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Islam and tolerance in Indonesia

Islam and tolerance in Indonesia
Published 4 Nov 2014 

Indonesia is commonly observed to be more visibly 'Islamic' than in previous decades. Women are donning the headscarf in greater numbers, more Indonesians are making the hajj pilgramage to Mecca, many are opening sharia bank accounts, and there is a growing selection of Islamic media, from books to magazines, TV shows, movies, websites and mobile applications. All of these everyday expressions of Islam are especially common among Indonesia's growing middle class.

At the same time, Indonesian society is observed to be becoming less tolerant. Minority faiths are increasingly facing discrimination, intimidation and violence. Fundamentalist groups police their version of morality at the grassroots, while in some provinces elements of sharia law have been adopted into bylaws. Increased conservatism is also apparent in the higher levels of government, notably in the introduction of laws relating to the censorship of websites, films, forms of artistic expression and even public behaviour.

But what is the connection between these concurrent changes in pop culture and politics? Are they being driven by the same forces? And is a more 'Islamic' society necessarily less tolerant? To gain a clearer picture of Islam and religious tolerance in Indonesia, I spoke to Alissa Wahid, founder of the GUSDURian network which aims to continue the social and cultural work of her father, former president Abdurrahman Wahid, known to his followers as 'Gus Dur'.

Alissa Wahid and her multi-faith network operate from more than 150 cities across Indonesia to promote pluralism and address the concerns of oppressed minorities. Wahid says this was the biggest vacuum left by her father's death in 2009: that minorities no longer had a high-profile figure to turn to who would protect their rights against attacks from radical groups claiming to defend Islam.

'God needs no defence,' Wahid said, quoting her father. 'People who are treated unjustly, they are the ones who need defending. And that's what religion is for, to ensure that justice is upheld.' [fold]

Gus Dur's Indonesian Islam

Before becoming president, Gus Dur served as chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's biggest Islamic organisation. NU is considered a 'traditionalist' organisation because of its acceptance of indigenised forms of Islam, in contrast to Muhammadiyah, the country's biggest 'modernist' organisation, which strives to bring Indonesian Islam closer to the way the faith is practiced in other parts of the world. According to researcher Ahmad Najib Burhani, Gus Dur saw Indonesian Islam as a legitimate manifestation of the religion, and rejected its 'Arabisation'. He found Islam to be compatible with the national ideology of Pancasila and its five principles of faith, humanity, unity, democracy and social justice.

The role of Islam in Indonesia as Alissa Wahid learned it from her father was to serve humanity, not to violate human rights. In this understanding, a more 'Islamic' society is therefore more tolerant, not less tolerant, of differences.

'When Islam expanded in Indonesia, it was already a very diverse culture. So Muslim people in Indonesia are more tolerant, more open, they incorporate traditions and other things, and that's what we call Indonesian Islam,' Wahid said. Young Muslims in the GUSDURian network interpret this stance using the slogan, 'We are Indonesians who happen to be Muslims. We are not Muslims who happen to be in Indonesia', she added.

But not all Muslims in Indonesia think this way. Some see themselves as Muslims first and Indonesians second, therefore identifying more closely with global Muslim culture than indigenised forms. This way of thinking brings with it a more conservative interpretation that is at odds with Indonesia's historically pluralist take on Islam, as well as its highly diverse society. It also conflicts with standard interpretations promoted by both NU and Muhammadiyah, both of which reject the notion of Islam as a political ideology and see a stronger role for religion in the social and cultural spheres.

Growing conservatism?

Alissa Wahid makes a distinction between the pop cultural expressions of Islam among the upwardly mobile classes and the growing influence of conservatism. A trained psychologist, Wahid sees the increased conspicuous consumption of 'Islamic' products as an expression of identity formation from the middle class. 'It's easy to understand that people in middle-class society have more needs to express their spirituality as part of their self-actualisation,' she said.

At the same time, these upwardly mobile Muslims are more concerned with matters that directly relate to them, and are not generally active in either promoting or rejecting a more conservative agenda, she added. In other words, the fact that more women are wearing Muslim fashion does not necessarily indicate a more conservative, or less tolerant, society. This fits with Indonesia scholar Greg Fealy's analysis of 'aspirational pietism', which he sees as a social and cultural phenomenon resulting from Indonesia's economic development. Fealy argues that, rather than narrowing interpretations of Islam, the expanding marketplace of Islamic commodities may in fact be expanding the space for different forms of Islamic expression and identities in Indonesia.

However, conservative forces are increasingly having an impact on Indonesian politics and society. Ironically, Wahid says that democracy is often blamed both by conservatives for being too liberal, and by liberals for allowing more conservative voices to make themselves heard in Indonesia . Under Suharto's New Order, political Islam was seen as a threat and subsequently repressed with tactics such as forcing all organisations in Indonesia to adopt the Pancasila as their sole basis. It has been argued that this was the reason why NU and Muhammadiyah professed such support for the state ideology, and shifted their focus to social and cultural matters in order to continue their activities.

Since the fall of the New Order, Indonesia has witnessed increasingly conservative interpretations of Islam gaining ground, conflicts arising between religious groups, and horrific acts of terrorism, such as the Bali bombings. For the moderate majority, such activities do not represent their faith and require a response from national leaders and law enforcement. Departing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been blamed for remaining quiet on the issues of conservatism and radicalism, allowing minority groups to command an undue presence in social and political life.

'Do you know why a lot of middle class people in Indonesia voted for Prabowo (Subianto)?' Wahid asked. 'It's because they feel that Indonesia needs a strong leader. A lot of people think that this is the curse of democracy, that you cannot have strong leadership. And people like conservative groups, they thrive under this kind of idea.'

This will be a major challenge for new President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, to demonstrate strong leadership in standing up for religious tolerance in Indonesia. Wahid says she is encouraged by his performance so far in standing up for figures in politics who have been criticised for the gender or ethnicity, and by his humanitarian focus on the basic needs of the people. However, she is concerned by his businesslike approach to politics and what she sees as a lack of vision for Indonesia.

'If you ask Jokowi: What will Indonesia be like in 50 years? He will not answer,' she said.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tanti Ruwani.

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