic rhetoric.
Rob Attwell is an Asia-Pacific analyst with global consultancy S-RM