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Islamic civil society’s enduring vitality in Indonesia's democracy

Indonesia cannot rely on its politicians to fight radical Islam and intolerance.

Islamic civil society’s enduring vitality in Indonesia's democracy
Published 1 Dec 2016   Follow @maxwalden_

Around 30,000 people attended an interfaith rally organised by the military at Jakarta’s national monument this week, asserting Indonesian peace and unity through group prayer, singing national songs and waving the colours of the national flag. While organised by the national military and police (about half of those in attendance in Jakarta were members of security agencies) another 15,000 members of religious and activist groups showed up to assert Indonesian unity in diversity. In Bali, interfaith prayer was led by Muslim, Catholic, Christian, Buddhist, Confucian and Hindu community leaders.

This show of tolerance and religious unity in cities across the archipelago came ahead of major protests organised for tomorrow in Jakarta, expected by police to attract 150,000 hardline Muslims in a call to imprison Jakarta’s incumbent governor, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, for allegedly insulting the Quran.

Much is made by commentators of creeping ‘Islamisation’ in Indonesia, with many seeing the increasing use of the country’s controversial 1965 blasphemy law (at times used unfairly against minorities) as evidence of such. The virulently anti-minority ‘witch hunt’ against Jakarta’s governor (who represents two historically besieged minorities as a Christian Chinese-Indonesian) is undoubtedly the most high profile use of this legislation to date.

Yet the consistently damning responses to the Defend Islam movement and calls for religious tolerance by mainstream Islamic civil organisations illustrates the ongoing importance of these organisations in Indonesian politics.

During the turbulent economic downturn of 1998, moderate Islamic movements played a pivotal role along with student activists in pushing for democracy and toppling the New Order regime. Indonesia’s civil society sector has since greatly expanded, with the establishment of liberal and progressive Islamic organisations. Conversely, however, the era of reformasi since the late 1990s has also seen the enthusiastic re-emergence of radical Islamism and its violent manifestations. Indonesian civil society has its origins in religious organisations, with the establishment of grassroots Islamic movements in the early twentieth century providing schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social services. Throughout Indonesia’s decades of military rule, these remained virtually the only non-governmental institutions.

To forcefully obviate debate regarding the role of Islam in the state, the New Order dictatorship ruled in 1985 that Pancasila would be the sole guiding ideology of social, political and religious organisations. As a secular nationalism, the adoption of Pancasila as the official ideology was in fact intended to quell internal tensions and suppress political opponent, in particular proponents of political Islam. Drawing its primary support from secular nationalists, Christians, and moderate Javanese Muslims, the New Order regime's patrimonial systems of power privileged certain ethnic and religious groups, causing the exacerbation of sectarianism and discriminatory attitudes against minorities.

In response to an emboldened progressive civil society (including religious groups) through the 1990s, a weakened New Order dictatorship sought to bolster its position by soliciting the loyalty of Islamic organisations via financial and political privileges. Ultimately this ‘politics of appeasement’ helped to further strengthen and grant legitimacy to groups that envision the creation of an Islamic state, a reason for religion's prominence in the politics (and political conflicts) of post-Suharto Indonesia. This realignment of power relationships between religious groups sowed the seeds for mass inter-religious violence in the early years of democratic transition.

The collapse of New Order created uncertainty about the future of Islam in the polity and fractured patrimonial structures that had served to perpetuate authoritarian rule. While Pancasila might have imposed order and 'harmony', its entrenchment of ethnic and religious discrimination was demonstrated by the difficulty faced by civil rights groups attempting to subvert discriminatory laws and attitudes even after the collapse of New Order. For example, Human Rights Watch has continually drawn attention to persecution of religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyah, Shia Muslims, Confucians and Christians by radical Islamic groups, who are granted impunity by discriminatory legislation and lax policing of such crimes.

Political Islam does not pose an inherent ideological threat to democracy or human rights in Indonesia. Islamic societies have a long history of pluralism and tolerance of other faith communities. But in the politically open environment of reformasi, radical Islamist groups have re-emerged to challenge secular nationalist conceptions of Indonesian citizenship and assert their hardline interpretation of the state.  The radical fundamentalist streak of Sunni Islam that has recently gained support across much of the Muslim world, including Indonesia, is intrinsically anti-democratic, espousing the imposition of laws that curtail civil liberties such as religious expression. Campaigns against minority sects of Islam in Indonesia are suspected of being funded by Saudi donors and foundations who promote these hardline Wahhabist beliefs.

