Johannes Nugroho: Ahok, Sinophobia and the Economic Jihad

Indonesia's largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU, has allowed its followers to attend a mass rally on Tuesday (21/02), staged to demand the suspension of Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama. (Antara Photo/Akbar Nugroho Gumay)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 10:48 AM December 19, 2016
Category : Opinion, Columns, Featured

The blasphemy charge against the incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahja Purnama has wittingly or unwittingly unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese sentiments across the country. At the 02/12 rally in Jakarta, an Islamic activist was filmed telling the crowds that Basuki was “mata sipit [slitty-eyed], perut buncit [pot-bellied], babi sudah [a pig].”

The unrelenting vengefulness against the governor who is currently campaigning for his second term in the upcoming gubernatorial election is, by any standard, exceptional. Not even the learned opinion by former Muhammadiyah chairman KH Syafi’I Ma’arif that there was no blasphemy in Basuki's “Al-Maidah” commentary could dissuade hundreds of thousands of Muslims from descending on Jakarta recently. Amid the shouts of “kafir [infidel],” it is difficult to avoid the impression that the protests were partly spurred on by Basuki's status as a double minority of being a Chinese Indonesian Christian.

More troubling still, there continue to be signs that the case has also been hijacked to fan Sinophobia with a view to fomenting public unrest.

Though making up less than 3 percent of Indonesia’s population, Chinese Indonesians are a dominant force in Indonesia’s economy. While no current statistics exist, a 1995 report by the East Asia Analytical Unit of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimated that Chinese Indonesians owned 68 percent of the top 300 conglomerates in the country.

Although this does not translate that Chinese Indonesians control almost 70 percent of the economy, their share is significant and statistically disproportionate to their population size. This has understandably resulted in angst and in some cases resentment by the rest of the country, a phenomenon often referred to during President Suharto’s rule (1966-1998) as “social envy.”

Sinophobic sentiments in Indonesia are no doubt aggravated by the fact that the majority of Chinese Indonesians belong to minority religions, especially Christianity and Buddhism. By comparison, Chinese Filipinos or Thais face less of a stigma because most of them embrace the majority religions in both the Philippines and Thailand.

The “social envy’ persists today; in some ways it has taken new dimensions given that since the fall of Suharto Chinese Indonesians have since been granted leave to express their culture and identity and are therefore more visible than ever.

At the plenary meeting of the Nadhatul Ulema (NU) functionaries in July this year, former minister and Muslim scholar Professor Rokhmin Dahuri said in his speech that: “The fact remains that even though Muslims make up 87 percent of the country’s population they only control 12 percent of the Indonesian economy.”  The statement reflects the ongoing frustration by many Muslim Indonesians over the belief that the biggest slice of the economic cake continues to elude them.

This is why the latest push in militant Islamic identity politics — the overwhelming turn-out for both the 04/11 and 02/12 rallies suggest that it is no longer to be dismissed as a fringe movement — has also rippled into economic issues. The calls to boycott bread manufacturer Sari Roti in the wake of its denial of official sponsorship for the 02/12 rally fit the bill, combining identity politics with economic bargaining power. At its core is Muslim solidarity, which is reminiscent of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israeli companies over Palestine.

Interestingly, Muhammadiyah Council of Economics and Entrepreneurship in Surabaya also launched a proposal to set up a bakery — appropriately named Al-Maidah, after the section of the Hadith which Basuki allegedly insulted — to rival Sari Roti and other unislamic bread companies.

The new start-up is allegedly inspired by the success story of Lampung’s Roti Surya and Roti Oemar, both owned by a devout Muslim, Krisno, who told the press that his bakeries, “only use flour manufactured by Muslim pribumi [indigenous Indonesian], not that manufactured by the conglomerates.” Since the conglomerate groups which produce wheat flour, notably the Salim-Group Bogasari, are owned by Chinese Indonesians, it is again difficult to avoid the anti-Chinese sentiment here.

Not long after the Sari Roti boycott, the city of Magelang in Central Java witnessed the installation of several street banners urging Muslims to buy groceries from pribumi vendors instead of “asing [foreign] or aseng [pejorative word play meaning Chinese].” One of the banners was provocatively put up in front of a Chinese temple but was later dismantled by the police.

While a greater portion of the economy in the hands of the majority Muslim Indonesians can only be good for the nation in the long run, using blatant racism to further the cause is definitely not the way forward.

There is no reason to believe that Muslims are being pushed out of the economic sector by Chinese Indonesians. In fact, the reverse is true. The last decade has seen significant growth of Muslim entrepreneurship in Indonesia, especially among the young. Sandiaga Uno, Jakarta gubernatorial contender Anies Basweda’s running mate, is one clear example.

There is also great irony in the demand for a greater share of the economy for Muslims while at the same time swatting down the careers of Chinese Indonesians who have chosen professions outside commerce, such as Basuki. One of the major reasons Chinese Indonesians are dominant in the economic sector was because they were discouraged and in many cases disbarred from careers in government or the military during the 32-year rule of Suharto. So they had very little choice but to specialize in the only area open to them: business and trade.

Surely the best way to reduce Chinese Indonesian dominance in the economic sector is to open up other avenues of profession to them, including politics and government. However, considering the umbrage and paranoia Basuki's political success has generated so far, it is safe to say that the movement to “empower” the majority is often fueled by sheer racial and religious prejudice. The question remains how Indonesia can lay claim to being a tolerant society based on pluralism when such practices continue unchecked.

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