In contrast, Indonesia’s moderate Islamic organisations actively worked to combat radical Islam, defend pluralism and promote democracy throughout the twentieth century and continue to do so. Muhammadiyah, which now boasts 29 million members, was formed in 1912 to promote a modern interpretation that combined Quranic teachings with the individual’s own logic and reasoning. Formed in 1926 in direct opposition to Muhammadiyah (as well as Wahhabi reformist Islamic groups) the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is the largest Muslim organisation in the world with an estimated 40 million members. In addition to acting to preserve the traditional beliefs, values and customs of Indonesian Islam, NU also promotes ‘citizenship, democratic civility, inter-group conciliation, religious tolerance, and the public good'.

Having advocated non-violent campaigns against Suharto, the NU’s chairman KH Abdurrahman Wahid became Indonesia’s president in 1999. During that election, the NU used its respected status within village communities to promote voter education and fair voting practices. It has historically campaigned to defend pluralism, Pancasila and good governance, campaigning against the money politics that are the legacy of New Order. The Chairman of the NU Supreme Council, K.H.M.A. Sahal Mahfudh, posits that government’s role is to ‘create social justice, prosperity, and global peace’ and ‘protect ethno-religious minorities’. In recent years, NU’s brand of tolerant Indonesian Islam this has become known as Islam Nusantara, or ‘Islam of the Archipelago.’ According to Nadirsyah Hosen, law lecturer at Monash University and chair of the Australia-New Zealand branch of NU, the movement represents ‘an Islam that is different to the violent extremism promoted by ISIS and has proven to be a source of peace in the archipelago over centuries’.

In May, the NU hosted the International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders, with more than 300 attendees from 35 countries. Having spurred the establishment of independent NU organisations in Afghanistan, Turkey, Tunisia, Malaysia and Thailand in recent years, this event saw the grand imam of the Lebanese State Mosque declare his intention to push for the establishment of NU in his own country for ‘disseminating good, moderate and tolerant Islam’. The two-day summit culminated in the Jakarta Declaration, which asserts ‘importance of disseminating peaceful Islamic values internationally to end conflicts emerging from tensions between religion and state'.

With yet another Action to Defend Islam rally planned for tomorrow in Jakarta, the NU has urged its members not to attend. Muhammadiyah also stated it did not support the demonstration. The NU has consistently opposed the movement, deeming several groups involved ‘very dangerous’ for their desire to turn the Republic of Indonesia into an Islamic state. A prominent NU activist has also called for the conservative Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) to withdraw its ‘biased’ statement on Ahok’s alleged blasphemy. Muhammadiyah has said that the Defend Islam movement lacks a clear agenda and manipulates social media to distract from the ‘real world'. Going a step further, the Jakarta chapter of Muhammadiyah students’ association has thrown its support behind Ahok and his running mate Djarot Saiful Hidayat, donating to the campaign and citing them as the best candidates due to an existing track record of good governance.

Despite being the largest Muslim-majority nation on earth, relatively few Indonesians have joined Islamic State. Some experts account for this by pointing to strong political leadership in the democratic era under Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) who strategically incorporated some demands of Islamists into mainstream politics.

But this overstates the importance of party politics and government policies in Indonesia. Moreover, it also downplays the role of political elites (particularly SBY) in actually exacerbating religious tension through their policies and rhetoric. Since Yudhoyono’s decree in 2008 to restrict the practices of Ahmadis, for example, mobs have attacked more than 180 Ahmadiyah properties. SBY is in fact personally affiliated with hardline Islamic groups. He co-founded the fundamentalist Majelis Dzikir Nurussalam (MDN), which has participated in mass political action against Ahok. Some suspect the ex-president of being behind the mass movement against the governor, given that his son Agus is running as an opposing candidate.

While the incumbent president, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, has struggled to curtail interreligious violence and extremism, some positive developments have been made under his administration. Unlike SBY, Jokowi has chosen to draw on the moderate NU and Muhammadiyah rather than fringe groups for support. This was reflected in the president’s invitation to these organisations (both of whom declared that they did not support the demonstration) to the State Palace days prior to the violent rally on 4 November.

Minister for Religious Affairs Lukman Saifuddin has vocally defended the rights of religious minorities, announcing plans in late 2015 to draft a bill that would protect the rights of all religious groups ‘including those outside the six main religions of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism’. A year later, however, the law is reportedly still being drafted by the ministry.

Meanwhile, incidents of religious violence continue unabated. In the wake of the 4 November protest, assailants threatened a church in East Java and attacked Buddhist and Christian places of worship in Kalimantan. A two-year-old baby died in Samarinda, after she was burnt by an extremist’s Molotov cocktail whilst her parents prayed inside a church.

Indonesia cannot rely on its politicians to fight radical Islam and intolerance. This is a country where politics is (perhaps rightly) seen by citizens as dirty and elite-dominated, while communalism and religious identity remain the essence of society.

In this context, mainstream Islamic groups like the NU and Muhammadiyah will remain essential in promoting tolerance, bolstering democratic institutions, and ultimately keeping the pluralist Republic of Indonesia from fracturing.

Photo: Getty Images/Barcroft Media

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